Illinois Utilities Ameren and ComEd plan the grid of the future
Illinois utilities Ameren and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) are preparing distribution network plans for the first time under new requirements established by the Climate and Fair Employment Act (CEJA), which the legislature of Illinois passed in September 2021. An ambitious law that promises to accelerate the state’s clean energy transition, CEJA provides a detailed framework for greater utility transparency and accountability to update the electricity distribution infrastructure to ensure a clean energy future.
Distribution networks have always played a vital role, providing the electricity that commercial and residential customers need, day in and day out. But the distribution system will be even more important during a rapid transition to clean energy, especially given the role that distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar, battery storage and electric vehicles , can play to help Illinois get rid of fossil fuels. Utilities will need to connect these resources to the distribution network with additional transparency and oversight.
Given the exponential growth of utility distribution network investments, regulators and stakeholders will also need an open distribution network planning process. The most recent data from the US Energy Information Administration shows that major US utilities invested nearly $60 billion in 2019, up 6% from 2018 and 64% from 2000.
Illinois utilities contributed to this trend. According to the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), Ameren’s distribution network spending nearly doubled between 2012 and 2020, from $456 million to $857 million. During the same period, investments in the ComEd network increased from $1.3 billion to $2.2 billion.
Utilities must submit their plans by January 2023 and will need to provide details on how they will invest in distribution network infrastructure over the next five years. The ICC will review the plans and issue a decision by the end of 2023. However, thanks to the CEJA Act, there are now opportunities for stakeholder involvement in decisions relating to the utility distribution network.
Starting with stakeholders
Indeed, CEJA has defined a distribution network planning process that begins with stakeholders, including utilities, community organizations and businesses. Accordingly, the ICC organized 15 workshops from December 2021 to May 2022 for stakeholders to share their views and discuss the role of the distribution network in providing clean and distributed energy resources. They also looked at cost-benefit analyzes and debated how they should be used to determine the best investments.
Consensus was not the goal, but the CIC facilitator’s report indicated that there was mutual agreement on the need for transparency and public education on the network planning process, as well as on the importance of ongoing stakeholder collaboration.
Utilities have a clear to-do list
Following the series of workshops, the ICC asked Ameren and ComEd to submit their multi-year integrated distribution plans. Called the “Initial Order,” the ICC request provided utilities with a list of tasks that included:
- Follow the process required by the ICC to develop the plan, including stakeholder engagement.
- Define the operational characteristics of the distribution system, including detailed information about the distributed energy resources, such as type (solar, wind, storage), size, and location.
- Provide information on the frequency and duration of outages.
- Provide investment information for the previous five years and estimates for the next five years. Utilities should include information about their investments to connect distributed energy resources, as well as the fees they have charged developers and customers to connect distributed energy to the grid.
During the workshops, stakeholders made recommendations on what the ICC should add to its list of requirements in its initiation orders. The Environmental Law and Policy Center, for example, asked the commission to incorporate requirements based on its experience in Colorado and Minnesota, which include asking utilities to address issues such as affordability, grid innovation, pilot projects and the use of state policy and high-growth scenarios in forecasting the adoption of distributed energy resources.
To enable additional opportunities for collaboration and stakeholder input, Ameren and ComEd have hosted meetings to discuss relevant issues, including distributed energy resources and how the grid can best accommodate new technologies.
Both utilities must now prepare their plans to meet increased expectations for reliability, resiliency and affordability, and enable a clean energy future. I expect them to consider the value that clean distributed energy resources can bring to the grid and to their Illinois customers. Another crucial aspect will be how their plans will meet CEJA’s requirement to provide 40% of benefits to environmental justice communities and neighborhoods where residents have historically been excluded from economic opportunity, defined by CEJA as eligible communities. to capital investment.
The Union of Concerned Scientists will work with our coalition partners to ensure utility plans are ambitious and help advance Illinois’ clean energy transition.