Grid upgrades put EPB in national spotlight

photo Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press John Layne, left, a construction foreman with EPB, and lineman Brian Pankey prepare a new "Smart Switch" for installation off Brainerd Road. The new switches will work with the new smart grid technology allowing EPB technicians to cut off or change the flow of electricity to a specific area remotely.

While President Barack Obama entertained Chinese President Hu Jintao this week, the chief technology officer at the White House outlined a vision to compete with China for the next generation of Internet service to leaders from AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Comcast -- and Chattanooga's EPB.

During a White House gathering Thursday, Aneesh Paul Chopra heralded Chattanooga as one of "the islands of broadband capacity" that could help usher in a new era of business opportunities and a more efficient power and communications network.

As the first city in America to offer gigabit-per-second Internet service to all homes and businesses, Chattanooga is emerging as a national leader in boosting the speed and potential of the information superhighway.

"The White House is very interested in creating a national backbone that uses this new gigabit capacity that we have pioneered, not just for the applications of today but for that next generation," said Jim Ingraham, EPB's vice president of strategic research who attended this week's White House gathering.

With the help of Uncle Sam, EPB is spending more than $220 million within the next year and a half to string fiber-optic lines and install new "smart meters" at all 170,000 of the homes and businesses it serves.

The city-owned utility was picked in 2009 to get a $111.7 million stimulus grant to fund half of the costs -- the largest per capita grant of its kind in the country.

Building a Smarter grid

EPB has already installed 42,000 of the smart meters at customer locations, allowing the utility to provide better energy monitoring and controls to help consumers use power more efficiently. On its own transmission lines, EPB also has installed 65 of nearly 1,500 "smart switches" that utility officials expect will dramatically cut the amount and costs of power outages.

"We should see an incredible improvement in reliability," said Jim Glass, a former Florida Power & Light manager hired by EPB last year to oversee the new smart-grid system. "We expect the number of customer minutes lost to power outages to be down by 40 percent or more and that's something that will benefit customers throughout the whole area."

EPB is spending more than $40 million to purchase and install switches known as "IntelliRuptor Pulsecloser" devices developed by the Chicago-based S&C Electric Co.

The switch is like a breaker on a pole that senses any damage, opens the circuit and isolates the problem to a more limited area, Glass said. Through EPB's fiber-optic system, the location of the problem is immediately identified and more easily and quickly corrected.

The new devices also will help EPB save more than $3 million a year in manual meter-reading costs and will allow the utility to begin to offer time-of-day pricing and better control over when and how appliances and other electric devices operate in the future.

Installation concerns

EPB Executive Vice President David Wade said he expects the utility will have all of the new switches and meters installed by the summer of 2012.

Smarter grid savingsBy 2012, EPB officials predict installation of the $220 million smart grid will:* Cut power outages by 40 percent.* Save more than $3 million a year in meter-reading expenses.* Facilitate time-of-day pricing of electricity to better reflect actual power costs.* Allow consumers to remotely monitor and control electric appliances, furnaces and water heaters to improve efficiency.By the numbers* $220 million -- EPB investment in fiber-optic network with smart grid and smart meters.* $111.7 million -- Stimulus grant for EPB to install smart grid system awarded in 2009.* $46.1 million -- Federal funds received by EPB so far.* 42,000 -- Number of smart meters installed so far among EPB's 170,000 customers.* 65 -- Number of new smart grid switches installed out of nearly 1,500 switches planned.

The utility's installation of smart meters isn't always so smart, however, at least in the view of some consumers who complain that they weren't warned about the power outage resulting when the new devices are installed.

Debra Schultz was cooking dinner and her husband, Richard, was on the computer in their Lovell Road home when the power suddenly shut off at their Brainerd home last year.

"We never got any letter or any warning, and when we went out to see what the problem was, we find out that EPB is installing a new meter," she said. "They tell us it is going to make things better, but it sure seems like they should warn people what they are doing."

Although the power was out for only three minutes, the Schultzes had to reset their clocks, computers and appliances because of the outage.

EPB spokeswoman Lacie Newton said the utility sends a letter and crews are supposed to knock on the door if someone is at home.

EPB officials insist any short-term problems should be more than offset by long-term gains from building a smarter electric grid and communications network.

The fiber-optic network built for the smart grid also gives EPB the capability of offering the fastest Internet service in America. So far, 23,498 commercial and residential customers have signed up for one of EPB's Internet services and EPB President Harold DePriest said the utility expects to have more than 30,000 residential customers by July 1.

EPB's telecommunications division is projected to turn a profit by spring for the first time since 2000 and generate about $40 million in revenues during the current fiscal year.

"I think we've just scratched the surface of what these new technologies may mean for Chattanooga," EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson told the utility board Friday.

Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at 757-6340 or at

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