Supporters, utilities try again with smart grid

Benjamin Yount

The plan from Illinois' two largest utilities to charge customers more for power grid upgrades has been stripped of its automatic price increase, but the Smart Grid proposal still will cost people more, in some cases a lot more, for electricity.

Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison Co. have reworked their Smart Grid proposal, a  nearly half-billion dollar upgrade that would replace aging power lines and install smart meters for customers. 

Gone are the automatic rate increases for both companies. Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan objected to what they called guaranteed profits for Ameren and ComEd. Instead, the utilities would have to go through the Illinois Commerce Commission to get a rate increase.

“We heard (people) when they raised concerns when the bill created automatic rate increases," said Anne Pramaggiore, ComEd's president and chief operating officer. "No rate will be set until after a full eight and a half month ICC review."

Ameren and ComEd customers will pay about $3 more per month for the Smart Grid upgrades.Pramaggiore said ComEd customers would see a flat $36 per year increase. Ameren customers would see their bills rise quite a bit more. The monthly $3.40 charge would double each year, so that at the end of the 10-year Smart Grid program, Ameren customers would be paying $34 a month more.

But Ameren's Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Craig Nelson said some customers would save that much if they make the switch to a smart meter, which allows customers to manage their electricity use, using power at night or early in the morning when it costs less than during the middle of the day.

"Customers will be paying less for electricity, because there will be less electricity flowing through the grid, and it’ll still meet their energy needs," said Nelson.

State Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, has been shepherding Smart Grid through the statehouse and said he hopes the new requirements for Ameren and ComEd will help win over skeptics.

"We’ve also mandated that utilities must offer a peak-time rebate program to the customers who receive a smart meter," said McCarthy.

McCarthy said he's been speaking with the governor's office, but he's less involved with the Attorney General's Office. 

The attorney general has said she could not support any plan that guaranteed profits for the state's largest utilities while costing consumers more.

Quad Cities State Sen, Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said he's not worried about Madigan's opposition.

“But here the attorney general, who doesn’t even have a vote on this body, is determining how I should vote or what I should do? No," said Jacobs. "If you want to vote in this General Assembly, run for the office.”

Consumer watchdogs, like the Citizen's Utility Board's President Dave Kolata,said the idea of a Smart Grid can save homeowners money, but he doesn't know if the Illinois proposal will save anyone money. 

McCarthy said he hopes to see a vote on his plan in the next few days. Lawmakers are scheduled to wrap up the spring legislative session Tuesday.