Upgrade of Chicago's electric system planned

January 4, 2012 2:53:19 PM PST
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and utility executives announced major new investments in Chicago's electricity system Wednesday. The average consumer can expect to pay an extra $3 a month for the improvements.

After a long legislative battle, ComEd is getting its way and preparing to upgrade the state's electricity infrastructure to make it 21st century smart. That's the promise for a building and improvement program unveiled Wednesday that will cost consumers in the short term, but will yield, according to the mayor, long-term benefits such as jobs and cleaner skies.

A smart electric grid promises more reliable power, even during major weather events. A pensive Mayor Emanuel pointed out consumers will get a system that does not rely on them phoning in outages. Instead, meters and new wiring being soldered into place in Hyde Park will help to reroute power from damaged lines to get people back on line fast.

The smart grid research center at the Illinois Institute of Technology served as the backdrop to Wednesday's announcement that ComEd will invest $1.1 billion in a decade-long program to upgrade the economic backbone of Chicago.

"You cannot have a 21st century economy built on a 20th century foundation," said Mayor Emanuel. "That hurts Chicago's economic competitiveness."

It is promised that the project will create 2,400 jobs in engineering, construction and green energy, and eventually give consumers more control over their bills, because they will know the price of the power they are using.

"Our customers, as the mayor said, get a one size fits all product," said ComEd's Anne Pramggiore. "This starts to change that. It gives customers options for different types of pricing."

The bill authorizing the investment -- the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act -- passed into law after lengthy fights in Springfield where Governor Pat Quinn fought to ensure the cost to consumers would be minimized.

The mayor says the smart grid experience in Oklahoma has led to bill reductions on the order of 10 percent. But he concedes that it would take time for Chicagoans to get there.

"This finally empowers the resident or the small business owner to be a better consumer of energy," said Emanuel.

"Right now, some of us save energy in our homes, but a lot of times it's difficult to see the savings," said Sierra Club's Jack Darin. "Smart grid is going to make it very clear exactly how much we are saving."

A big part of that will be everyone getting and learning to listen to a smart meter in their home. It will be rolled out to various neighborhoods in the months and years to come.

The idea is to know how much electricity is costing you right now, making changes in your routine to take advantage of cheaper rates, such as at nighttime.