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This story was updated on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, at 3:48 p.m. to correct that there are 10 Department of Energy Labs.

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Photo by Dave Flessner / U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, second from left, looks over the Grid Research Integration and Deployment Center in Knoxville along with Dr. Richard Raines, left, ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia, second from right, and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischman, right.

KNOXVILLE — The new $1 trillion infrastructure spending package signed into law last week should help propel broadband infrastructure across America, helping more communities to realize the high-speed internet connections and smarter electric grid now available in Chattanooga, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Monday.

During a tour of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and a visit to Chattanooga, Granholm said the extra $65 billion allocated to improve broadband internet access in rural areas in the infrastructure law President Biden signed last Monday should make broadband more accessible and affordable for lower-income households across the U.S., including the 13% of Tennessee households that now lack any broadband connections to the internet. Granholm praised Chattanooga's city-owned utility, EPB, for pioneering the first citywide Gig internet service as part of its fiber-optic network built more than a decade ago to create a smarter and more versatile electric grid.

"Chattanooga's experience as "Gig City" may mean that Tennessee becomes "Gig state" because there will be funding for high-speed internet service in every single pocket of the state," Granholm told reporters here during a visit to the Grid Research and Integration and Deployment Center. "So every home will have access to high-speed internet."

Granholm said the infrastructure package will also provide additional funding for more research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest of the 10 Department of Energy labs where scientists and engineers are studying Chattanooga-based EPB's fiber-based grid network to create more microgrids and energy deployment systems to improve electricity reliability and cost.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is managed by UT-Battelle, has 5,800 employees and a budget last year of $2.4 billion. That funding could be increased in the current fiscal year, especially if the Senate approves a more sweeping infrastructure spending plan adopted last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Granholm toured the lab Monday morning with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, who opposed the $1 trillion infrastructure plan as too costly but has worked on the House Appropriations Committee to keep funding for the Oak Ridge lab, which he called "the greatest national lab."

The bipartisan infrastructure law already approved also will fund additional charging infrastructure across the country and ongoing research at ORNL to allow rapid wireless recharging technologies. In partnership with Volkswagen, Honda, UPS and others, ORNL is developing and testing new recharging technologies to allow a battery to be recharged within 10 to 15 minutes, as well as new technologies that someday may allow vehicles to automatically be recharged as they go down recharging highways.

"This lab is thinking into the future even as it is working on the challenges of the present," Granholm said.

Granholm praised the research on rapid and highway recharging options, which she called "an amazing development that completely changes the way we think about how to drive electric vehicles."

ORNL is also researching new energy storage and deployment technologies to allow more use of renewable power which is less flexible than many current electricity generation technologies in matching generation with demand. When the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow, energy storage is necessary to fill power needs, according to ORNL researchers.

President Biden has a goal of getting to 100% clean energy generation by 2035 and 100% zero carbon emissions by 2050.

"In order to do that, part of the legislation that was passed last week was a big step forward but there is another piece coming," Granholm said. "The solutions that are being worked on here at the lab are the solutions that we need to deploy. We want to make sure that our research infrastructure keeps us at the front of global research and development."

During the transition to cleaner energy and more electric-powered cars, Granholm conceded that gas prices have increased this year, nearly doubling in some markets from the low levels reached a year ago.

"As we are coming out of the pandemic, the turning on of an economy and people traveling more means that demand has exceeded the supply meaning that those who are producing fossil fuel energy have not turned on as quickly as demand has necessitated and that has meant that prices have increased," Granholm said. "The president is all over this. He is very sensitive to prices at the pump and he is looking at an array of tools that he has. But no president controls the price of gas, even though every one of them wishes that they could. He has some tools and he is looking at them — and hopefully more to come on that this week."

U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, who invited Granolm to visit ORNL, said Oak Ridge's research is helping meet America's energy and defense needs as it has since it was created in the 1940s to build the first atomic bomb. But Hagerty has blamed Biden's "socialistic spending measures" for pushing up inflation and not doing more to help energy producers meet the market demand.

"The (energy) secretary knows my frustrations with the Biden administration's energy policies, which are being felt every time Americans put fuel in their vehicles," Hagerty said in a statement Monday.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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