By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Almost anytime state and non-urban economic development people gather in Tennessee and, for that matter, many other states, there is a consistent topic at the top of everyone’s agenda. It’s the plight and future of rural communities.
That’s certainly the case in the Volunteer State as evidenced by the amount of emphasis on the subject from the outgoing administration of Governor Bill Haslam with initiatives such as the strategic plan developed by the Governor’s Rural Task Force and the funding to implement the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act.
Now, with the first of what planners hope will be several tranches of funding, there’s an initiative underway in rural parts of East Tennessee to enhance opportunities for entrepreneurs who cannot relocate to urban communities.
“We’ve worked on this a couple of years,” Jeff Brown, Executive Director and President of The Biz Foundry in Cookeville, said in describing a $1.5 million grant under the Appalachian Regional Commission’s (ARC) POWER initiative. The acronym stands for “Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization,” and the entrepreneur center that Brown leads is one of the partners in the overall initiative, joined by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC).
The official recipient of the grant, one of 35 awards ARC made that total $26.5 million, is Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC), one of the nation’s largest rural electric systems with 115,000 customers in a 17-county region. It is based in Decatur in Meigs County, one of the state’s more rural counties, and serves communities from the Georgia to Kentucky borders.
“VEC had pursued ARC funding in the past without success,” Brown explained. In the latest application, the partners sought $4.5 million, but only received a third of the request. “We hope to reapply for funding in the next round.”
So, how’s the grant going to help rural economic and entrepreneurial development? Brown explains that it is a combination of general programming and a specific technology opportunity. Both The Biz Foundry and KEC provide educational workshops and services geared to entrepreneurs in rural areas, and those will be expanded as part of the program.
The real driver, however, is funding that will support opportunities for entrepreneurs in rural areas around the smart grid.
“VEC will install the latest smart meters on about 500 homes and businesses in several rural communities,” Brown explained. The majority of the cost is for the installation of fiber which will enable the function of the smart meters that will provide benefits to VEC, consumers, and entrepreneurs.
The deployment of fiber optic broadband and smart grid technology will improve real time management of power supply and demand. That’s a benefit both to VEC, which has to manage peak demand needs, and consumers who can save on their energy bills by being smarter users of electricity. However, as demonstrated in Chattanooga with the fiber optic network that EPB deployed and the recently announced “Chattanooga Smart Community Collaborative,” there are significant opportunities created as a result of the massive amount of data that is collected by these devices.
Brown poses this question: “What could entrepreneurs in these rural communities do with the data that is being collected?” His answer is to develop apps and technologies for the rapidly growing and evolving Internet of Things (IoT) that would allow new businesses to start and hire people in those communities.
While the data will be available and The Biz Foundry and KEC can offer programming to help entrepreneurs with everything from business plan development to the identification of funding paths, there is one additional key element that has to be present.
“Electric utilities will not allow new devices to be installed on their grid until they have been fully tested and vetted,” Brown says. So, $500,000 of the grant funding is earmarked to Lincoln Labs at MIT to build a grid simulator. It will be housed at the VEC headquarters where entrepreneurs can test devices and apps without being on the grid.
“This is a priceless asset for the entrepreneurs,” Brown says, adding in his always enthusiastic tone, “It’s really cool how we’ve done this, but it’s also very ambitious.”
Other organizations that he credits for support and assistance include the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the Upper Cumberland Development District.