Getting the Smart Grid Right

You’ve probably seen or heard the ads from Commonwealth Edison supporting the “smart grid”, and their proposal for how to pay for it.   In an attempt to pass legislation authorizing automatic increases in our electric bills to pay for the work, ComEd is pulling out all the stops.

We do need to invest in our electric grid.  Our current electric infrastructure was built around old, dirty energy sources of the past.   Old equipment wastes energy as it loses power on its way to your house, and conventional electric meters don’t give you the information you need to be the smartest energy consumer you can be.   The old grid won’t deliver the clean energy future we all want and need to create jobs in the new energy economy, clean the air, and solve global climate change.  So ComEd is right that the time is right for smart grid, but their proposal (House Bill 14 in Illinois’ General Assembly) misses the mark.

A truly “smart” grid will not just upgrade old wires and meters.   It will also include a policy overhaul to make sure that the new grid is fully open to renewable energy, like solar, wind, and geothermal energy.   Illinois has gained over 10,000 jobs in clean energy – mostly in large-scale wind and solar energy projects in rural parts of our state.   Small-scale renewable energy, such as rooftop solar or wind projects, offer an opportunity to create at least that many jobs in all parts of Illinois, but existing barriers have constrained the growth of these industries.   Up to now, ComEd’s strong opposition has blocked crews of electricians, laborers, and other workers from turning our large rooftops into clean energy sources.

Two proposals to remove these barriers include House Bill 1913 (May), which would allow large rooftop owners to benefit from installing renewable energy by crediting their electric bill with any power they generate; and House Bill 1943 (Williams), which would require a portion of the clean energy sold to Illinois ratepayers to come from rooftop projects.   Together, these proposals will bring the clean energy economy benefits that many rural areas are now seeing into our cities and suburbs.  Any large rooftop – think a big box store, office park, warehouse, etc. – could be a small solar plant, contributing pollution-free electrons to the grid, making it more stable and resilient to price spikes in fossil fuels.   With unemployment among building tradesmen and women above 30% and even 40% in some areas, unleashing rooftop renewables is a great way to quickly create jobs when we need them most.

Updating the grid will cost money, but done right, we can also make sure that it saves money.   Maximizing our energy conservation programs are a permanent consumer protection, allowing residential and business customers to cut bills by deploying the best energy saving technologies.    House Bills 1422 and 3055 (Nekritz) are two different strategies for protecting consumers through energy efficiency upgrades.   HB 1422 would allow companies that can reduce energy use to compete with those who produce energy to supply our power needs.   HB 3055 would remove existing constraints on how much utilities are allowed to spend to help you save energy.  These two approaches work together to ensure that Illinois electric customers receive the full potential bill-lowering benefits of energy efficiency.    Instead of an automatic rate hike, these conservation proposals offer the gifts that keep on giving – permanent cuts in bills of the future.

ComEd’s proposal ignores these timely solutions.  Governor Quinn this week announced that he would veto House Bill 14, and instead called for a comprehensive energy policy that prioritizes energy efficiency and renewable power.   Quinn is right on the mark – the process of modernizing Illinois’ electric grid offers a tremendous opportunity to create clean energy jobs, save energy, and reduce pollution.     Quinn also wants to make sure the grid of the future is ready for electric vehicles, so that the plug-in cars that will start to arrive in showrooms this year will work for all who choose them – whether you park in a garage, on the street, or you’re buying a fleet for your company.

Now is the time, when the General Assembly will consider how to pay for modernizing the grid, to remove the last century’s barriers to the clean energy economy of the future.    Join us in telling your state legislator to make sure that we get the smart grid right.

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