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“Peaking” your interest? Consumers question why they haven’t received peak-time alerts this summer

Here’s the text that CUB General Counsel Julie Soderna received the day after she earned $7.50 in bill credits for participating in the Peak Time Savings program. (Good job, Julie!)

Peak Time Savings (ComEd) and Peak Time Rewards (Ameren Illinois) are two no-cost, money-saving programs that CUB has encouraged people, like Julie, to join in recent years. This summer, however, the utilities have made little use of their programs, and people were wondering why. So here’s a little Q&A we drew up to help answer these questions.

What are peak-time programs?

These are voluntary, no-cost programs offered to all customers with the advanced digital electric meters ComEd and Ameren are installing across their territories. The programs provide participants with a bill credit if they reduce energy usage at designated hours—also known as a  peak-time “event”—on a day when electricity demand is high. The program encourages participants to take simple, effective actions around the house, such as bumping up the thermostat a few degrees or delaying household activities like laundry or running the dishwasher until after the peak-time hours.

How are they funded?

Simply put, when customers agree to reduce usage during peak hours, utilities package and sell those potential reductions–“negawatts,” if you will–in regional wholesale electricity markets, also called “capacity markets.” (Capacity markets are designed to make sure we have enough power to meet future demands.) The utilities then pass the proceeds back to peak-time program participants in the form of bill credits.

Why has ComEd called only one peak-time event so far this summer?

ComEd says there were unusually mild temperatures this summer. The ideal day for a Peak-Time Savings event is typically one with blue skies and a heat index above 90 degrees. The majority of days in June and July that went above 90 included stormy weather or a stormy forecast, and therefore did not present ideal conditions to initiate a Peak-Time Savings event. The majority of the days in the month of August also had mild weather. However in the past, Peak Time Savings events have also happened in September, so ComEd could announce an event before the season ends on Sept. 30. Any unused funds from the 2017 summer will be used for events in the summer of 2018.

Why has Ameren Illinois not called any events this summer?

Low electricity prices affected Ameren Illinois’ program, according to Elevate Energy, the group that manages Peak Time Rewards. Ameren bids into a different capacity market than ComEd, and Elevate explained that electricity prices dropped significantly in that market. That, in turn, reduced the likelihood of Peak Time Rewards events and bill credits.

Each spring, capacity market prices determine how many dollars are available for this program. In 2017, the market price was much lower than the year before. That meant there were fewer dollars to be allocated as rewards—and few, if any, Peak Time Rewards events would occur. The silver lining is that the lower regional market prices means lower Ameren Illinois power prices overall for everybody.

Do these developments impact my status in the program?

CUB has gotten questions from people concerned that they have not received alerts about “peak-time events” this summer. Some worried that they had been bumped from the program because they didn’t “re-register.” You do not have to re-register for the program. Once you register you are a participant until you tell your utility otherwise.

In fact, because there is no cost to participate, CUB recommends that consumers stay in peak-time programs, because they could potentially earn bill credits in the summer of 2018.

Why are programs like this important?

They help reduce electricity demand at “peak times.” Reducing peak demand eases stress on the grid, preventing costly power outages. Cutting demand also reduces our dependence on costly power plants, and it reduces electricity prices for everyone. Finally, reducing our reliance on power plants also has environmental benefits. For all these reasons—most importantly, the potential to cut utility bills—CUB is an enthusiastic supporter of these no-cost programs.

How much have consumers saved on the programs?

In the summer of 2016, when the program was launched, Ameren Illinois customers saved a total of $71,861 over two events, for an average of $9.15 per event. Participants in ComEd’s Peak Time Savings program have saved a total of $1.2 million since the program debuted in 2015.

CUB will keep pushing the utilities to call peak-time events consistently. In the meantime, these are good, no-cost programs that everyone should join.