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What's so smart about smart energy? (Ask Illinois)

Submitted by doug.peeples on May 4, 2017

Smart energy is about ensuring a safe, reliable, uninterrupted supply of power and doing it as sustainably as possible. City leaders considering energy network upgrades as part of their overall smart cities planning would do well to look at what the state of Illinois is doing with its smart grid project. Yes, smart grids are expensive and buildouts are time-consuming. But as the story below explains, the benefits to citizens, businesses and the local economy are significant. — Doug Peeples

Five years ago Illinois legislators revamped the utility rate structure and told the state's major utilities ComEd and Ameren Illinois that they needed to dramatically overhaul the aging the electric grid serving the state.

In a report ComEd filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission in April, the utility said it was on schedule and that some of its larger smart grid projects would be completed in June. And so far, the utility said, completed improvements have prevented 7.6 million outages since the project began in 2012 — and that the grid's enhanced reliability and outage reduction were responsible for $1.4 billion in savings to society.

The legislative mandate authorized ComEd to invest $2.6 billion over 10 years to build a modern, reliable electric grid. Since the fast-tracked project began in 2012 ComEd, Ameren Illinois and rural electric cooperatives have installed thousands of smart switches and sensors able to instantly re-route power around problems such as equipment failure and other damage that otherwise would have caused an outage.

The two utilities have installed about three million smart meters, replaced thousands of miles of overhead cable and underground residential cable and added other technologies to enhance grid performance. Council Lead Partners S&C Electric and Schneider Electric and Associate Partners have been working as technology partners on the project.

"The smart grid program investments are delivering remarkable results for our customers and our economy," ComEd President and CEO Anna Pramaggiore said in a statement. "These investments, along with our unrelenting focus on providing exceptional customer service have led to [the] best reliability on record, with the fewest and shortest power outages ever experienced by ComEd customers. The smart grid program also has supported thousands of jobs and development in our communities."

ComEd also has said it is increasing its renewable energy portfolio and expanding its demand response and energy efficiency programs. Ameren Illinois has taken a similar approach. The company built the state's largest investor-owned solar power plant and also invests in wind and other renewable energy sources.

Additional benefits for consumers
The project is intended improve power delivery to consumers, and also to give them tools to help them manage their energy use. The installation of smart meters also makes it possible for the utilities to offer alternative pricing options that reward consumers willing to cut back on their electricity use during peak demand periods.

ComEd and Ameren also have been able to keep power bills relatively low. ComEd is asking for a rate increase that would add about a dollar to the average monthly residential power bill of $80. Granted, energy prices have dropped in the past few years. But what's probably most important for consumers is that average monthly bill is what they were paying in 2011. And Ameren Illinois is asking for a rate decrease (its second consecutive request) that will shave about $1.70 off a typical residential power bill.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.