Chattanooga’s Next Chapter
By Alexandra DeLuca
EPB is not your parents’ electric company. Thanks to city leadership, the municipal utility operation is on a mission to eliminate waste and provide savings—and innovative services—for the city and its customers.
The revitalization of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is a story well told. In 1969, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified Chattanooga as the most polluted city in the country, and the subsequent report by Walter Cronkite—declaring it the “dirtiest city in America” on national evening news—became infamous.
It was also something of a wake-up call for this industrial city along the river.
Government and community banded together to bring improvements over the next 40 years—from a leading-edge air pollution control bureau to miles of greenways and electric shuttle buses—long before many of these things were mandated or in vogue. Sustainability has become something of a mission for the city, and EPB, the public electricity utility, is helping to write the municipal utility’s next chapter.
David Wade, COO of EPB, is making positive changes at the electric company.
“[Cronkite’s report] kind-of hurt our feelings,” says David Wade, COO of EPB. “As a community, we decided to change that, and it’s been a multi-year, multi-faceted approach. The recent changes we have made here are just a continuation on some of those building blocks that were established as our community looked forward so many years ago from being a dying community to becoming a sustainable community.”
An agency of the City of Chattanooga, EPB was established in 1935 to provide electric power to the greater Chattanooga area. Today, EPB is still one of the largest publicly owned providers of electric power in the country, serving more than 169,000 residents in a 600-sq-mi area that includes greater Chattanooga, as well as parts of surrounding counties and areas of North Georgia.
Today, EPB is still one of the largest publicly owned providers of electric power in the country. EPB is building a smarter energy grid, which will reduce power outages and eliminate waste.
“Chattanooga has done a lot of, in some cases, risky and bold work on itself,” says Danna Bailey of EPB. “The work that has been done by those who came before us has been a platform to add to—and an inspiration to us to step up our game and make sure we are working to make the city the best asset it can be with the best infrastructure.”
At EPB, that meant building a smarter energy grid, which would reduce power outages and eliminate waste while improving response times and customer experience. “Several years ago, we started looking at what a next-generation electric system should be,” says Wade. “We realized that it looked much different than it was. We defined it as three things: intelligent, interactive, and self-healing.”
But before an electric grid can achieve that triumvirate, Wade says, it must be able to communicate. So in 2008—thanks in part to a U.S. Department of Energy grant—EPB began construction on a 100 percent fiber optic communications network to support its Smart Grid project. “We looked at building a communications network that would not just have us make a one-time investment that was limited to that improvement, but instead to facilitate improvement over time.”
From there, the utility layered sensors and smart devices in the field and, using software, has improved efficiency and drastically changed the reliability of the system through automation, says Wade. Initial projections estimated a 40 percent improvement in reliability, but Wade and his team often see about 50 percent and sometimes nearly 70 percent.
EPB also earned its PEER certification—a rating process that aims to define, assess, and verify the performance of power grids—from third-party administrator Green Business Certification Inc. Modeled after the LEED green building rating system, PEER also serves as the driving force behind the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) vision to transform power systems.
“What I really like about the PEER certification is using validation, looking at hard data, and putting some standards around it,” says Wade. “We appreciate that USGBC and PEER have created a model that can validate and measure performance.”
A reduction in both number of outages and the duration of outages has even broader impacts. “Of course, we haven’t stopped any cars from hitting poles—we still have the same number of accidents,” says Wade. “But instead of having trucks drive around to find out where that car hit the pole, radio back where they are, have someone looking at a map and telling them to drive to this location and open switches, then drive to that location and close switches, we have automated it.
“The system routes power around that outage without having to have folks in trucks driving around to do that,” he adds. “All of a sudden not only does that improve the service we provide our customers, it saves us hundreds of thousands of miles of driving.”
One of the biggest wastes you can have as an electric utility is from an outage—not just at EPB, but at the customer level. “That sounds like an odd thing,” says Wade, “but if you think about all of a sudden when there is an outage there are businesses out there that lose sales or must throw products away. An important piece of waste and sustainability is how you use power.”
The flow of that power through the entire utilization cycle is something EPB focuses on. “It doesn’t stop when we hand off electricity to a business,” Wade says. “They are using it for some need. If we interrupt it and it causes them to have waste products and uses more electricity to get back to where they were, then we have a whole layer of waste that we don’t talk about much.”
The waste is significant in terms of dollars as well. A recent study by the University of California, Berkeley, found that a utility in the Southeast the size of Chattanooga’s—which serves a 600-sq-mi urban and rural environment comprising 175,000 homes and businesses—would waste approximately $100 million annually due to power outages. “That is a lot of waste down the system,” says Wade. “That is a huge deal.”
