What’s New with NextGrid?

August 13, 2018 | 10:37 am
Photo: UniEnergy Technologies/Wikimedia
Jessica Collingsworth
Former Contributor

Last year, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) launched NextGrid,  a collaboration between key stakeholders to create a shared base of information on electric utility industry issues and opportunities around grid modernization. NextGrid is the Illinois Utility of the Future Study, which is being managed by the University of Illinois and consists of seven working groups comprised of subject matter experts, utilities, business interests, and environmental organizations. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a member of two of these working groups.

The working groups have been tasked with identifying solutions to address challenges facing Illinois as it moves into the next stage of electric grid modernization, including the use of new technologies and policies to improve the state’s electric grid. The groups’ work will culminate in a draft report to be released in late 2018.

So, what is grid modernization? And what’s at stake with the NextGrid process in Illinois?

Illinois’ energy challenges

Our current grid was built decades ago and designed primarily for transmitting electricity from large, centralized power plants like coal and natural gas.  There are now new technologies, like wind and solar, that are making this approach to electricity transmission and its related infrastructure outdated. If we don’t modernize the grid now, we risk over-relying on natural gas, when we should be taking advantage of renewable energy sources that are cleaner and more affordable.

As a result, utilities and states around the country are embarking on grid modernization processes. There are two main components of a modern grid: the first is data communication, which Illinois has addressed with the rapid deployment of smart meters over the last several years. Smart meters give customers access to more information about their energy use, and allow utilities to offer different programs and options to customers as well as to more efficiently address outages.

A second key component of a modern grid is the incorporation of higher levels of renewables and energy efficiency. The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which became law in 2016, fixed flaws in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) by ensuring stable and predictable funding for renewable development, and that new solar and wind power will be built in Illinois. FEJA also greatly increased the state’s energy efficiency targets. With respect to solar in particular, FEJA directed the state to create a community solar program, and also the Illinois Solar for All program, which will enable many more people to participate in solar power who may not be in a position to install panels on their own rooftops. Overall, FEJA is moving Illinois towards a more modern grid.

NextGrid builds on these Illinois clean energy efforts. The Next Grid study will examine trends in electricity production, usage, and emerging technologies on the customer and utility sides of the meter that drive the need to consider changes in policy and grid technology.

What has been discussed so far?

To ensure clean energy is a prominent part of the solutions being discussed in NextGrid, UCS is participating in two of the seven working groups: Regulatory and Environmental Policy Issues and Ratemaking.

 Some of the key topics discussed so far include:

  • The increased adoption of distributed energy resources (DER), which include solar, storage and demand management. DER adoption is increasing due to the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA). There will be a significant change in the electricity load from DER, and as a result, utilities need to engage in planning and investment that incorporates them.
  • Energy storage has been highlighted for its ability to increase grid reliability and resilience. As the costs of energy storage technology such as batteries continue to fall, they are becoming a viable answer to many grid modernization challenges.
  • Time-of-use pricing programs that have fewer daily price fluctuations allow users more consistency in making consumption decisions. Our Flipping the Switch Report outlines the benefits of time-varying rates.

The NextGrid process has the potential to shape Illinois’s energy future and serve as a roadmap to different options. We need to ensure that clean energy plays a central role in this roadmap.

How can you get involved?

On June 14, the ICC held a public comment session in Chicago to provide stakeholders and the public with information on the progress of the study.  UCS Science Network Member Warren Lavey provided public comment at the session noting that Illinois should explore additional time-varying pricing options and energy storage. Pursuing these policies would save money for customers and providers, enhance grid reliability and flexibility, and protect human health and the environment. More time-varying pricing options and cost-effective energy storage would build on Illinois’ investments in and policies supporting renewable energy systems and smart meters. These reforms would also strengthen the state’s infrastructure for electric vehicles and other developments.

Two more public comment sessions will be held this week, August 15 in Urbana and August 16 in Carbondale. Participants will have the opportunity to ask questions and offer written and verbal comments to be considered by the commission as they develop the NextGrid report. The draft report is set for release this fall, and the public has the opportunity to weigh in again by commenting on draft working group chapters as they are posted on the NextGrid website.

What UCS wants to see in the final report

The final report should include an actionable roadmap of clean energy options that builds on Illinois’ successes to date.

The final report should also elevate the need for an equitable transition away from fossil fuels, and the benefits of expanding equitable access to solar and energy storage technologies. Ideally, the report will identify ways to increase the deployment of energy storage across Illinois, with the goal of integrating higher levels of renewable energy onto the grid.

Finally, the report should include a discussion of additional opportunities for user-friendly time-varying rates that could be considered, which will benefit the grid operator, consumers, and the environment. We want the NextGrid process to provide a clear pathway for Illinois to continue being a leader in clean energy and modern grid development.