Oak Ridge lab to help EPB use grid data to improve power

photo EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson listens to a discussion at EPB headquarters Monday between representatives from EPB, the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory concerning the electric grid.

Since EPB installed fiber-optic links to all 174,000 of its customers two years ago, the city-owned utility estimates it has cut power outages by 60 percent, saving local businesses more than $50 million in lost production costs.

But EPB President Harold DePriest says that's not good enough. So the city-owned utility, which got $111.6 million in federal stimulus funds five years ago to build a smarter electric grid in Chattanooga, is turning to Uncle Sam again for more help.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which boasts the largest Department of Energy research lab in America just 90 miles up the road from Chattanooga, will be sending engineering scholars to EPB this fall. The goal is to help EPB figure out how to use all the data gathered from its smart grid to initially improve EPB's efficiency and reliability and, by extension, eventually upgrade the efficiency and service of all U.S. electric utilities.

"We have to have a more reliable electric system," DePriest said after signing an agreement Monday to work with the Oak Ridge lab on electric grid improvements. "Electricity is essential to our modern way of life and we have to figure out ways to use all the data we are gathering in a quicker and more usable manner."

EPB's Smart Grid gathers data across its electric lines and connections every 15 minutes, or nearly 3,000 times more often than the manual meter readings done every month or two at most utilities. The automated process allows EPB to detect line and customer abnormalities earlier and make corrections in time to avoid costlier problems, DePriest said.

In the future, the Smart Grid could be able to tell a customer in real time when a heat pump or furnace isn't working properly or even when lights and equipment are running when they shouldn't be.

"We need to continue to innovate and get better," said Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary for DOE's electricity delivery and energy division. "Chattanooga has been a leader and we hope this will help us find ways to make our electric grid more efficient, more flexible and more reliable."

Chattanooga boasts the fastest citywide Internet links of any city in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to the federally-funded EPB fiber optic network. EPB has installed more than 1,100 IntelliRuptors, which are smart grid devices that both alert system controllers of power problems and isolate outages.

photo Harold DePriest

A smart grid will be especially helpful as more consumers generate some of their own power with solar, wind or geothermal units. Such customers won't need as much power and may occasionally sell power back to utilities. But they still need to fill in the gaps in their power needs.

"The cheapest resource is the one you don't have to build and hopefully the smart grid, with the right data analysis, can help us manage the grid in a more efficient manner," said Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

As solar panels and windmills turn many homes into power generators, the power grid will get much more complicated. Currently, there are about 7,000 power plants that generate power for 140 million homes and businesses. But if even 1 percent of those homes and businesses add solar panels or windmills to start their own power generation, the number of power generation sites could grow by more than 200-fold.

The Oak Ridge lab boasts one of the fastest and biggest computers in the world and conducts much of the basic scientific research that power companies and utilities can build upon to serve their customers. DePriest said EPB is not able to analyze the trillions of pieces of data collected each year from EPB's smart grid, but ORNL scientists should help to sort, analyze and use such data.

While EPB officials signed documents to become a type of living laboratory for smart grid research in Chattanooga, Mayor Andy Berke was in Santa Monica, Calif., on Monday touting the value of EPB's fiber optic network. As the first U.S. city with community-wide gigabit-per-second Internet speed, Chattanooga was showcased at the launch of Next Century Cities, a bipartisan, city-to-city initiative pushing for next-generation broadband Internet for all communities.

"The Gig infrastructure changed the way we see ourselves in Chattanooga; it changed the idea of what our city could be," Berke said.

The mayor joked that growing up in Chattanooga, downtown used to be a great place to take a date because you could be assured of being alone.

But thanks to high-speed Internet, a burgeoning innovation district and a growing entrepreneurial culture, "Chattanooga has come back and I'm proud to be here as a Next Century city," Berke told a gathering of municipal and telecom leaders in California.

"Mid-sized Southern cities in the U.S. are not generally thought of as being ahead of the technological curve," Berke said. "The Gig changed that. We are now ahead of the curve, with other cities looking to us as a leader in the Innovation Century."

Berke acknowledged the municipal broadband service has not been without controversy, especially from rival investor-owed telecoms and from those opposed to government competition in traditionally private-sector industries.

"We have fights about most everything," Berke said during a webcast of his California appearance. "But right now, I think there is so much energy behind what we're doing that a lot of the fighting has gone away.

"Chattanooga is at the front end of this curve, rather than at the end, and that's a great place to be."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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