ComEd and other energy companies call for a ‘rush to renewables.’

Downtown Chicago lit up at night
Keeping the lights on may come with new options and renewable energy sources in the near future. (Hannah Moulthrop/MEDILL)

By Hannah Moulthrop

The next Uber or Airbnb in your life may be your local electric utility company. Choosing how to power your home in the future could be more like selecting from your Netflix queue, with a market of energy options to choose from to meet your particular energy needs.

And the reinvention is already underway, according to Anne Pramaggiore, president and CEO of ComEd at “Empowerging Customers and Cities,” an energy conference envisioning the future  of energy use.  Pramaggiore and other utility CEOs joined energy experts to call for a “rush to renewables” and a new business model for providing energy because of economic incentives and environmental concerns.

“The end game is clear for economic prosperity and security and quality of life. We need an energy system that is cleaner, leaner and ultra reliable, as well as service which must ultimately respond to the clarion call of the digital age – customized, connected, and communal,” said Pramaggiore

That means consumers could see more data on their energy usage from automatic meter readings and increased energy reliability, she said. In an outage, power might automatically reroute to a power line that is still live.

Pramaggiore co-chaired the conference with Marty Rosenberg, editor of The Energy Times.

For five years, ComEd has been working to rebuild their energy system by storm-proofing infrastructure and adding digital technologies, such as smart meters to homes, Pramaggiore said. Smart meters can be read remotely and automatically tell the electric company you’ve lost electricity in a power outage, she said.

Pramaggiore said ComEd is now implementing phase two of an energy transformation “by adding clean to smart.  But Mary Powell, president and CEO of Green Mountain Power Corp. in Vermont, said that is not enough.

“We did smart meters a while ago. Honestly, something kept bugging me the whole time we were doing it. Honestly, I can’t believe we’re an industry that looks at that as being technologically revolutionary. It’s really not,” Powell said.

“You know what’s kind of revolutionary?” she said.” A future not too far away where we’re not even installing a meter.”

Powell is the one who captured the spirit of the conference with the phrase “rush to renewables.”

Green Mountain Power partnered with Tesla on a Tesla Powerwall that can store excess energy for emergencies or for nighttime use in combination with a solar rooftop home generating system, Powell said.

The Tesla Powerwall launched in May is a home battery installed by the company,  according to a company press release.

The company is the primary energy provider for Vermont, an area that is more rural than Northern Illinois and Chicago, ComEd’s service area. Powell said. Green Mountain Energy wants to move the primary energy system to multiple communities homes and businesses, instead of distributing it from a central system.

How you choose your electric company may change, too.

Currently, energy consumers in Illinois choose an electric service provider and the contract they want, according to Lynne Kiesling, a Northwestern University economics professor who studies changes in the electric power industry. Regardless of the provider you choose, ComEd is then responsible for transporting the electricity on a network of power lines to the consumer’s home, she said.

Kiesling used Texas as an example of how a fully deregulated energy market led to an array of products and services with lower prices.

She said that open markets generally “do a better job of helping people discover and create value.” Some homeowners with excess solar energy generated by their solar panels could get a better price on the open market than if they had to sell it through the “clunky way” of net metering.

Both Pramagiorre and Powell said their companies plan to move to more localized custom power options, or microgrids.

ComEd’s next steps for changing the power grid structure include building five microgrids that can connect or disconnect from the main power grid to keep power available in the event of severe weather or emergencies, Pramaggiore said.

Microgrids are self-sufficient networks that everyone in a certain area connects to, Kiesling said. The grid generates enough energy to meet people’s consumption needs, she said.

“You can have those around the edge of ComEd’s distribution network,” she said adding that “there’s also an opportunity for ComEd to say when they’re upgrading the grid in a particular neighborhood, they could do the architecture of that upgrade as a microgrid.”

ComEd has a microgrid in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side.

The new model envisioned by energy executives involves shifting their business model from what Pramaggiore called “the pipeline business of the 20th century” that pushed products out from the top-down to platforms that create value by creating interactions.

Like Facebook, Airbnb, Uber and Ebay, the electric utility business could shift from a pipeline model of companies pushing out goods to open market options where consumers could also sell back excess energy they generate without meters, shifting the value downstream to them,  Pramaggiore and Kiesling said. That would mean more competition among service providers and potentially better prices for consumers. according to Kiesling.

“In our view the electric grid that is being redesigned through digital and other technological breakthroughs has the capacity to be one of the most impactful platform architectures in the economy, facilitating the migration of power across the grid in an efficient manner,” Pramaggiore said.

The challenge for ComEd and others in the industry are the regulations, Kiesling said.

State regulations can be a barrier to innovation, she said, noting that they vary by state.

“In terms of what customers can expect to see over the next few months, we have a piece of legislation that we would like to run in the veto session this November and December down in Springfield. It increases the energy efficiency programs. It provides a platform for solar coming into our state,” Pramaggiore said.

Photo at top: Keeping the lights on may come with new options and renewable energy sources  in the near future. (Hannah Moulthrop/MEDILL)