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Contributed photo by EPB / Students and mentors from Tyner Academy attended an EPB board meeting last week. Standing from left are EPB Director of Inclusion and Diversity Ketha Richardson, Tyner Academy graduate Melique Hambrick and Tyner Academy seniors Timetrius Lansden and Jaylan Sims. Seated from left are EPB Talent Development Specialist Kim Appeldoorn, EPB Human Resources Senior Vice President Marie Webb and Tyner Academy senior Zia Manghane.

Note: This story was updated Dec. 21 to correct misspellings in the caption and to correct the cohort within which EPB ranked first.

Chattanooga's power utility, EPB, has been ranked as the best electric utility in the nation, according to consumer surveys of residential electricity customers.

J.D. Power, a consumer analytics company that rates utilities and other businesses each year based on consumer satisfaction, said EPB and Clark Public Utilities in the state of Washington had the highest overall scores among 145 utilities ranked by customer surveys this year.

John Hazen, managing director of the utility practice at J.D. Power, said the best utilities were those that got high marks for customer service, helping their customers with information and payment options and aiding the local community.

EPB President and CEO David Wade said the city-owned EPB has taken steps in all those areas by helping customers with reliable and affordable payment plans and savings options with services handled by local representatives of EPB in Chattanooga. The utility has also continued to help support local educational and community projects, including another $100,000 gift jointly awarded by EPB and the Tennessee Valley Authority to the local United Way and $75,000 contributed along with volunteer mentors from EPB to help the Future Ready Institute at Tyner Academy.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's EPB plans $75 million bond issue to help avoid rate hike for sixth consecutive year)

"Our customers are at the center of everything we do," Wade said. "This recognition is especially meaningful because it is a direct reflection of how our customers perceive our service to our community."

EPB crews have battled tornadoes, a pandemic and economic upheaval over the past two years, and they have still managed to keep the lights on and base rates unchanged for electricity while expanding options for its fiber-optic network and serving the local community, Wade said.

Since EPB expanded beyond its electric service in 2009 with its fiber optic-based telecom network, it has attracted more than 120,000 broadband customers, capturing more than two-thirds of all the homes and businesses it serves with broadband service through its creation of America's first citywide high-speed internet service to every address. While EPB has branded Chattanooga "Gig City" and used its fiber-connected power grid to create what it calls a "Smart City" and "Smart Grid," the utility is also promoting cheaper alternatives to its own video television services through its current "cut the cord" campaign touting less-expensive streaming services for consumers.

With the help of TVA, its wholesale supplier, EPB also dispatched "energy pros" in the field to give free advice on ways residential and business customers can reduce their energy consumption.

(READ MORE: EPB's fiber optic network generated $2.69 billion in economic benefits in the past decade, study shows)

Wade said the mission of public power is to serve customers and the community, not shareholders and investors, so EPB is willing to find ways to help consumers save even if it sometimes means less revenue for EPB.

Although consumer ratings for most utilities declined slightly from the record high levels reached in 2020, EPB's ratings continued to rise to a score of 824 (on a 1,000-point scale), up from an 800 score in 2020, according to the J.D. Power 2021 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study.

"In today's roller-coaster economic environment, electric utility providers need to not only increase their efforts to help their local economies but also communicate more effectively about utility programs and activities," Hazen said. "Utility customers want to hear about these efforts and, when they do, overall satisfaction is higher. Promoting economic development efforts can increase overall satisfaction by as much as 122 points."

EPB has ranked as the No. 1 utility in the South for six years in a row, according to J.D. Power. Florida Power & Light was rated the best large utility in the South this year for the second consecutive year.

 

Community Care

EPB is continuing its partnership with TVA in addressing hardships created by COVID-19 by investing $50,000 to match TVA's $50,000 of local contributions to the United Way's relief programs that provide food, health services, transportation, crisis relief, housing, utility payments or child care.

"Although we were hoping the impacts of the pandemic would be behind us by now, many people in our community are still experiencing challenges," Wade said.

Since the pandemic began, EPB and TVA have partnered with United Way of Greater Chattanooga's Bridge Fund, which was formerly called Restore Hope. To date, that fund has assisted 1,174 households, including 1,718 adults and 1,574 children in the greater Chattanooga area. The fund was designed to assist individuals and households experiencing lost wages or other adverse circumstances due to COVID-19.

With this additional $100,000 in funding to support people affected by the COVID crisis, EPB and TVA have invested $420,000 to support local economic recovery, and EPB employees donated an additional $20,000 to the effort. Because of these organizations and donors throughout the city, $967,000 has been raised to support neighbors in crisis since the spring of 2020.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's EPB maintains favorable rating as it prepares its first bond issue in 6 years)

Across TVA's seven-state footprint, TVA and local power companies have helped 637 charitable organizations over the past two years provide assistance to those most affected by the ongoing pandemic. TVA President Jeff Lyash said the federal utility and local power companies are allocating another $5 million in the current fiscal year through TVA's Community Care Fund, which already provided $8.3 million over the previous year "helping our friends and neighbors when they need it most."

 

Future Ready Institute

EPB chair Vicky Gregg said the city utility is also eager to help with longer term needs of the community, which is why EPB agreed to provide $75,000 of financial aid and hundreds of hours of employee time and assistance to establish the EPB Future Ready Institutes of Networking and Coding at the Tyner Academy. The Future Ready Institutes allow students to see firsthand the jobs and technologies being used at EPB and to receive mentorships from EPB staffers.

"Opening up the eyes of kids to career opportunities is almost as important as the education they receive," Gregg said.

Now in its fourth year, EPB's Future Ready Institute at Tyner has 171 students. The first cohort will graduate in May 2022.

Melique Hambrick is a Tyner graduate who was encouraged to pursue a career as an electrical lineman by EPB mentors and will soon graduate from the Southeastern Linemen Training Center.

Jaylan Sims, another Future Ready Institute student at Tyner, said the institute helped him develop both technical and communications skills.

"Technology is an extremely demanding career field, and to see people of color who look, walk, talk and act like me is truly inspiring and has led me to want to achieve greater things in my own career path," he said.

Sims has been accepted at Syracuse University in furtherance of his desire to be a war correspondent.

"We're excited to see what the future brings for these young people," said Bryan Johnson, the former Hamilton County schools superintendent who helped promote the Future Ready Institutes and now serves on the EPB board of directors.

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

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