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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

An Elegant Solution, Ignored

Even though many of the stars and planets are difficult to see from downtown Glasgow through our man-made veil of street lights, enough of them are visible during my nightly dog-walking excursions to create a breathtaking display. However, of late it seems that each visible body in the heavens simply represents one of the problems we face as a society. There are thousands of personal crises, mine, yours, and our neighbor’s, to be represented yet only known by the individuals staggering under the weight of those problems. There are issues related only to our little community of Glasgow. There are statewide and regional problems to be assigned their own stars as well. Finally, there are nationwide and worldwide matters that also must be represented in our night sky. Taken all together, there are then thousands of stars in our night sky of issues.

As an engineer, it is impossible for me to look upon heavens full of problems without proposing a solution that might, at least, extinguish the glow of a large number of those troubles. Twenty years ago we proposed a grand solution to many of Glasgow’s problems when we started construction of the first municipally owned broadband network in the U.S. That solution has worked well for many of our problems in Glasgow, but now we dream of expanding upon what we have learned here to further enhance our network in Glasgow while solving problems for our state and our region.

Here is what we mean. Many of the problems in our present night sky are related to energy. The cost of electric power, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel are spiraling upward and that is impacting everything in our lives. TVA is increasing electric power rates and promising more of the same in the future as they struggle to build new generating plants to meet the growing demand for electric power. The numbers are staggering. They are about 2,000 megawatts short of the capacity they need right now to meet their demand ( a megawatt is equal to 1,000 kilowatts and the average home in Glasgow requires about 10 kilowatts of capacity, so, a megawatt would serve about 100 Glasgow homes). They are looking to nuclear power for the new generation units since the outlook for additional coal-fired generation is murky, at best. They project the cost of building new nuclear units at somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000 per kilowatt. So, by their own figures, the project expenditures of more than $18 billion over the next ten years to add the capacity they need.

At a recent meeting of TVA officials and the distributors of TVA power, these figures were discussed along with some preliminary plans for actually reducing our demand for electric power, I had an opportunity to compare what we know about building advanced broadband networks to the amount of money TVA is looking to spend over the next ten years on concrete, steel, and nuclear reactor vessels. The comparison ignited a blinding flash of inspiration in which I saw a single thread connecting many of our problems. That thread is a fiber optic cable and here is how I think it could solve our problems.

We are doing a test project in Glasgow wherein a portion of our old coaxial cable-based broadband plant is being converted to the latest fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) configuration. In a FTTH network, all the cable television, telephone, internet, and electric metering information coming to and from your home is carried via light waves. This means that the capacity and speed of the data traveling to and from the home is virtually unlimited. We think this is the be-all and end-all network configuration that will serve the homes connected to it for twenty, or more, years without fear of obsolescence. Further, our experience shows that this advanced network can be accomplished for about $2,000 per home connected. Keep that number in your head.

Now let’s return to TVA’s forecast of $2,000 to $4,000 per kilowatt for new nuclear generation capacity. In fact, to be abundantly conservative, let’s assume (and this is a very far reaching assumption for any TVA project) that they can build new capacity for $2,000 per kilowatt. That would mean that they are willing to pay the same thing per kilowatt of new capacity as we know it would cost to establish FTTH broadband to a home. If they are looking at spending $18 billion that same money would get FTTH to nine million homes. Curiously, that is about the total number of customers TVA serves over the seven state region. Stay with me on this.

If TVA had an unlimited capacity data connection to every home, they could use that connection to control thermostats on heating, air conditioning, water heating, freezers, refrigerators, washing machines, clothes dryers, dishwashers, etc. That sort of control would easily allow them to shave one, probably two, likely even three to four kilowatts of demand off of their peak demand. So, spending that money on broadband networks for every home and business in the Tennessee Valley region would likely double or triple the capacity improvement they are looking to get through building new nuclear plants! So, if they built FTTH instead of more reactor vessels, they would be increasing their net capacity by actually reducing demand during peak times. Since this same amount of money would double or triple the net capacity impact that they anticipate by simply building more units, they could actually shut down a filthy coal unit or two instead! There is no more earth friendly way to add capacity to an electric system than by acting to reduce demand. No new fuel is needed for this solution. No new operating costs are added. No future nuclear fuel disposal costs are added. This is the most “green” energy that exists. At the same time, everyone would get an advanced broadband connection with infinite capacity and speed for free! In addition, widespread use of broadband could have meaningful impact on the use of other fuels. More shopping on-line, more telecommuting, more movement of the message instead of the messenger would reduce other forms of energy consumption and all of these reductions would bring immediate benefits to the region.

What would our region look like with nine million homes connected to a robust FTTH network? Well, for starters employment would skyrocket. Folks would be needed in all sorts of manufacturing plants to make the cables, electronics, hardware, and software to provide all of the plant necessary to accomplish this undertaking. Scores of folks would go to work building the networks. Hundreds of cities and towns in our region connected with FTTH would also bring all sorts of new businesses. Major internet retailers would want to locate servers in our region to tap the wealth of bandwidth. With those businesses would come software and hardware engineers and the corresponding increased demand for an educated workforce. True, the construction of new nuclear plants would employ a lot of folks as well. But the FTTH solution would spread that employment across hundreds of cities and towns instead of one or two sites. In fact, the FTTH solution would more closely mimic the model of TVA itself as TVA would, once again, be extending the latest technology to every home and business throughout the multi-state region. TVA would be back in the business of democratizing technology – making it cheap and available to all. The heady days of the late 30's and 40's could return to our region.

