Plugged In for Progress

Dec. 1, 2008
Through the installation of a fiber-to-home network, Pulaski Electric System provides Smart Grid capabilities as well as high-speed Internet, digital TV and digital phone services to its customers

“You Don't Have to Go Far to Get Much” is a Phrase Heard around Giles County, Tennessee. Since 2007, this has taken on a broad new meaning with the launch of a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network, which gives customers of the Pulaski Electric System (PES; Pulaski, Tennessee, U.S.) blazingly fast Internet access, high-definition video entertainment and high-quality digital phone service. PES is the municipal utility that owns and operates the FTTH network, is driving additional value from its fiber-optic network by using it as the communications backbone for a full range of Smart Grid applications.

Although many utilities are making the move to becoming broadband providers, PES is one of only a handful to simultaneously use its high-speed network as a way to shore up operational efficiencies, automate meter readings and backend utility processes, and engage customers in conservation.


Giles County is a resolutely rural community with an aggressive economic development plan, one that attracts people seeking a small town way of life, but is not lacking in modern conveniences. It is possible to see horses hitched outside the Pulaski Walmart on a Sunday afternoon. Yet major urban centers like Nashville, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama, are just an hour away along a highway that skirts forests overflowing with kudzu and farmland filled with rolls of golden hay.

Maintaining this balance is important to a community striving to provide a better place to live, work and raise a family. Pulaski's civic leaders decided to implement FTTH, because they understood that in today's economy, the difference between a robust future and a community in decline comes down to providing state-of-the-art communication services. This was not lost on PES, which provides power to 15,000 homes and businesses in town, a handful of outlying communities as well as hundreds of farms spread around the county.

PES faced an array of challenges common to many small public utilities. How would it ensure reliability in the face of aging distribution equipment? How would it keep costs competitive despite rising energy prices? How would it attract and empower a world-class pool of skilled workers? How would it operate within an increasingly complex regulatory environment? How would it help customers realize the benefits of conservation? The list goes on.

As Tennessee's oldest municipal electric system, and the first in the state to receive power from the Tennessee Valley Authority, PES has a long history of providing top-tier service through the use of the latest technologies. FTTH was a logical step for a city-owned utility that prides itself on being one of the most progressive in the state.

The timing could not have been more opportune. PES realized the inherent benefits of using the network for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and demand response while the FTTH project was in its early planning stage. It offered a two-birds-with-one-stone solution. A common infrastructure would give immediate cost advantages as well as save a bundle in ongoing network maintenance costs.

A fiber-optic network cleared the path for utility modernization by allowing the use a single network for triple-play media and Smart Grid applications, including automated meter reading, instant outage detection and continual power-quality monitoring. It also enabled the launch of demand-response programs that require rapid and reliable two-way communication between the utility and energy consumers, including opt-in load control and in-home signaling, so customers can easily see kilowatt-hour consumption status or current price levels.


At first, some people questioned why their utility planned to boldly branch out into broadband. By and large, though, residents encouraged the project, and the board of mayor and alderman voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with a city-owned FTTH. They realized what a boon it would be, for everybody from casual Web surfers to those who depend on a reliable, high-speed network for day-to-day business.

Clearly, the community saw that providing enhanced consumer services and supporting the commercial needs of broadband services went hand-in-hand with efforts to improve the quality of life in Pulaski. They also realized that few, if any, big-name providers would bite at a project that involved laying 130 miles (209 km) of fiber optics to connect a mere 5000 premises in Pulaski city proper. A deployment of this size would not be a justifiable priority for the “big boys.”

PES's position was that FTTH is really an extension of critical urban infrastructure. Much like municipalities build roads, sewers and electric systems to attract people and support businesses, high-speed connectivity — with bit rate speeds averaging 10 Mbps and topping 30 Mbps — is now an essential service. In today's terms, it ranks near the same degree of importance as did the development of the electric power grid in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s. The decision to build the FTTH network put PES among the new wave of municipal utilities, of which there are only about 50 currently in operation across the United States.

A municipally operated fiber network is not a new concept. Several cities were quick out of the gate in early 2000 with ambitious projects. Success was mixed as these early adopters ran headlong into technology, business and regulatory issues.

But a lot has changed recently. Fiber costs have come down, the technology has matured and the business model has become more viable now that municipal utilities, at least in Tennessee, can be both the wholesaler and retailer, or are free to pursue some kind of public-private partnership.


What sets Pulaski apart is that it leverages the high-speed FTTH network for its Smart Grid program, rather than using a separate AMI system. PES expects large savings and benefits. Although the project just got off the ground, PES anticipates power savings as a result of its newfound ability to detect and correct chronic system losses from theft and malfunctioning equipment through faster outage detection and restoration, and especially by eliminating hard-to-read rural routes.

In the near future, PES will be able to create programs to help customers increase their own energy efficiency, putting them in greater control of their bills and use of power. Individual energy savings alone can help offset a good portion of the US$99 monthly bundle package for phone, Internet and television services.

