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The 5 most annoying things about Illinois’ power grid (and what a smarter grid could do about it)

20140806_annoyingpowergrid_blogIllinois’ power grid—the aging lines and equipment that deliver electricity to our doorstep—has become a costly headache for electric customers.  The “smart grid,” which is an umbrella term for grid upgrades, could help change that.

CUB has compiled a list of the most annoying consumer headaches that ComEd and Ameren could relieve if they do the smart grid right. Did you know…

The power company can delay reading your meter for months at a time and instead estimate your usage? It’s a common complaint CUB receives: “The power  company underestimated my usage for months and then slapped me with a huge make-up bill.” Solution: New digital meters ComEd and Ameren are installing can automatically transmit your exact power usage and virtually eliminate estimated bills.

ComEd and Ameren often have no idea there’s a power outage until customers call them? Solution: The new meters and other smart upgrades could immediately alert the utility of an outage, and in some cases, automatically fix the problem by rerouting power. Avoiding prolonged power outages could save consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.

We pay the power bill for electricity thieves and vacant office buildings? With the current system, a utility has a hard time catching people who steal electricity or determining if power is still on in vacant offices. We cover those extra costs on our electric bills. Solution: New meters and other smart equipment will be much better at detecting such problems. ComEd estimated that eliminating such inefficiencies could save customers $2.8 billion over the next 20 years.

Up to half of power generated may not actually reach consumers? A large portion of electricity is simply lost on the way to your home thanks to flaws in power lines. Solution: Smart sensors installed on the grid would help detect inefficiencies, reducing this “line loss.”

Electricity is often quite cheap, but old, mechanical meters keep us from saving money? Market power prices can get very low at certain times, but most of us are stuck on a bloated utility rate that doesn’t change. Solution: New digital meters allow us to easily take advantage of creative pricing plans, such as Real-Time Pricing (called Power Smart Pricing for Ameren customers), which charges customers an hourly rate. Also, customers will be able to enjoy a “peak-time” rebate, a no-risk plan that gives you a bill credit for shifting power usage from peak to off-peak times. (Sign ups for the “Peak Time Savings” program will begin in the fall for ComEd customers with new meters.)

Of course, all of these solutions won’t happen by themselves. As CUB does all it can to fight wasteful spending in the $481 million in rate-hike requests Ameren and ComEd want in January 2015, our other watchdog role is to push the utilities to live up to their promise of creating a smarter grid that actually benefits consumers.

Hey, ComEd and Ameren, we want the benefits of a smarter grid, not just the bill.

For more information about Illinois’ efforts to build a better power grid and when you’ll get a new meter, visit CUBSmartPower.com.