Of course, this solution to so many of our problems would also create a few political problems. Very rich companies like AT&T and Comcast and other well entrenched monopolies would howl in protest. Those howls would be eerily reminiscent of the chorus of howls that private power companies offered up to Congress as Senator George Norris fought to create TVA in the first place. Private power companies were adamantly opposed to TVA building out electric power networks and replacing the private 12 cent kilowatt-hours with public 3 cent kilowatt-hours. Still, TVA was created and the history of electric power for all came with it.

But that was 1933 and we had leaders like George Norris, Franklin Roosevelt, David Lilienthal, and others who could care less if the rich ceased to get richer. In those days they saw the sky full of different problem-stars. They included an unruly Tennessee River, a depressed region of the United States, land that had been depleted of its agricultural value through greedy deforestation, short life spans due to back-breaking manual labor in the absence of electric power, and the need for a way to produce defense products through use of the natural resources of the region. They saw all of those problems and crafted an unusual solution aimed at making improvements in all of them. George Norris, who brought TVA into existence 75 years ago this April saw the democratization of technology through a government entity like TVA as a natural role of government. He convinced Franklin Roosevelt that one means by which democracy could combat the forces of entrenched and organized greed is through the use of government. “A government,” Norris said, “in the truest sense is only a method to bring to humanity the greatest amount of happiness.” It seems to me that TVA could bring happiness to nine millions homes more effectively with ubiquitous FTTH networks than with a few more nuclear reactors.

But George Norris is gone, and with him most of the leadership that might share this idea for a better method to solve our electric power, employment, development, and broadband network problems, and that is a shame. Shortly after having this vision we shared it with a couple of the members of the present TVA management team and their yawns were deafening. So, we seem to be headed toward a continuation of the present momentum to consume more than we have the capacity to provide and to saddle the people of the region with increasing debt and energy costs when there is such an elegant solution right in front of us. Still, when I look up into the sky tonight, I will still see that thread of possibility connecting the dots of so many of our problems and wonder why we fight so hard to keep the fires of discontent burning. I wonder what George Norris would have thought of this idea.


Geoff Daily said...

Tremendous article. Informative, technical, and poetic...not an easy task to achieve!

Love how this beats the drum for how broadband isn't just about economic development and creating new opportunities to use technology, it's about realizing huge savings in the new efficiencies that using these new technologies can bring.

If we invest money in fiber we can realize unbelievable savings in healthcare and energy.

We're not going to solve those problems just by cutting benefits and finding alternative energy sources. We need to find ways to make the systems themselves more efficient and to decrease demand for both.

And the best way to do that is through not just the deployment of broadband but the actual adoption and use of all the Internet has to offer.

John said...

Great piece!

I wonder if there is any chance that the TVA guys would cut a deal with you to do a demonstration in Glasgow?

The idea being for you to put in FTTH & electrical controls in your town and cut a deal between TVA and your community where your folks are rebated their share of the costs of nuclear in the form of lower rates if your households don't contribute to the peak demands that make that necessary.

Shouldn't be to hard to set up a fair system (but might be considerably harder to get them to accept it.)

A great idea you've go there at any rate.

Marc said...

Hi Billy,

Thanks for this interesting perspective. Actually, we in France are to deploy FTTH massively, starting next year.
As business dev. at the city of Pau, the largest FTTH in service to date in the country, I'm willing to share experiences on the "green" aspects of ultra-broadband networks. Your insights are pretty useful there, thanks !

Billy Ray said...

We are certainly open to TVA working with us to learn how FTTH could be exploited as a solution to their capacity shortage. We have been pleading with them to do so since we first started building broadband in 1988. But trying to tell an organization which is determined to solve all problems with concrete and steel that there is another way, and especially when that organization is afraid of upsetting the likes of AT&T, the opportunities tend to be ignored, but that is exactly what we need to be doing.

There is work to be done. While there is a fair amount of experience out there for solving peak demand issues by using a telecommunications medium to go out and turn off water heaters and other loads, I don't believe there is any experience with the idea of totally controlling loads. By that I mean using the robust bandwidth of FTTH to install temperature sensors in homes and businesses and advanced controls that would allow a master load management program to actually go out and tell certain loads to run...that would allow the utility to pre-heat or pre-cool homes and businesses when they have the capacity, combined with the weather forecast, so they can more easily coast through the peak temperature times. They could use assets this sort of capability like they use their pumped storage generation capability today to increase load factor through storage of BTU's at millions of homes and businesses instead of just at Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage. They should have been utilizing the opportunity to work with us on this concept over the last twenty years. But, alas, they have spent most of that time trying to keep other cities from replicating our project because they are afraid that some electric rate-payer money might get used to build broadband instead of electric power plant. What they are missing is that broadband IS electric power plant!