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Akst: The grid is living off you

Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

It would cost about only $4.80 to $6 extra next year (less than two lattes) for most consumers; in exchange, we’ll get a smart(er) power grid. Sweet.

That’s what ComEd wants you to think in its request to up your electricity bill (well, not the latte part; that was me). Rate increases would affect consumers regardless of which company supplies their electricity because ComEd delivers it.

My gripe: We should have had a flexible, reliable, “smart” power grid years ago.

In late April, ComEd submitted a progress report to the Illinois Commerce Commission regarding the first year of the smart grid program. The report lists the installation of nearly 500 “distribution automation” devices.

In a news release, ComEd said distribution automation devices reroute power around potential problem areas, “often with no noticeable interruption in service.” ComEd says the devices resulted in 82,000 fewer customer power interruptions last year. During the severe storms that hit the Chicago area in mid-April, distribution automation devices prevented 20,000 service interruptions.

The devices, which are also known as smart switches, are a big part of smart grid technology, and ComEd’s goal is to deploy a smart grid system and install smart meters in 4 million homes and businesses over the next few years. ComEd provides service to about 3.8 million customers throughout northern Illinois, about 70 percent of the state’s population, according to corporate data.

And boy, do we need a better, smarter grid, because people are paying more and getting less with a grid that is becoming increasingly frail.

An Associated Press analysis in March (based on its own data and data from Ventyx, a software and data services firm that works with electric utilities, and the utility consulting firm PA Consulting Group), revealed some shocking trends about our nation’s power grid:

• U.S. electric customers are paying about 42 percent more to build and maintain local power grids than in 2002. At the same time, blackouts are taking 20 percent longer to fix.

• In 2011 (the most recent year for which annual data are available), the average customer was without power for 112 minutes, compared with 97 minutes in 2002, a 15 percent increase since 2002 and the highest level in 10 years.

• Between 2002 and 2011, the amount spent by the average power customer has risen 42 percent, to $232 from $163.

The worst part: This data do NOT include blackouts after major storms. This is everyday stuff.

Why do we pay more for service that’s not improving very much or very fast to companies with plenty of cash? Exelon, ComEd’s parent company, posted revenue of $602 million in the first quarter of 2013.

Considering that regulators let energy companies pass on equipment upgrade costs to consumers, the lack of faster, more profound improvement is a mystery.

Or maybe not. As Rich Sedano, a former Vermont regulator, said in the AP analysis, “From the utility’s perspective, the safest thing they can do to get their money is to do what they’ve always done.”

Maybe that’s why Gov. Pat Quinn on Sunday stamped his veto of the rate hike so enthusiastically. That good deed is unlikely to go unpunished, as legislators will probably override the veto.

It could be so much better. A 2011 study by the Electric Power Research Institute says a modern smart grid would cost as much as $470 billion over 20 years, but the investment would pay upward of $2 trillion in benefits during that same time. Also, renewable/sustainable energy (wind, solar, etc.) would be much more easily integrated into the grid.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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