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American Public Power Association: A Smart Way to Deliver Power

Public power communities plug into smart grid technology.

Winter 2011
(page 2 of 4)
In Glendale, the smart grid is flowing into the water system and the electric delivery network. "On the water side, it gives customers the ability to control how they use water, when they use water, and they'll know instantly if they have a leak," Steiger says. Whether power or water, the smart grid brings the utility operation into the 21st century. "We have been a mechanically oriented business. This changes us to be a much more IT software-driven business."

The Fiber Connection
Improved data services often accompany the move to smart grid. Such has been the case with EPB, the municipal power system of Chattanooga, Tennessee. "Conceived five years ago, EPB's fiber system was built to help modernize the electric system, to stimulate economic development and to provide triple play services - voice, video, and data - at reasonable rates to those residential and business customers wishing to purchase them," says Harold E. DePriest, the utility's president and CEO. In the past few years, the utility has installed some 5,000 fiber miles, part of what it says is the country's largest and most powerful fiber-to-the-home system. All homes and businesses now have access to 1 gigabit Internet service, a claim that DePriest says only a couple of other global locations can make.

"Just over a year ago, EPB received a $111 million grant from the Department of Energy to build out its smart grid, including 170,000 smart meters and 1,500 intelligent 12 kilovolt switches designed to reduce outage times by over 40 percent," DePriest says. "In the last 15 months, EPB has signed up over 20,000 fiber customers and installed over 35,000 smart meters."

Operations are getting smarter in Ponca City, Oklahoma, too, says Craig Stephenson, city manager. "The city made a determination in the early 2000s to enhance its technology footprint," he says. "The city began installing fiber optic cable to connect its facilities for operational efficiencies. City staff spent several years studying automation of their meter reading process. In 2006, the city began a wholesale change-out of all electric and water meters in its system to an automated system."

As in Chattanooga, Ponca City's smart network also translates into superior Internet service. The city offers broadband over dedicated fiber for businesses requiring more bandwidth, and additionally, "Ponca City citizens are given free wireless Internet everywhere in town and at home over a wireless mesh network from Tropos Networks," says Craige Baird, technology services director.

Dealing with Public Power
Keep in mind that these sophisticated and attractive services aren't being provided by big energy conglomerates - they're products of municipal power systems, and not necessarily big ones at that. While Glendale's population is just over 200,000 and Chattanooga's is slightly under that figure, Ponca City counts fewer than 30,000 residents, all served well by technology. But it's not surprising: of the 2,008 public power systems in the United States, 1,400 serve communities with populations under 10,000.

But size does not really matter when it comes to public power. It's accountability and profit motive - or lack thereof. "We're not profit-driven. We're not stockholder- or stock-price-driven," says Steiger, who has also worked at for-profit energy companies. "Our driver is customer satisfaction."

"Without the urgency of a short-term profit motive, EPB has been able to invest in state-of-the-art technology for a long-term payback to the community at large," DePriest says.

DePriest lists what he considers the strengths of public power communities. "Low rates are obvious, but of equal significance is their responsiveness to the needs of their customers and communities," he says. "As a local business with open meetings and a board of local community leaders, public power companies are sensitive to the needs of their customers and readily available when problems develop."

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