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BrightRidge gets into broadband, solar services

Robert Houk • Mar 16, 2019 at 8:38 PM

BrightRidge CEO Jeff Dykes says its has been been a transformational year for BrightRidge.

The public utility has launched the first phase of its eight-year $64 million broadband plan that will connect 3,847 homes and 373 businesses in Johnson City.

BrightRidge has also expanded into solar energy. The utility has partnered with Nashville-based Silicon Ranch and the Tennessee Valley Authority on a 40-acre solar power farm in Washington County. The facility, which was completed in December, is the first public/private project of its type in Northeast Tennessee.

In responding to questions from the Press, Dykes said both moves allow BrightRidge to better position itself for the future.

How does broadband fit into the utility's long-range business plan?

High-quality, affordable electric service has powered the economies of successful communities for more than a century. Similarly, high-speed redundant internet connectivity is equally important today for healthy community growth and development.

Consumers are seeking options and competitiveness for their internet needs, so it makes perfect sense that local public power providers respond to customers. Our ability to offer products at the same great service level they currently receive with our electric service is what we believe sets us apart. With BrightRidge Broadband, we are pleased to be elevating our region as one of only a handful of communities nationwide to offer 10Gb symmetrical broadband services.

Based on the demand we’re seeing at this early stage of deployment, it appears the market agrees competition is desired. Just by the existence of options in the broadband marketplace, residents will see lower pricing for internet and related services through competition.

And thanks to the intense study and work of our board of directors, we have developed a conservative eight-year phased approach that generates part of the capital necessary to build out the system while lowering overall debt necessary to construct the network.

While conservative in deployment, BrightRidge will be able to offer fiber-based broadband to more than 4,000 homes and businesses in the first year of deployment, and high-speed fixed wireless broadband to 2,400 customers who are currently underserved in the Fall Branch, Gray, Jonesborough and Telford areas.

Why solar, and how does it fit into the utility's business plan?

While solar and distributed generation holds great promise in adding a clean energy component to our economy, it also comes with deployment and maintenance costs that many business and citizens cannot afford.

We believe that everyone should have an opportunity to access and support clean energy, and by building a solar community, we provide our residents and businesses with a cost-effective way to participate without bearing the deployment and maintenance costs on an individual basis.

In working with Silicon Ranch as it developed its five-megawatt solar farm in the Telford area, the company agreed to provide BrightRidge with 500kw annually in exchange for our support in Tennessee Valley Authority’s Distributed Solar Solutions program.

This allocation has been split with 300 kW of capacity available to residential customers and 200 kW available for commercial customers. These products are sold on a 20-year lease or month-to-month basis, and customers who participate will realize a return on their investment over that 20-year period.

From a business standpoint this makes perfect sense; BrightRidge supporting the community solar model as the only true way to ensure all segments of our community can afford to participate in the benefits of clean energy.

How do ratepayers benefit from BrightRidge's diversification into these areas?

Throughout the TVA, electric utilization is flat or falling as energy efficient consumer products proliferate throughout homes and businesses. Every new heating and air system, every new light bulb, and every consumer electric device sold today is more efficient than the products they replaced.

At the same time, BrightRidge is a public, nonprofit subdivision of the state, with a duty to help businesses and homeowners alike better manage their bills and reduce usage wherever we can. BrightRidge staffs an energy services division to help achieve these goals.

And on the horizon is the reality of distributed generation, where customers can generate and store at least a portion of their own energy needs through solar panels. This is supported by the growing home battery storage industry. And on the leading edge, efforts are underway to harness block chain technology and possibly even create virtual power plants by linking the batteries in parked electric cars.

Traditional retail electric distribution businesses, like BrightRidge, face these headwinds as well as rising costs for wholesale electricity. Our provider, TVA, faces enormous fixed costs to maintain electricity generation capacity to meet any peak demand, even if average sales volumes do not support the cost of maintaining that capacity. This translates overall to higher wholesale energy costs for the local electric retailer.

Meanwhile, BrightRidge itself faces significant fixed and capital costs necessary to maintain service 100 percent of the time no matter the size of the peak required. These fixed costs will not shrink even with lower overall utilization.

If we are to continue to support first-rate infrastructure and service, BrightRidge and other public power providers must find new revenue streams by leveraging existing assets, such as the 180-mile fiber-optic network already in place that provides connectivity and control to our 30 electric substations. We must also look to scale electric division operations when those opportunities occur.

What do you think is important for customers to know about the future of BrightRidge?

By adopting a much more flexible Energy Authority business structure in 2017, BrightRidge stands ready to adapt and evolve as technology continues to drive marketplace disruption within the electric business. BrightRidge will continue to look at innovative ways to provide customers with new technology (that) can allow them to determine how they use energy.

We exist as a public, nonprofit company to continue doing what we have done since 1945 — providing reliable, affordable electric power to drive the regional economy and spark essential economic development for all the citizens of our service area.

Whether electricity, broadband, solar or future products, we aim to deliver products that support and enhance the economic competitiveness of our community, while saving our customers significantly on price. BrightRidge is looking to be on the forefront, offering our customers new products and services as we move to the future.

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