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Emma Dutton and Gretchen Roecker/MEDILL

Chicago-based S&C Electric Company opened a Smart Grid Demonstration Center in September. The center is not open to the public, but you can take a video tour of a working smart grid with guide Mike Edmonds, vice president of strategic solutions.

Illinois electricity IQ charges ahead. Next stop - smart grid

by Emma Dutton and Gretchen Roecker
Nov 30, 2011

Electric grid

Emma Dutton/MEDILL

The electric network that has served Illinois for more than a century is poised to catch up with the digital age. Wires will still crisscross the landscape, but smarter communication technologies will transform the electricity flow and prevent outages.

Smart grid definitions 2

Emma Dutton/MEDILL

One of the central questions in the smart grid revolution is how to define the digital system, and different stakeholders give different answers.


Emma Dutton/MEDILL

Almost half of the electricity generated in Illinois comes from coal-fired power plants. Smart grid proponents say a modernized electric system could partially replace the state's reliance on fossil fuels with wind, solar and other renewable power sources.

Energy mix chart3

Gretchen Roecker/MEDILL. Source: Illinois Commerce Commission.

Since 1997, companies providing power to Illinois customers have been required to disclose information about their energy source mixes. They also have to report the average amount of greenhouse gas emissions created from their mix. Emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide from these dozen companies average about 1,200 pounds per thousand kilowatt hours. According to the California Energy Commission's 2010 Energy Almanac, a typical Illinois consumer uses about 11,250 kilowatt hours of electricity each year - creating 13,500 pounds, or about six metric tons, of greenhouse gas emissions per person annually from electricity use.

Emissions cuts from smart grid

Gretchen Roecker/MEDILL. Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

A 2010 report from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimated the potential annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions if the United States fully implemented a nationwide smart grid by 2030. Smart grid technologies can help cut emissions by making appliances more efficient, limiting peak-time energy use, and increasing capacity for electric vehicles and renewable resources such as wind and solar.

EV charging station1

Gretchen Roecker/MEDILL

At least 200 electric vehicle charging stations have been installed in Illinois so far, with more on the way. Over half of those are in Chicago, including two in the Government Center Self-Park Garage in the Loop. As additional plug-in vehicles roll onto the roads, smart grid technology could help smooth out the spikes in demand for electricity for car batteries.

Gretchen Roecker/MEDILL

View Illinois Smart Grid in a larger map

Companies and communities across Illinois are leading innovative smart grid projects. Click on the icons to learn how people from rural Winchester to downtown Chicago are taking part in the transition to a 21st century electricity system.

In the nearly 120 years since Thomas Edison and other electricity titans showed off illuminating exhibits at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, rotary phones have morphed into mobile mini-computers, phonographs into iPods. But the electric grid that powers those devices remains more or less an antique.

“If Alexander Graham Bell was transported to today and you showed him your smart phone, he wouldn’t know what you were talking about,” said Mike McMahan, vice president of smart grid and technology at Commonwealth Edison. “If Thomas Edison was transported to today, he wouldn’t be surprised by what he saw,” in terms of generating and distributing electricity.

Now, a high-voltage version of the global movement to update the electric grid is lighting up in Illinois. The new digital systems - “smart grids” - allow rapid communication between energy producers, consumers and electric hardware to efficiently compensate for growing demand, but require thorough analysis of benefits and problems for all stakeholders.

At least 44 states currently have a smart grid pilot program, with California and Texas leading the pack since the early 2000s. With $68.9 million for system upgrades from the 2009 American Recovery Reinvestment Act and a new state law approved in October, Illinois is joining the revolution.

“We have an analog grid in a digital age,” McMahan said. “The fact that we have to send somebody out to the side of your house to look at your electric meter and you don’t know how much electricity you’ve used until we send you the bill, that’s ridiculous. It’s time for a change.”

Global electricity demand is expected to double in the next 20 years. Illinois power demands will remain relatively stable but the aging system still needs an upgrade. A University of Illinois at Chicago report estimates that the state electric grid will have to support at least a 1.3 percent increase in local consumption by 2025, as well as growing demands from other parts of the Midwest that depend on exported electricity.

