[This post, originally posted at 4PM on 11/8/12, is now revised as of 6:40 AM 11/9/12. The revision includes some factual changes thanks to EPB’s Danna Bailey, and a bit of rewriting for flow and clarity by yours truly. I’ve indicated the factual changes. Overall, the original hastily posted piece wasn’t too bad, if I say so myself, but the revised one below is substantially stronger. — David I]

With hundreds of thousands of households in the Northeast United States dark and cold for over a week from Hurricane Sandy, and with and many more thousands newly dark from this week’s snowstorm Athena, we could learn a thing or two about electrical power restoration from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Last July 5, a severe windstorm ripped through Chattanooga without warning. A boat flipped in a nearby reservoir killing two. Trees fell on cars and houses. The storm was captured in many dramatic Youtube videos.

Between 2007 and 2011, Chattanooga’s electric company installed a smart grid with fiber optic connections to almost all most of its 170,000 electric meters in its 600 square mile service region, including 1200 automated electric power switches. [Ms. Bailey says that these are IntelliRupter PulseClosers and they’re made by S&C Electric Company in Chicago.]

From the severity of the July 5 storm, the electric company estimated that 77,000 customers would have been put out of service. But thanks to the smart grid technology, only 35,000 lost power for long enough to require a truck roll. The rest benefitted from Chattanooga’s fiber optics and automated switches, which either protected them against outages, limited outages to a few seconds, or otherwise allowed for automated restoration.

Chattanooga’s electric company, known as EPB, could then devote its trucks and crews to the other 35,000 outages. It finished its restoration in 3.5 days, saving an estimated day and a half and roughly $1,400,000 in restoration costs. Colman Keane, EPB’s Director of Fiber Technology, explained to me that the smart grid pinpoints outages, so crews can [more efficiently] address thousand-home outages first before they deal with power lines affecting three or four homes. In the old days, he said, crews would have to drive up and down looking at the lines. Now a dispatcher with a geographic information system directs crews to the most important faults first. [Even more importantly, Ms. Bailey adds, before the smart grid, technicians needed to go to the old switches to manually reroute power.]

[Ms. Bailey points to other benefits too, including fully automated meter reading and improved asset management.]

Without a smart grid, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that outages would cost a Chattanooga-sized community $100 million a year (citation). EPB’s goal is to save about 40% or $40 million a year yearly by providing faster restoration. Indeed, the numbers from the July 5 storm are even better — some 55% of homes (42,000 of 77,000) survived or were automatically restored. A million customer outage hours were avoided.

In addition, its smart meters are resistant to electricity thieves — it’s impossible to bypass smart meters connected by fiber optics. This [is anticipated to] saves tens of millions of dollars annually in avoided theft. [Ms. Bailey says (a) EPB has not yet fully implemented theft management because not every meter is connected to fiber optics yet, and (b) the anticipated annual savings are around $5-6 million.]

It took Chattanooga only three years to build its 3900-mile smart grid. Its cost is estimated as some $300 million by independent fiber optic construction experts. Clearly, savings from faster restoration and theft avoidance could pay for the network in just a few years, whereas the useful life of Chattanooga’s smart grid is measured in decades.

But the smart grid’s benefits to Chattanooga don’t stop there. It is the first city in America to offer up to a gigabit to every home in the city, beating Google’s more famous Kansas City fiber project by several years. More affordable services are offered at 100 mbit/s and 250 mbit/s. These are symmetrical Internet connections that offer 100 or 250 actual megabits uploads and downloads. In contrast, typical telco and cableco connections offer speeds “up to” 4 megabits, 15 megabits, or if you’re really, really lucky to live in the right neighborhood, up to 100 megabits.

The business world has noticed Chattanooga’s reliable power and awesome connectivity. Amazon has opened a new distribution center in Chattanooga with some 1700 new jobs and it is ramping up with hundreds more for the Christmas season (citation). The local cardboard box company is happy, the local trucking company is licking its chops and the airport is expanding. Volkswagen recently opened an auto factory, and it is already expanding it again by some 800 jobs. Young entrepreneurs are moving in, and Chattanooga’s upwardly mobile young people are staying there and/or moving back.

For us in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, jobs are nice and fast Internet connections are nice, but having reliable electricity — and heat, which too often depends on electricity — can be a matter of life or death.

Smart grid is available today. It’s not hard possible to build, as Chattanooga has shown us. It pays for itself. It even makes money — EPB’s Danna Bailey says that fiber optic services have generated $17 million so far (in its first year or two of operation). It makes our grid more reliable as violent storms become increasingly frequent. And it makes our Internet connections awesome. What ARE we waiting for?

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One Comment

  1. Oscar Price says:

    Chattanooga’s smart grid investments are driven by the goal of improving power reliability and reducing costs for the community—goals consistent with EPB’s mission since inception. Power reliability continues to impact Chattanooga’s economic vitality. That is true for most cities and communities across the U.S. According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, power outages cost a community the size of Chattanooga some $100 million annually. Chattanooga put significant emphasis on smart grid technologies that would drive the biggest improvements in reliability.