Newsbrief Archive

Electric Currents News - January 2017

Utilities Extend Smart Grid to Rural America

The continued development of the smart grid has transformed a utility company’s ability to not only manage the growing demand that comes with an increasingly digital society, but also to minimize transmission losses and improve reliability with real-time troubleshooting, all while offering its customers a wider range of services. Yet bringing high-speed Internet required by the smart grid into America’s rural areas remains an ongoing challenge. In rural areas, 39 percent (23 million people) lack access to broadband compared to only 4% in urban America.

In a written statement, American Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America’s future today as electricity was when we began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care, and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America.”

The Federal Communications Commission has set the threshold for high-quality Internet speeds at 25 megabits/sec (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. Utilities are working with federal and state governments to extend this level of service into rural areas across the US—and in 2015, the USDA approved $349 million in funding for 15 rural electric infrastructure projects to build or improve more than 1,844 miles of transmission and distribution lines for rural electric cooperatives and utilities in 13 states.

What Is Being Done

Using existing infrastructure, many utilities have been working with local communications companies to provide broadband service to rural customers. Using their own power lines for data transmission, Internet service can be delivered to any customer with electricity. Broadband over power line (BPL), while an older concept, has become an affordable option only recently—in Illinois, five of the state’s 25 rural cooperatives now offer broadband service to their customers.

Other Options

  • Fiber optic networks are an option, although this type of Internet transmission can be cost prohibitive for an individual utility. With the help of a $111.5 million grant from the US Department of Energy, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga recently installed a fiber optic network that serves more than 170,000 customers. Some states, however, place restrictions on the availability of utility-offered broadband beyond the utility’s service territory, citing competition with local telecom companies. 
     
  • Satellite broadband, which is much faster than dial-up Internet, is also a possibility, but it does not presently meet the FCC guidelines for high-quality service and requires the purchase of additional equipment by the end-user.

The smart grid is now a critical necessity for each of us. For rural communities, it is regarded as a vital means to fend off population decline and community deterioration. For the utilities that invest in bringing this technology to rural areas, resulting economic development will create opportunities for invaluable customer engagement, efficient demand management, and important conservation efforts.

The smart grid is now a critical necessity for each of us. For rural communities, it is regarded as a vital means to fend off population decline and community deterioration. For the utilities that invest in bringing this technology to rural areas, resulting economic development will create opportunities for invaluable customer engagement, efficient demand management, and important conservation efforts.