Hot summers and freezing winters stress out energy networks, and experts say a smart grid in an extreme season state such as Illinois could be model for other locales. A combination of outdated power plants and plentiful renewable resources prime Illinois for grid modernization, said Joshua Milberg, a consultant who works with the Environmental Defense Fund on smart grid strategies in the Midwest.

"Our infrastructure needs to be upgraded, so why not to the newest and best technology?” Milberg said.

Regulating the digital age
The ink is barely dry on Illinois’ Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, which became law October 26 when state senators overrode Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto based on consumer concerns. The act allows the state's two main utility companies, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois, to raise rates to fund a combined $3.2 billion in grid upgrades over the next decade. To pay for the changes, yearly charges will increase by about $36 for ComEd customers and $3.40 for Ameren customers.

Planned infrastructure upgrades might not be obvious to onlookers - electric wires, poles and manhole covers will retain their familiar shapes. The real transformations take place under the grid’s proverbial hood, as a high-speed communication network weaves together users, electricity-storing sub-stations, large-scale generators and utilities. To start, ComEd plans to distribute “smart meters” throughout its service territory over the next decade, beginning in the areas most vulnerable to outages.

Unlike their analog ancestors, digital meters send wireless signals that allow a utility to monitor electricity use and remotely solve outages and other problems. But such communication devices pose potential complications, critics warn.

In addition to being vulnerable to cyber-attack, a digital system that tracks energy use could reveal personal information, said Richard Sobel, a Northwestern University visiting scholar who specializes in civil liberties and security.

In 2010, the National Institute for Standards and Technology published guidelines for smart grid security and privacy. But without policies for data ownership, information about how often someone plugs in a computer or leaves home could be misused, Sobel said.

"It's a question of how information can be used to benefit individuals versus governments or corporate entities,” he said.

Rate hikes are another concern. Until now, the Illinois Commerce Commission has considered companies’ requests for rate increases through a lengthy process every few years. Under the new law, those requests will be reviewed annually and approved increases will take effect each January 1, giving ComEd and Ameren more opportunities to change prices.

The nonprofit Chicago-based Citizens Utility Board opposed the legislation’s rate hikes and lack of consumer protection measures, but board communications director Jim Chilsen said his organization is helping secure the public’s role in the transition.

“Our goal is to get involved in the process as much as possible to make sure that consumers get the maximum benefits from building a smart grid,” Chilsen said.

Increased reliability and efficiency
Smart grid technologies can identify and automatically isolate faults, re-routing electricity to drastically limit power outages. Once deployed, a digital system could link different energy sources around the state, creating an energy mix capable of supplying electricity in emergencies. In Illinois, such links could also reduce reliance on the state's coal-burning plants by increasing capacity for renewable sources.

Many of the potential perks of a smart grid depend on consumers to respond, either by changing their energy habits or by investing in gadgets that will adapt on their behalf.

Generating that response could be a challenge. The bill stipulates that ComEd and Ameren must pay for consumer education, but any effort has to tackle a serious hurdle: apathy about what goes on behind the outlet.

“We’ve been habituated over the past 105 years to having 120-volt service in our homes. I flip the switch, the light goes on, and I don’t think about it,” said Lynne Kiesling, a smart grid economics expert at Northwestern University.

The apathy is partially a result of flat rate pricing, a scheme in which utilities charge the same rate for power at noon and at midnight. In reality, electricity is most expensive to deliver when demand is highest, especially on the hottest days of the year when coal-fired plants kick on to avoid blackouts. Hourly prices for customers in Ameren's Power Smart Pricing program, for example, range from less than three cents before dawn to more than 11 cents on sweltering summer afternoons.

Smart meters and in-home displays showing real-time prices could change the way people think about electricity. People could delay washing clothes until evening price rates kick in or invest in new appliances that communicate with the grid directly and make that decision automatically. 

“We see this being about empowering the consumer,” said electricity expert John Kelly, of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Consumers can override smart appliances at any time, but they can also program these dishwashers or air conditioners to run when power is cheapest.

