EPB's Chattanooga smart grid gains federal accolades

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.

Federal officials touted EPB's Smart Grid on Monday, calling for wider adoption of the next-generation electric infrastructure to compete with other early adopters like China and Ireland.

Patt Hoffman, assistant secretary at the U.S. Dept. of Energy, said "we have to start now" if the goal is to finish a significant upgrade of the country's aging grid in time to be competitive.

Through stimulus dollars and other grants, the feds have already installed about 7.8 million smart meters nationwide, 6,000 in-home displays, and enrolled about 200,000 ratepayers in time-of-day pricing, she said -- just over 50 percent of the current goal. EPB is building a smart grid system with interactive smart meters to all of its 160,000 customers in the Chattanooga area.

Previous efforts to save energy "now sort of seems like stone age compared to the technology we're seeing today with this smart grid system," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said.

But though the investments in smarter technology will help customers and power producers like TVA save money, the Recovery Act effort may ultimately result in fewer utility jobs as new technology renders dedicated meter readers obsolete.

David Wade, EPB's chief operating officer who has overseen the installation of more than 750 smart switches and 81,000 smart meters, said the $111.7 million stimulus grant was a wise investment for the utility's customers.

EPB matched the federal monies for a total of about $220 million budgeted to construct Chattanooga's new power network, of which more than half has been spent.

"We have seen better reliability already," Wade said.

In recent tropical storms that lashed the area, more than 59,000 customers lost power, he said. But 200 of the utility's new automatic smart switches saved an additional 25,000 ratepayers from losing power over Labor Day, according to an EPB study.

Of those 25,000, 16,000 saw nothing, and 9,000 saw "a blip," he said.

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