Chattanooga Fiber Network Triple Play: Smart Grid, Gigabit, Green Energy


Chattanooga is unique for a gigabit class network that covers the entire community, serving over 150,000 homes and businesses. Its advantages go far beyond simple connectivity and into smart grid and renewable energy. Duplicating Chattanooga's success, however, will be difficult at best for many cities without changes in mindsets and regulation.

EPB, the city-owned utility, decided to drop in a 100 percent fiber optic network to support its "smart grid" for power distribution. Since 2001, a number of upgrades to power monitoring and distribution have been rolled out, but 2008 marked the construction of a smart grid with fiber optic cabling running to every home and business in the territory. And everyone has a smart meter except for around 300 to 400 locations in the service area.

A 600 square mile service area has 1,170 IntelliRupter PulseClosers distributed throughout the power network. Each one is a combination of monitoring node and router. When an outage occurs, the IntelliRupters communicate with one another over the fiber network to determine the location of an outage and work to automatically reroute and restore power to as many homes and businesses as possible.

In July 2012, the smart grid got its first true test. A series of strong windstorms disrupted power to around 41,300 locations. About 7,000 customers experienced automatic power restoration. Another 35,000 homes either didn't lose power or were automatically restored in less than five minutes.  

Without the fiber network and additional hardware, manual switching and rerouting of power would have been required and it could have taken days to fully restore power between finding broken lines and dispatching trucks to fix them. EPB says its automatic metering eliminated 95 truck rolls to restore power.

Image via Shutterstock

A February 2014 snowstorm further demonstrated the value of the smart grid.  About 36,000 customers lost power. EPB says the system provided data to restore power to customers within three days, rather than the eight it would have taken without it.

EPB's smart meters and smart grid hardware collect six billion—yes, billion—data points every year. The data  is used for automatic meter reading and billing—no truck rolls to read meters—outage and voltage problem detection, automated connect and disconnect and theft detection. Customers get online access to their power usage in 15-minute intervals.

The fiber play is simple. Customers can get 100 Mbps broadband for $57.99 per month and 1 Gig service for $69.99 per month, with bundles available for video and voice services. EPB estimates it will be able to start offering 10 Gbps service within a year or so, but service may depend upon customer demand to get it pushed out. 

New energy technologies, such as renewable power and storage, represent a challenge to traditional dumb grid utilities. Lack of a real-time communications infrastructure leaves utilities without information as to how much power is flowing in from variable rate sources such as wind and solar power. Similarly, distributed energy storage could further increase grid reliability and lower costs for consumers and utilities by banking excess renewable energy during off-peak times and putting it back into the grid for use during peak hours. Utilities could avoid the use of expensive power plants during peak usage with storable power.

EPB has established a partnership with the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to use Chattanooga's smart grid as a "living lab" to test and develop new energy technologies. Initial use will be analyzing the billions and billions of data points and smart grid processes to design future energy grids with better reliability, security and efficiency.

However, Chattanooga's smart grid is also future proof and ready to go to manage and maximize renewable energy and energy storage solutions. EPB is building a 1 megawatt solar project with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to add power to the grid and I suspect there will be other projects in the future.

Can Chattanooga's success be duplicated? I'm not optimistic.

In most other cities, there's a clear demarcation between data and power utilities, with both sides driven by Wall Street quarterly announcements rather than the EPB non-profit help-the-community mentality. There may be an opportunity in some cities for the power utility to get into the fiber business if the incumbent telco isn't deploying fiber, such as in Baltimore where Verizon has no plans to deploy FiOS. Those opportunities are likely to be strongly litigated by incumbent telco and cable companies that don't want a "third wire" of broadband competition in their home territory. Utilities will be able to counter such arguments by pointing out that they alone are willing to deploy fiber to everyone within a service area, rather than cherry-picking high-end neighborhoods and "passing by" less desirable ones.

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino
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Contributing Editor

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