To date, the fiber network passes 5000 homes and businesses in Pulaski. Uptake is around 30% and fast approaching the payback point. But with concurrent use of the network for both triple-play services and smart metering, PES will more rapidly achieve a return on its investment.


PES chose the Tantalus Utility Network (TUNet) to serve as the two-way, real-time AMI network. TUNet is a hybrid network that includes wide area network/local area network (WAN/LAN)/home area network components. In the city of Pulaski, where all the fiber is deployed, a Tantalus data collector that plugs into the meter socket is connected to the FTTH network and serves as the WAN gateway.

Only the WAN collector needs to be physically connected to the FTTH. The rest of the TUNet smart meter endpoints communicate via 900 MHz, which form a self-configuring, self-healing mesh network. PES just replaces an existing meter with a smart meter that automatically connects itself to the network.

Data from a cluster of LAN endpoints is funneled through this central WAN collector. It gathers meter data from dozens of associated endpoints — including electric, water and gas meters, as well as load control modules — and relays information to the operations center over the fiber network. The data it delivers can be integrated into backend applications such as billing, outage management, forecasting and customer service.

The collector also transmits commands to individual or groups of TUNet LAN devices, allowing PES staff to read or query a specific meter remotely if, for instance, a customer calls to verify a bill or if power-quality issues need to be investigated. Smart meters enable PES to precisely monitor consumption and voltage blinks, sags and swells, as well as instantly detect outages and verify restorations. They also give control center staff the ability to read in/out new customers and troubleshoot problems from the operations center. Reporting parameters can be changed remotely, so performance metrics can be adjusted without a site visit.

In turn, each meter endpoint can serve as a gateway to the home. When the time is right, which is likely sooner rather than later, PES will be able to add smart thermostats (or in-home displays) to its demand-response efforts. Customers can then get up-to-the-minute notifications about consumption status and current kilowatt-hour energy costs, and receive signal when load control events are in effect. PES also can define different load-control packages so customer's can enroll in the program that best fits their lifestyle and budget goals.


What about the majority of customers in Giles County not on the FTTH network? The majority of PES customers live well beyond the Pulaski city limits. PES had to determine how those customers would get Smart Grid connectivity, as providing them with the same degree of service and reliability is a top priority.

One reason for implementing AMI came from the advantages gained by automating service to customers on the edges of the utility's service territory. Since PES operates more than 1200 miles (1931 km) of electric line in Giles County, eliminating truck rolls to remote farms and outlying communities would immediately remove high-cost reads and ensure that all customers receive the same high level of service, regardless of location.

Extending FTTH to far-flung communities and isolated farms is not practical at this time. For this reason, PES sought an AMI system that could operate in both wired and wireless worlds, and transition effectively as its system needs changed. Here, the Tantalus 220-MHz radio-frequency WAN was ideally suited. PES gets county-wide coverage from a single radio tower. This allows the utility to deploy smart meters at the farthest corners of its service territory and do so in a very quick and economical manner.

Rather than building out the network step by step, PES can set deployment priorities and place smart meters in hard-to-reach locations. Furthermore, the RF network provides redundancy and simple migration to the FTTH network, which can help guarantee the level of system reliability PES strives to achieve and manage its overall life-cycle costs. Although the AMI system operates in both fiber and RF environments, at the core it is a single network.

The FTTH and RF WAN collectors work in exactly the same way, the only difference is in how the data is transmitted back to the PES office. All data — incoming and outgoing messages, outage alerts and time-stamped reads — is processed and stored in a central TUNet server. The utility avoids the costs and complexities that would have resulted from maintaining two completely disparate networks and the computer systems, applications and skilled people needed to make them work.

PES chose TUNet because it is a communications network and application suite that addresses much more than metering. It will enable the utility to implement demand-response and energy-efficiency programs and in-home displays as needed and to whatever degree desired without having to start over or retool the entire network. This clears the path for adopting a full range of Smart Grid services and creating a distribution system where consumers and utilities play an active role in reducing both consumption and costs.


The Smart Grid program combined with FTTH creates a win-win situation for the utility and its customers. PES can immediately tighten operations and save money. Plus, the utility can offer advanced communications choices, the likes of which are rarely found outside of big cities. For most, the obvious impact of FTTH will be watching the University of Tennessee football games, for better rather than worse this season, on HDTV. But the opportunities it offers the Pulaski economy are virtually unlimited.

Businesses will be able to move large amounts of information at lightening speeds, securely and with unequalled reliability. This is an attractive proposition for residents who prefer to telecommute to jobs in Nashville, Huntsville or anywhere in the world.

The Smart Grid technology enables PES to bring long-term value to its customers by improving the utility's operational efficiency and allowing the utility and its customers to play an active role in reducing consumption together. This can go a long way toward offsetting the rising costs of energy and put Pulaski in the best position to meet its future economic and electricity needs.

Wes Kelley is executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Pulaski Electric System. He is responsible for customer service, billing, metering, marketing and information technology. Kelley has worked in public power for nearly 10 years in both Tennessee and Michigan.[email protected]

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