The legislature this week is preparing to hand ComEd more time and money to invest in its smart grid rollout although it is too soon to know whether upgrades made so far are paying off for businesses and consumers.
The utility promised that operational savings from the smart grid and in-home devices connected to the network would ultimately save consumers money by giving them more control over their electricity use.
Commonwealth Edison has provided some information on overall grid upgrades. But no information is available yet about how new smart meters are benefiting consumers, a requirement under the 2011 law that allowed ComEd to proceed with the grid update.
David Kolata, executive director of the Chicago-based consumer advocacy group Citizens Utility Board, said lawmakers should have waited to see how the program is performing before acting on the legislation.
"We don't necessarily have the metrics yet, the reports yet to know how well it is working," Kolata said. "We don't see the need to do this."
Yet legislation, which has already passed the House in this week's veto session, is being pushed by Downstate utility Ameren and supported by ComEd. The legislation would extend by two years the date utilities were to check in with the legislature on the program's progress before they could proceed further. Tuesday afternoon the legislation passed the Senate executive committee and was forwarded to the Senate.
About $784 million has been spent on the 10-year $2.6 billion ComEd program, according to a filing with regulators. The extension means ComEd can continue to spend rate-payer money on the program without legislative interference.
The extension also is important because it guarantees that ComEd can continue to hike rates according to a formula which gives the utility faster and more frequent returns for investing in a smart grid until 2019. The legislation is an amendment to House Bill 3975.
For its part, ComEd said it believes the program is "producing tangible positive results" but won't be filing information about how it is meeting several performance metrics until 2015, after it has a "full year of smart meter data."
At the same time, several programs aimed at supporting and developing new businesses that would tie into the smart grid remain in their infancy.
In selling the legislature on the formula-based rate system in October 2011, ComEd pledged to digitize the electrical grid in an initiative that would lower costs and give consumers more control over their bills.
"Illinois' grid modernization law is a promise of value made to Illinois consumers," Anne Pramaggiore, ComEd president and then chief operating officer said at the time. "These performance metrics hold ComEd financially accountable to deliver on that promise."
The reason ComEd won't report on the progress of those promises until 2015 is because it battled with regulators over how it should be paid for the program. That delayed the smart meter rollout.
The metrics, annual goals that the utility will be graded on, are subject to approval by the Illinois Commerce Commission and include a requirement that ComEd eliminate estimated billing by 90 percent, eliminate consumption by inactive meters (electricity for which there is no customer to bill an expense that all ComEd customers pay) by 90 percent, eliminate energy theft by 50 percent and reduce bad debt and unpaid bills by $30 million.
ComEd said that information will be filed with the ICC in 2015, once it has a "full year of smart meter data."
ComEd plans to be finished with the smart grid investments in 2018, according to regulatory filings, but ComEd must continue to report on its performance even after that date to keep the formula rate.
ComEd said it believes the program is working as intended.
"From a ComEd perspective, we are seeing the benefits," said Tom O'Neill, senior vice president of regulatory and energy policy and general counsel. "There was some delay in getting going, but we as a company have worked hard to move ahead and we did accelerate smart meter deployment."
Through October, ComEd said grid modernization has helped avoid more than 1 million outages and reduced the frequency of outages by 19 percent.
ComEd said hardening lines and wires, which makes them more resistant to downed tree limbs and contact with animals, has reduced restoration times by 30 percent.
Other smart grid initiatives are still being tested.
For instance, three years after the smart grid legislation passed, ComEd is just starting to see companies begin to test smart technology on its "Smart Grid Test Bed," a portion of its system that has been outfitted with smart meters.
Source: Chicago Tribune
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