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EPB's smart grid should get even smarter with help from America's biggest research lab 90 miles up the road.

The Oak Ridge National Lab, the U.S. Department of Energy and the city-owned EPB signed an agreement today for DOE researchers and computer experts from Oak Ridge to help EPB better analyze and control the volumes of data gathered continuously from the utility's fiber-optic network attached for the past couple of years to Chattanooga's electric grid.

"This partnership is real and we intend to move forward immediately in ways that hopefully can improve the reliability and efficiency of our electric system," EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said today after signing a memorandum of understanding to work with DOE and ORNL.

Chattanooga boasts the fastest citywide Internet links of any city in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to the federally-funded EPB fiber optic network. EPB got $111.6 million in federal stimulus funds nearly five years ago to help build its fiber optic network across its 600-mile service territory. EPB has installed more than 1,100 IntelligRuptors, which are smart grid devices that both alert system controllers of power problems and isolate outages.

EPB President Harold DePriest said the smart grid has already helped reduce outage times in Chattanooga by 60 percent and with Oak Ridge assistance, he hopes to identify new ways to make the grid smarter, more reliable and even faster.

"We have to have a more reliable electric system," DePriest said during a panel discussion today with DOE leaders. "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 in a more usable manner."

EPB's smart grid gathers meter readings from users once every 15 minutes, or nearly 3,000 times more often than the manual monthly meter readings used in the past. The Oak Ridge laboratory, which boasts one of the fastest and biggest computers in the world, will provide engineering scholars at EPB to study, sort and analyze the data from the smart grid. ORNL Lab Director Thomas Mason said such data analysis should not only help EPB get better but to develop systems to help electricity providers improve around the country.

"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 way to make our electric grid more efficient, more flexible and more reliable."

DOE officials today are touring EPB's control center to begin assessing how the federal agency may aid in data analytics and ultimately program improvements.

Read more in tomorrow's Times Free Press.

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