Crazy weather we're having, right? It's been a stormy summer, and one full of reminders about the need to invest in our electric grid. It's also a sign of things to come, according to climate scientists, who for years have been predicting stronger storms and more intense rainfall events for Illinois due to rising pollution levels.
How do we prepare for this uncertain future? Getting serious about the smart grid is not only crucial for keeping the lights on (not to mention your refrigerator and air conditioning), but it also can be a big spark to the emerging clean energy economy in Illinois at a time when Illinois needs the jobs and economic development most.
This spring, the General Assembly passed the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act. The core of the legislation, Senate Bill 1652, aims to build a smarter, stronger grid for the future. Building up the grid is great, but just as important is breaking down the barriers to clean, renewable energy that makes service more reliable and the air cleaner.
As originally introduced, the bill did not break down these barriers, and I wrote about that here. However, since then, major changes were made to the proposal and now it does just that by allowing large rooftop owners to benefit by installing solar and windpower on their roofs.
If these big box stores, office parks, warehouses, parking garages, and other large rooftop owners install clean energy on the roof, they would get the same incentive homeowners currently have -- on days when they make more electricity than they use, putting the extra back on the grid, they get a credit for that power against their electric bill. In addition, utilities would be required to buy some of the power they sell to us from small renewable systems like these. The combined effect of these two incentives will be turning empty roofs into job sites, with electricians, equipment operators, carpenters, laborers, and others installing pollution-free power systems.
The bill makes another fundamental reform that will reduce the cost of power by harnessing market forces to spur new energy efficiency businesses. SB 1652 will change the way the Illinois Power Agency (IPA) and our utilities buy our power. In addition to buying nuclear, coal, solar, and wind power, the they will now also buy power from entities that reduce energy use if it is cheaper than generation. This will provide a market-based mechanism that will save consumers money and create jobs and economic growth.
Together, these clean energy programs will create thousands of new jobs and deliver cleaner air by moving Illinois toward pollution-free power. In addition to spurring wind and solar power, modernizing the electric grid itself can have major environmental benefits. Updated transmission lines and substations will waste less power between its source and your home. Smart meters will allow you to be in total control of your own energy use -- why not set your dishwasher to run at the cheapest time if you're not in a rush? On a hot summer day, cool your house at cheap rates in the morning rather than peak prices at four in the afternoon. The grid also needs work if we're going to make the switch to electric vehicles, which will be in dealer showrooms this fall.
Clean energy will also make the grid more resilient. Every solar or wind system installed means less energy that has to travel many miles over wires to get to that home or business, and less stress on the grid. Energy conservation reduces the load on the grid, especially on those very hot summer days when the system is at capacity. In fact, the efficiency programs we've already begun probably prevented brownouts during this summer's heat waves:
"We have definitely seen an impact from increased energy efficiency and demand-response efforts," says Mark Lauby, vice president of reliability assessment and performance analysis for the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), an organization tasked with ensuring that the nation's power grid keeps running. "It's giving us more margin, more resources."
And let's not forget that wind, solar, and efficiency are the best ways to cut the global warming pollution that will bring us more violent weather in the future.
Recognizing how important a smart grid is to our energy future, the Obama administration has launched a major initiative to upgrade the grid. According to Energy Secretary Steven Chu:
A modern grid must be able to support both distributed and central generation. A modern electric grid is critical to meeting the President's goals of generating 80 percent of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 and putting one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.
Senate Bill 1652 is not perfect. Governor Quinn and others, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan and consumer advocates, object to the fact that electric rates will go up to pay for the grid modernization, and that the legislation streamlines the Illinois Commerce Commission process for reviewing these increases. Quinn, who founded the Citizen Utility Board, has vowed to veto the legislation based on these consumer concerns. The governor has also been a longtime champion for clean energy, and he has no quarrel with the renewable energy and conservation programs in the bill -- in fact, they are key pieces of his comprehensive energy plan.
With SB 1652 headed to his desk, Governor Quinn is now in a position to make sure that consumers are protected while we maximize clean energy. With added protection for consumers to go along with needed grid upgrades and new energy technologies, the forecast can look a whole lot better in the years ahead.