Without high speed internet, smart grid development lags behind in rural areas

Dive Brief:

  • Midwest Energy News reports rural cooperatives in some regions are seeing development of smar tgrid initiatives lag because homeowners often don't have a data connection.
  • But in some areas, cooperatives are solving the issue by offering internet service themselves. Of 25 rural cooperatives operating in Illinois, five offer broadband service.
  • Last month, regulators in Wisconsin regulators authorized almost $50 million to develop new Focus on Energy rural programs, with some funding going to exploring synergies to help expand broadband to
    underserved areas.

Dive Insight:

If you live in an urban area then high-speed internet access is likely a given. But last year, data from the Federal Communications Commission revealed almost 40% of rural Illinois communities don't have broadband access. 

This is a bottleneck for some cooperatives seeking to modernize their grid, because according to Midwest Energy News, virtually all of Illinois electric coop meters (98%) are smart meters. Several co-ops have now begun offering internet service, which has a cascade of benefits for the customer and utility.

In Wisconsin, the state is providing some funding for rural coops to examine the possibility of providing service. 

“It’s important to recognize the role that broadband can play in meeting the goals of Focus on Energy efficiently and fairly across Wisconsin. By coordinating efforts, we can also help ensure internet services reach rural Wisconsin sooner,” PSC Chair Ellen Nowak said in a statement last month. “Ratepayers in rural areas have been receiving less than they pay in to the program and deserve a catch-up.” 

The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin authorized up to $47.5 million in unallocated dollars to the Focus on Energy rural programs, including incorporating anaerobic digesters to make biogas, and exploring the synergies to help expand broadband to underserved areas. 

There have been questions about the legality of electric utilities providing broadband service. And the cost to install fiber optic cable is prohibitive. 

The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga installed a fiber optic network with the help up a  $111.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The utility's size, serving about 170,000, made the economics more feasible. But the utility now says it seems millions a year in savings and has been able to avert outages that would otherwise have cut power to tens of thousands of customers. But some states restrict the utility from expanding broadband services outside of their service territory, since it would put them in direct competition with telecom companies. 

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Filed Under: Technology
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