But before EPB could change its grid, it had to change its culture; work that started long before the first fiber optic cable was strung. “We have put significant emphasis on and energy into really looking at and changing our culture over the last 15 years,” says Wade.
“There was a point in time where we were not an easy company to do business with. We acted very much like a monopoly. If you wanted to do business with us, you had to jump through our hoops and we would install service when we felt like it.”
It was an internal problem as well. “It becomes very difficult to leverage communications across our electric system if we can’t communicate across the hall with each other,” Wade says. The major culture shift has created a more collaborative EPB, where employees are more engaged and committed to a mission to serve and improve their community and their customers. “As a municipal that is a huge privilege and responsibility,” he adds.
“We had to make that culture,” says Bailey, “and culture work is never done. But it is faster and easier to get where we need to go because we have this in place.”
New initiatives include a community solar project and leveraging the power grid while learning to use all of the information the new electric system provides in ways “we didn’t see two or even five years ago,” Wade says. That includes identifying pieces of equipment in need of service before a major incipient failure that would have previously gone unnoticed.
EPB has also started leveraging its fiber optic system by selling video, voice, and data products. Because of this, Chattanooga currently has the fastest Internet in the country, known as the “Gig” for its 1-gigabyte per second speed (about 50 times faster than the U.S. average), which has become an economic selling point for the city.
“Giving the ability to add communications and collapse time and space gives our community the opportunity to think differently and act differently,” says Wade. “We are one part of that as our electric system.”
EPB, along with several partners, recently started a relationship through which a microbiology class at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) school in Chattanooga is taught from the University of Southern California. “Streaming live microscopic images from 1,800 miles away is drastically changing the learning experience of these students in Chattanooga,” Wade says. “We don’t have that type of microscope or instructor. It’s an extremely different learning environment.”
All of this appears to be catching the attention of other utility companies. EPB gets multiple requests and visits a week from those who want see firsthand what Chattanooga is doing.
“One of the coolest things about that, if they come to visit Chattanooga, by interacting we have the opportunity to learn from them,” Wade says. “That must be the best thing about it. We aren’t done learning and there is a lot of value in those conversations.”
EPB’s downtown headquarters was the first building in Chattanooga to receive LEED certification for Existing Buildings, Operations and Maintenance. This certification focuses on the long term, cultural and operational processes that occur within commercial building. EPB must follow rigorous environmental guidelines in all areas of business, from energy use and recycling to cleaning methods and pest control to help protect our environment. It’s just one of many ways that EPB works to increase the quality of life for the people we serve.
- The LEED Project has an ROI of less than one year.1
- To date, the Project Building’s occupants saved 5.7 Million kWh. This kWh translated to $420,640 and 4,054 metric tons of CO2. This CO2 reduction is equivalent to the carbon sequestered annually by 3,323 acres of U.S. forest.2
- So far in 2013, the Project Building’s occupants saved 336,374 gallons of water. This translates to $6,701 and is equivalent to saving the amount of water to fill roughly 15 standard-sized U.S. swimming pools.3
- During the LEED Process, the building’s occupants recycled 712 cubic yards, the equivalent of keeping 59 standard dump trucks’ waste out of landfills.4
- During the LEED Process, Corporate CSA Program participants bought 3,500 pounds of sustainably grown local produce.5
- During the LEED Process, Clean Commute participants avoided an estimated 248,420 miles of conventional travel, an amount equivalent to traveling to San Francisco from Chattanooga 102 times.6
- During the official LEED Process, 69 people representing 26 organizations worked over 4,000 hours to make this project happen.7
1. Approximately $125,000 spent / $131,650 in annual recurring energy savings = ROI less than one year. This calculation doesn’t include other benefits, such as water savings.
2. 5,746,450 kWh x .0732 (losses rate) = $420,640. CO2 and equivalencies calculated using the US EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.
3. Data is from EPB’s TN American Water bills. Standard Pool calculation referenced by Ask.com & WikiAnswers: 336,374 gallons/ 22,000 gallons = 15.3 US standard pools.
4. Data is from Internal Recycling Records independently gathered by Reliable Building Solutions. 712 cubic yards/12 cubic yards = 59.3 standard dump trucks.
5. Data from Crabtree Farms delivery records.
6. Data from Internal records; data utilizes employee zip codes for estimated miles and considers travel method. Chattanooga to San Francisco miles calculated using GoogleMaps.
7. Data from internal and external records. Hours include administrative and operational activities, but do not account for time spent outside the LEED Performance Period.