Grid Modernization

EPB fiber network helps draw $110 million in R&D funding to Chattanooga

EPB, Chattanooga, Tennessee’s public power utility, is part of a smart city coalition that has brought more than $110 million in federally funded research to the city.

In part, the Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative grew out of EPB’s decision more than a decade ago to create a high-speed fiber-to-the-home network across its 600 square mile service territory.

“The EPB smart grid is an illustration for the rest of the world of how to leverage government funding to create a public service that works for all,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Dr. Jonathan Gruber said in late February.

Gruber was in Chattanooga to discuss how research and development efforts can spur economic growth.

Since 2015, EPB has played a major role in more than 60 research projects by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and other national research partners, according to the utility.

“EPB has partnered with local and national researchers to utilize our community’s fiber optic network and advanced smart grid electric distribution infrastructure to field-test new technologies and develop even better ways to use our systems to deliver value,” said David Wade, EPB president and chief executive officer.

Some of that research includes how to protect the grid from cyberattacks. Last year, scientists worked with EPB to test quantum key distribution, a security technology that uses subatomic particles to encrypt data, instead of using traditional mathematics-based methods, according to information from ORNL. The real-world testing of this emerging encryption technology is a step towards utilities around the country using it to help secure the power grid, EPB said.

The research efforts can benefit EPB’s customers and other cities as well, according to Wade.

“Our partners in the Smart Community Collaborative are taking those efforts to a whole new level as they work on a wide range of projects to develop new applications for advanced infrastructure that can enhance our customer’s quality of life and eventually shape the way other cities use technology,” Wade said.

Partners in the collaborative include the City of Chattanooga, Hamilton County, EPB, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Erlanger Health System, The Enterprise Center, CO.LAB, a non-profit startup accelerator, and the Tennessee Aquarium.

EPB uses its roughly $280 million fiber network — which was completed more quickly with the support of a $112 million “stimulus” grant from the Energy Department in 2009 — as the communications backbone for a smart grid energy distribution system, according to J.Ed. Marston, the utility’s vice president for marketing.

In addition to having smart meters on every home, EPB installed about 1,200 smart switches on its system that, among other things, automatically re-route power around a fault when a line is damaged to reduce the number of customers affected by an outage, Marston said.

As a result, the number and duration of power outages has been cut by more than 50%, he said. The reduced outages save EPB’s customers about $55 million a year, according to the utility.

EPB estimates its smart grid saves it about $3.3 million a year in operational costs and $2.7 million from automated meter reading.

At the same time, the community-wide network and smart grid have cut EPB’s greenhouse gas emissions by 1,400 tons a year by reducing miles driven and through demand management, according to Marston.