Testing the benefits
Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal and other non-renewable fuel sources add an incentive to rev up the state’s smart grid engine. Illinois has the fourth largest carbon footprint from fossil fuels in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2007, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich set a goal to cut statewide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but the push for cleaner energy in Illinois isn’t just government-driven.

Kelly, executive director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative, helps oversee the Perfect Power System at IIT, an on-site smart grid pilot that includes clean power generation. The initiative is a smart grid advocacy group that brings together experts nationwide. 

State law allows alternative energy providers to compete with Ameren and ComEd.

“Consumers are asking for competitive, low- or no-carbon, highly efficient power,” he said. “What we’re finding in those programs is that clean power is competitive.”

In a process called community choice aggregation, residents of Chicago suburb Oak Park voted in October to merge their electricity accounts, allowing the town to bid for lower energy rates. In addition to slashing electricity costs by one-fourth, the move made Oak Park the first community in Illinois to switch to a completely renewable energy supply from Chicago’s Integrys Energy Services.

“Most people just pay their bills and don’t worry about how much they used,” said K.C. Poulos, the town’s sustainability manager. “But if you can give an example like Oak Park, which is saving people 25 percent on bills, and which demands and receives 100 percent renewables, they’re going to pay attention.”

Scientific frontiers
Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont work to make renewable power more accessible. Even with more affordable hardware, renewable power won't get far on the current grid, solar panel researcher Seth Darling said. Wind and sunlight are highly variable resources with fluctuating supply throughout the day.

"Variations become a bigger concern as we ramp up more renewables," he said. "We need a grid that can accommodate those."

Whether or not smart grids and renewable energy technologies will spur each other’s growth remains to be seen, Darling said. But more electricity from variable wind and sunlight will have to flow through the network in order to meet the state mandate to generate at least 25 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2025.

To reap the full potential from variable renewable sources, grids will have to connect to stores of surplus electricity to fill in gaps on cloudy or windless days. Without a digital grid capable of integrating renewables, the extra electricity would have to come from traditional fossil fuel-fired plants, said Darling’s colleague Guenter Conzelmann, director of Argonne’s Center for Energy, Environmental, and Economic Systems Analysis.

"If I want to have a lot of clean energy, mostly wind and solar, and I want it at a reasonable cost, I think a smarter grid is almost like a necessity," he said.

Rolling forward: Electric vehicles and the grid

One of the key opportunities to store renewable power comes on four wheels: Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. In Illinois, drivers currently have access to more than 200 charging stations, including some in downtown parking garages. President Obama plans to put at least one million hybrid-electrics on the road by 2015, further increasing national electricity demand.

Smart grids could lead to a system where consumers can sell unused electricity from car batteries or rooftop solar panels back to the utility, economist Kiesling said.

“It’s like E-bay,” she said. “You, as an electric vehicle owner, can be both a buyer and seller.”

But current energy-storing batteries push up the price of hybrids. A new Chevrolet Volt lists at more than $40,000. Ann Schlenker, of Argonne’s Center for Transportation Research, tests Volts and other hybrids to help engineers build more affordable batteries.

Without a smart grid, Schlenker said, hybrid drivers plugging in their vehicles as they get home from work, when power demand is already high, could overwhelm the system. But with digital links between car equipment and the grid, charging time could be automatically delayed until off-peak hours.

"Our vision is that with smart electric vehicle supply equipment, we actually can plug in at 5 p.m. and not really start the charge until the demand is lower," she said.

Old wisdom for a new era
From fewer outages to cleaner power sources, Illinois’ smart grid could yield rewards for companies and customers alike. But even with a new law and a lively conversation pushing the grid forward, questions about the full capabilities and potential drawbacks of a smarter system linger.

While Illinois waits for widespread smart meters and affordable electric cars, Chilsen and colleagues at the Citizens Utility Board continue to lay the groundwork to make people active participants in the shift to a smarter network.

“At its core, energy efficiency is what our parents taught us when we were kids: ‘Turn off the lights,’” Chilsen said. “Now we’re on the verge of getting new high-tech tools to help us follow that age-old wisdom."