Utility executives from three private companies have come to an agreement that will expand broadband and smart grid services to Vermonters – thanks to several large dollops of federal stimulus funding.
Gov. Peter Shumlin hailed the agreement on Wednesday and described it as an “unprecedented (level of) cooperation.” The marriage of smart grid and broadband technology, he said, will increase electric reliability, improve broadband access, help utilities gauge demand and renewable capacity and enable the state to accommodate the power needed for electric vehicles.
The “operational agreement” between Vermont Telephone Company, or VTel, Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service solidifies a new collaborative effort based on implementation of wireless technology. The deal, which was announced in a press conference in Essex, is a financial and market share win-win for all three companies. VTel will receive an additional $6.2 million from the two electric utilities to build 4G LTE wireless towers in remote parts of the state that don’t currently receive Internet access; the utilities will get complete coverage in the difficult to serve “middle mile” or most rural pockets of the state.
Karen Marshall, the head of ConnectVT, helped to forge the partnership between the three entities. Vermont will be the first to use 4G LTE towers to implement smart grid technology.
“We’re combining two disparate worlds,” Marshall said. “The greater expansion of the Wireless Open World project (4G towers) will benefit smart meters and all Vermonters. It will bring more broadband to more Vermonters.”
Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, said it didn’t make sense for utilities to build a separate, self-contained communication system for the smart grid project at a much greater cost.
The question the utilities asked, Powell said, was: “How do we deliver twice as much for Vermonters?” The answer? “You get a lot more through collaboration than through competition,” Powell said. “You get tremendous leverage through collaboration.”
By rolling out broadband infrastructure in collaboration with VTel, electric utilities will be amping up VTel’s wireless broadband expansion by 20 percent to 25 percent, according to Brian Otley, chief operating officer for Green Mountain Power, as part of a large-scale deployment of smart grid technology. The smart grid project also includes the installation of 250,000 high tech meters in Vermont households that will automatically collect detailed information about household or business usage habits. Consumers can use this data to better control their energy costs.
Michel Guite, CEO of VTel, said the Vermont project will be using cutting edge technology that is unique in the United States and is of an international caliber. “I wish I could say this was our idea,” Guite said. “The cutting edge of innovation came from the utilities and the governor’s office. I’m proud they brought us into it.”
Though smart grid technology has been introduced in California and other states, Vermont’s largest utilities will be the first to rely on a “wireless canopy” to implement the system.
The mutually beneficial arrangement also gives VTel access to competitive, denser markets. Brian Otley, chief operating officer of GMP, said the joint effort would result in VTel selling services in larger Chittenden County communities and opening up competition between VTel, Verizon and AT&T.
VTel’s $135 million project to expand broadband to under- and unserved rural areas of Vermont is slated for completion in 2013.
Guite wouldn’t say how many new households his company has extended service to so far; the project he said is still in the permitting phase. “We’re ahead of schedule,” he said. Construction will begin in the next several months. VTel is seeking permits for about 100 towers right now, he said.
Shumlin defended VTel’s progress on the broadband expansion. “We’re going to have a heck of a lot coming in the next 18 to 24 months,” he said.
About $138 million is available for smart grid deployment. The federal government has given Vermont about half that amount for the project; the rest is coming from the electric utilities. The meters represent 70 percent of the total cost of the smart grid roll out, according to officials.
Once the network is built, VTel will charge Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service a total of $10,000 a month to access data across the VTel network, according to Otley, the COO of GMP.
The smart grid system will enable the electric utilities to detect the epicenter of power outages within minutes. The power companies will also be better able to optimize power on the grid, particularly renewable energy.