Talking Smart Grid In The Land Of Lincoln

Earlier this week, I participated in a joint hearing of the Illinois Senate and House Public Utilities Committees.  It was a packed house, full of people like me who had made the 3-hour trek from Chicago to Springfield, past vast corn fields and — I was excited to see — a large wind farm. The topic: a bill that would authorize the state’s largest electric utility, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), to spend at least $1.5 billion over the next ten years on “smart grid electric system upgrades.”  Of course, as with most utility investments, it’s the utility’s customers who will ultimately foot the bill.  So the crucial question of the day was, “What will ComEd’s customers get for their money?”

Our friends at the Illinois Citizens Utility Board, or CUB, asked EDF to testify at the hearing on “smart grid done right.”  We’ve done a lot of thinking on the subject, with experience engaging in smart grid policy and projects in California, Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere.  And we are working closely with CUB and other partners on a variety of smart grid-related projects in Illinois, including a look at the health and environmental impacts of ComEd’s smart meter pilot in the Chicago area.

The potential benefits of a smart grid are significant.  A smart grid will enable the use of a wealth of clean energy resources, including more energy efficiency, demand response, distributed generation, and renewable energy.  By doing so, a smart grid will reduce our need for dirty fossil fuel-powered plants, including the expensive peak power plants that run only a few hundred hours a year but are often close to urban centers.  A smart grid will also enable us to make the shift to electric vehicles, reducing our dependence on foreign oil imports and the damage to our economy when oil prices spike, as they have in recent days.  EDF believes that a well-designed smart grid can cut air pollution from the electric power sector by more than 30% and transportation by more than 25% by 2030.

Best of all, a well-designed smart grid will deliver all of these benefits while giving homeowners and businesses the power to manage their energy use and save money.  With easy-to-use tools—such as simple online displays of the information smart meters provide about use and prices, and set-and-forget home energy management tools—consumers will be able to make choices that lower bills and shrink their environmental footprint.

But a smart grid won’t deliver on that promise if the policy behind it doesn’t set the right goals from the get-go.  Smart grid policies must be designed with clear performance targets, metrics, and milestones – and utility compensation should be directly tied to their achievement.   Unfortunately, the draft bill now being debated by the Illinois General Assembly does none of this.  In fact, the only mention of energy efficiency I found in the language was a requirement that a new employee training facility be LEED certified!  ComEd’s President Anne Pramaggiore acknowledged as much in the hearing.  CUB, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and others raised similar concerns.  EDF will continue working with CUB and other Illinois allies to ensure these critical targets for energy efficiency and other environmental goals are included.

A smart grid requires smart policy.  The deployment of smart grid technologies and infrastructure has met with controversy in places where the policies (or sometimes, the lack thereof) have failed to place utility customers first.  Customers need access to information to make good choices about their energy use; without it, a “smart grid” won’t be so smart.  As Lincoln said, “Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.”  This is why it is critical that Illinois get the policy right from the start.  EDF is joining forces with CUB and the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition to host a smart grid briefing in April for Illinois legislators and others, to help make the smart grid a reality here.

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