Opinion: Tennessee Tech researchers are helping power the future of Chattanooga’s energy supply

Staff file photo/Olivia Ross / A Kia EV6 charges at the Bend on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.
Staff file photo/Olivia Ross / A Kia EV6 charges at the Bend on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

Chattanoogans have a unique appreciation for the importance of protecting and strengthening our nation's power supply.

After all, without it, Chattanooga wouldn't be Gig City — home to a burgeoning technology sector and ranked as the top work-from-home city in the country. Nor would the Tennessee Valley Authority continue to support some 2,600 jobs in the community.

Chattanooga has also seen the limitations of the status quo when it comes to keeping the lights on. In late 2022, many households in the region struggled to do that when frigid temperatures forced rolling blackouts for the first time in TVA's history.

Don't blame TVA, which has kept residential power rates among the lowest 25% of all electric utilities in the country and has provided 99.99% reliable power delivery for 21 consecutive years. The real culprit is the country's aging electric grid.

As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, "Much of the U.S. electric grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s ... [and is] struggling to meet our modern electricity needs."

At Tennessee Tech University, we decided to do something about it. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) — an economic development partnership among the federal government and 13 states across Appalachia — selected Tennessee Tech for a $10 million grant with a mission to modernize electric grids in Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

It's the single largest research grant in Tennessee Tech history and, more importantly, an opportunity to leverage the students and faculty at Tennessee's premier STEM university to solve challenges for residents in the Tennessee Valley and beyond.

Through this grant, Tennessee Tech and our partners will help electric cooperatives adopt "smart grid" technologies that will bring their power lines, substations and generators into the 21st century. We will also cut out much of the risk for these co-ops by allowing them to practice using the new technologies in a controlled, simulated environment before they commit to going all in.

Consider the impact of electric vehicles on our power supply. One study estimates two-thirds of global car sales could be EVs by 2030. While we celebrate those advances, we also know EV charging stations can add to the strain on outdated electric grids.

That's why, as part of this grant, Tennessee Tech faculty and students will help utility companies plan and position EV charging stations to more evenly distribute demand and ensure the power supply in certain regions is not overwhelmed.

Working with our partners, we will also help electric utilities deploy new battery technologies.

Like most of us, electric co-ops turn to batteries to meet their energy needs. Utility companies tend to prefer lithium-ion batteries, which are made with cobalt primarily found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are "serious humanitarian concerns" with the extraction process, according to National Geographic. This grant will help co-ops turn toward newer battery technologies using materials abundant in the Appalachian region, like iron and ethane.

Our projections show that, within one year of this project's completion, it will have served and improved hundreds of businesses, including seven rural electric utilities, dozens of electrical engineering firms and a swarm of freelance software developers.

We owe it to Chattanoogans to modernize and build on the energy supply that powers the innovation happening in this city every day. Our research enterprise at Tennessee Tech University is here to help.

Phil Oldham, former provost and senior vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is president of Tennessee Tech University. Contact him at PhilOldham@tntech.edu.

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