The Local Power Company of the Future?! Chattanooga’s EPB Lights the Way for Others

Guest Blog | November 16, 2016 | Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy

Imagine a world where your local power company calls you and tells you they’ve identified a potential problem with your home that is causing you to have unnecessarily high utility bills.

Imagine a representative of your local power company showing up at your front door to investigate the problem.

Imagine finding out from your power company that you have a problem with your heating and cooling system and that they are going to help fix it.

Imagine getting a lower utility bill.

Sound too good to be true? Well, the Southeast is home to a utility that is already doing this – and providing low cost internet and television service to their customers. Chattanooga Electric Power Board (EPB) is setting a new standard of service for local power companies and SACE staff recently got a peek behind the scenes to learn more about how EPB is paving the way towards a more service oriented utility.

Often, customers see utilities as an adversary – a company that controls not only your ability to get power but also how much you have to pay for that power. Customers curse their utility when the power goes off during a storm or after an equipment malfunction, but few understand the manpower and time needed for a traditional utility to restore service after an interruption. Emergency crews and trucks must be sent out to hunt for the exact trouble spot, or spots, where the electrical network has been interrupted. Traditional electric distribution systems operate like a set of dominoes, with one interruption causing additional interruptions down the line. But what if it could be different?

A worker installing smarter distribution technology on Chattanooga EPB's electrical system. (Photo from Chattanooga EPB)

Chattanooga EPB is out to prove that it can be different, thanks to improvements in several pieces of electric distribution technology. Over the past few years, thanks to ingenuity at the utility, and an investment from the Department of Energy that allowed EPB to double the speed of its modernization, the entire electric distribution system in Chattanooga has gotten some amazing upgrades. Upgrades range from smart meters, fiber optics infrastructure to distribution automation technology. These upgrades have enabled EPB to help customers manage energy demand and restrict the scope of power outages as well as restore power more quickly.

EPB’s innovative improvements came after an extremely robust community outreach initiative. Before beginning the 1.5 year upgrade work, EPB staff met with community groups, business leaders, and customers in order to get input on how EPB could best serve its customers while undertaking these expansive technology upgrades.

One important piece of these upgrades, which helped gain buy in from customers and well as businesses, was the fiber technology that would be installed in tandem with electrical distribution upgrades. Fiber not only allows the pieces of technology involved in the upgrades to the electrical system, like distribution automation equipment, to relay information quicker and more accurately, it has also allowed EPB to enter into the telecommunications market, providing cable and internet service to its current customers.

These upgrades have also lead to climate benefits, due to decreased utility truck operations and miles traveled. By keeping more utility trucks off the road, hunting for the source of power outages, EPB trucks avoid driving 419,877 miles annually or the equivalent of driving from Nashville to Chattanooga over 3,000 times!

By reducing peak demand needs, lowering the amount of power needed to meet the highest energy demand at any given time, EPB has avoided emitting over 3.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the amount of carbon sequestered by 1,338 acres of U.S. forests in one year.

Below, are some more important benefits of EPB’s state of the art electrical system:

Customer Benefits

  • Reduced power outages – Thanks to smarter substation technologies and improved communication capabilities between EPB’s distribution system, EPB is able to pinpoint the location of electrical interruption (e.g. a power line broken by a falling tree) and “island” that piece of the system so that the outage does not flow past the two due to being able to remotely disconnect substations and limit outage impact to a smaller, more defined customer area. The benefits of these improvements have already been shown in real dollars – as EPB saved $1.4 million during one particularly bad storm thanks to a smarter distribution system.
  • Proactive customer service – New smart meters are able to deliver more granular data to EPB about individual customer’s energy use, allowing EPB to proactively identify abnormalities in energy use. While reviewing a customer’s usage data, EPB staff may identify an unexplained increase in usage. EPB will then contact this customer to help identify the cause of the increased energy use and work to fix it. Examples may be a customer with a broken HVAC compressor was broken who was using emergency heating equipment (like space heaters) and delaying fixing the compressor, unaware of how much more expensive this emergency heat was versus the perceived high cost of fixing the compressor.
  • Knowledge is power – Smart meters also self report electrical outages, removing the need for customers to call their utility in the event the power goes out in a single home or even an entire neighborhood. Additionally, customers have access to their own energy use data, produced in 15-minute intervals, empowering customers with information about when they are using the most energy and identifying how they can reduce their overall usage and decrease utility bills through behavioral changes.

Utility Benefits

  • Reduced operational costs – Thanks to a smarter distribution system, utility staff can reduce the amount of trucks on the road and staff time spent hunting for the exact point where utility service has been interrupted (like where a branch has fallen on a line or which transformer blew on which part of the system). By working more efficiently, EPB is able to reduce labor costs due to less overtime work and reduced need for meter readers thanks to self-reporting smart meters.
  • Increased reliability – By operating a smarter and more efficient electrical distribution system, EPB has been able to create one of the most reliable electrical systems in the country. Smart distribution technology allows the utility to maintain reliability standards (and power factors) required by federal utility standards and meet overall customer peak demands, even in extreme heat or cold weather events, including helping EPB control voltage reduction needed to keep the system and equipment performing at optimal levels. Thanks to these upgrades, EPB has been able to avoid 2,369 MWh each year through peak demand reduction measures.
  • Increased customer satisfaction – EPB’s stellar customer service and reliability, the utility is able to allows to offer better and more varied electrical services to new large industrial and commercial customers, recruiting more innovation and jobs into Chattanooga.

SACE was honored to get a behind the scenes look at the amazing work being done in the state of Tennessee by Chattanooga EPB and will work with both EPB and other local power companies in our region to make sure EPB’s successes are applauded and used as a template to help improve electrical service for customers and utilities.

Guest Blog
My Profile