EPB touts smart grid to utilities

A week after tornadoes and high winds left more than two-thirds of Chattanooga in the dark, the head of EPB on Wednesday urged his utility colleagues to build a more automated, robust grid to keep the lights on.

EPB President Harold DePriest said the $220 million fiber-optic and smart-grid system EPB is using to connect better its 170,000 customers should cut the number and length of power outages for EPB by up to 40 percent.

EPB officials estimate the increased reliability from the smart grid is worth at least $35 million a year to Chattanooga area businesses and homeowners.

"It's amazing to me that in an industry that is literally crawling with engineers and technicians, we don't adopt a technological solution as elegant as the smart grid with all of our hearts," DePriest told more than 100 utility leaders gathered in Chattanooga this week for the "Smart Grid Roadshow."

"Every other business I know of is automating its shop floor, while our shop floor is just a little bit bigger," DePriest said, referring to EPB's 600-square-mile service territory.

Electricity distribution hasn't changed much since Thomas Edison patented the first system in 1880, DePriest said.

But rebuilding all of America's power grid and installing new automated meters for all power users is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

EPB is financing its smart grid with the help of a $111 million federal stimulus grant, plus revenues derived from its fiber-optic telecommunications network and savings from automated meter reading, DePriest said.

The fiber-optic network has allowed EPB to offer the nation's first gigabit-per-second Internet service to all homes and businesses in the Chattanooga area.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who calls the Scenic City "the most transformed city in America," said EPB's smart grid and gigabit Web service "are the next major things to further transform our city."

DePriest said the smart grid allows EPB crews to isolate troubled power spots more quickly and limit the number of customers cut off from storms and accidents.

But paying for an upgraded grid is complicated by a patchwork of state and federal rules and policies governing how utilities operate and recover their expenses, experts said during Wednesday's conference.

"I think it is very hard for us to get a federal energy policy [to mandate utilities to build a smarter grid]," said David O'Brien, a former Vermont Public Service commissioner who now is director of regulatory strategy and compliance for the Bridge Energy Group.

"If you look at our grid in total, it's a hugely inefficient system because our peak demand keeps going up every year and we don't have the right price signals to improve our load factors," O'Brien said.

A smart grid, combined with time-of-day pricing for electricity, could help consumers figure out ways to time when they use energy better to cut their costs and improve the overall efficiency of power generation and use, O'Brien said.