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Smart Utilities Lead to Smart Cities

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Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

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Florida’s Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) is expanding its horizons and its business model.  The utility will offer fiber-based broadband to the local community. Has FPUA got a great idea or is this a shot in the dark?  Admittedly, they’re headed into "the unknown.”  “This is not a familiar path that has been taken,” Javier Cisneros, P.E., director of utility support services for FPUA says. “It’s a very uncomfortable position for [FPUA] leadership to be in, and it takes time for them to see the vision that this could create.”  The utility’s leap is not based on blind faith.  

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Tennessee utility, Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB), added fiber optic communications over a decade ago and has since seen great results. Outages have been reduced by about 55%, helping the city avoid $55 million a year in costs associated with lost productivity, spoilage, and other impacts.  Fewer trucks are required to scout and troubleshoot problems, eliminating 630,000 driving miles and 4.7 million pounds of carbon emissions.  Automation of meter reading has saved $1.6 million in annual operational costs.  Having voltage control has reduced peak demand by up to 30 megawatts per month, resulting in $2 million in annual wholesale demand savings.   A public power business model at its core, EPB has transformed its organization, infrastructure, business systems, and services while introducing new technologies.  

The utility received a grant for more than $111 million that allowed them to install 9,000 miles of fiber optics over EPB’s entire 600-square-mile service territory.  The project was completed in four years, which was six years ahead of schedule.  The expansion has provided Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL) enough data to evaluate the possibilities for additional utilities to follow suit.  "We're trying to improve the efficiency, reliability and sustainability of energy systems going from small appliances all the way to entire electric systems," said Dr. Richard "Rick" Raines, the director of the Electrification and Energy Infrastructures Division (EEID) at ORNL.  Since researchers began working with EPB, the Chattanooga utility has helped in over $98 million of Department of Energy research projects.  

Referring to EPB’s success, Javier Cisneros of Florida’s FPUA concluded, “We realize not only that we can do it, but we can do it well and provide a benefit to the community.”  Fort Pierce has been working toward becoming a smart city since 2018 when the board approved the initiative to provide high-speed internet.  Jason Mittler, FPUAnet manager spoke about the initiative, “FPUAnet is the infrastructure provider to allow these entities to be connected so that we can become a smart community.”  To reach that goal, Mittler acknowledged that utilities must take the lead. “We first have to be a smart utility before we can be a smart city.”

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