Chattanooga Electric Power Board
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Utilities and Economic Growth

Oct. 25, 2017
Amazon’s second headquarters aside, how well are we valuing good service and customer engagement?

The lengths to which various U.S. cities have been going to in order to court Amazon’s second headquarters has generated a lot of press recently.  But we can put the Amazon hubbub aside a while, since the $5 billion investment decision, which is expected to create 50,000 jobs, won’t be made by Amazon until next year (per the Oct. 23, 2017 NY Times update, “Amazon Receives 238 Proposals for Its Second Headquarters”—see also CNN Tech’sCities are doing wacky things to Host Amazon’s second headquarters,” 10/3/2017).

In the meantime we would do well to ask ourselves what role utilities can and should play in making their service territory attractive to new small businesses.

Why small businesses?  Given that the size of big companies like Amazon is so overwhelming, aren’t the contributions made by small businesses overblown? After all, it only takes 140 Amazon-side chunks of $135 billion in annual revenue to arrive at a sum equal to the U.S. GDP of $19 trillion. But this logic is flawed, because it fails to consider an important fact:  Back in 1995, when it sold its first book, Amazon was just another small business, and there is not a single utility CEO in the U.S. who wouldn’t have wanted that start-up in his or her service territory!

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, U.S. small businesses employed 56.8 million people, or 48.0% of the private workforce, in 2013.  And while tax incentives get the most air time nowadays when it comes to initiatives for attracting businesses to a region, we should be mindful of the role played by utilities in fostering economic growth in their service territories.

When I look at the 2017 Metropolitan-Area Rankings for the Kauffman Index of Growth Entrepreneurship, I see a lot of great utilities who have been at the forefront of good customer-engagement initiatives.

The environment that a utility helps create within its service territory can play an important role, even if, unlike Amazon, a new second headquarters for the company is not in play. Consider the fact that the more energy-intensive manufacturing, data centers, or engineering or fulfillment facilities associated with a growing business may be located outside the city in which the business is headquartered.

An excellent recent example of customer engagement by a utility, The Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, illustrates how a utility’s commitment to clean power dovetails with helping commercial and industrial customers for whom environmental concerns are important to their brands. 

Solar Share is a partnership between TVA and EPB to launch Chattanooga’s first community solar project. Through Solar Share, EPB customers will have a new choice for renewable power that dramatically lowers the barriers to entry for participating in solar power generation. The installation consists of 4,408 solar panels with a total output of nearly 1.4 megawatts of power. (For additional background, EPB is a municipally-owned utility and serves more than 170,000 homes and businesses in a 600 square-mile area that includes greater Chattanooga, as well as parts of surrounding counties and areas of North Georgia.)

Chuck McDonald became an early commercial adopter of Chattanooga EPB’s program, Solar Share, after launching his company, Resource 1 Tier 3 Data Security in Chattanooga, because he felt it was important to support the environmental consciousness that is at the core of his business.

“Solar power really appeals to me because it harnesses nature’s bounty,” said McDonald. “Using secure and sustainable methods of disposing of computer hard drives and other components is a central part of the service I provide to other companies in every major market throughout the Southeast.”

Operating a business with a relatively small energy demand, McDonald has offset 21% of his monthly energy usage by licensing two Solar Share panels at EPB’s 1.35 megawatt community solar power generation facility on Holtzclaw Avenue. After launching in July 2017, Solar Share provides EPB Electric Power customers a new option for participating in clean, renewable energy that lowers the barriers to entry.

“Chuck stands out as an example of the Chattanooga entrepreneur who wants to support our community with innovative solutions that also have minimal impact on the environment that we all share,” said EPB Commercial Energy Analyst Neal Potter. “By being an early adopter of Solar Share, Resource 1 Tier 3 Data Security is taking the lead in making our region less dependent on fossil fuel power generation.”

Following a 35-year IT career, McDonald launched two companies in Chattanooga, Resource 1 Tier 3 Data Security and Cerium. Their mission is to dispose of the growing amount of computer hardware without cluttering and ultimately polluting landfills or compromising his customer’s data security. Resource 1 Tier 3 Data Security grinds hard drives into 20 X 40 millimeter particles and then smelts the waste to be recycled. Cerium was launched to dispose of computers and monitors in environmentally friendly ways that meet customer expectations.

“I would highly encourage any Chattanooga business to adopt EPB Solar Share as a way to demonstrate their commitment to clean energy for our community,” McDonald said.

Chattanooga EPB’s full press release is at this link.

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