UPTOWN — "Smart Grid" crews are in Uptown upgrading power grid infrastructure as part of a $2.6 billion modernization effort to reduce power outages and help manage energy usage statewide.
Smart Grid technology depends on "Smart Meters" that use a wireless link with ComEd to provide customers hourly data on energy usage, alert ComEd when outages occur and help identify the cause of outages so power can be restored faster.
The utility company said it plans to install 4 million smart meters in northern Illinois, and the initiative will reduce power outages by 700,000 a year while saving customers about $100 million in outage-related costs, according to ComEd.
The work being done now in Uptown includes other upgrades and repairs in advance of the installation of Smart Meters — which is scheduled to kick off on the North Side in 2016, according to ComEd spokesman John Schoen. Schoen said the meters had been installed in the western suburbs and would be installed on the South Side this year.
In 2014, ComEd plans to install 25 distribution automation devices on power poles in Uptown, which Schoen said would benefit about 42,000 people. The devices, one piece of the Smart Grid puzzle, automatically isolate power problems and reroutes power to restore energy, according to ComEd.
"In the past, lets say a car ran into a pole and knocked it down — it might knock out power to the entire neighborhood," Schoen explained. "But with distribution automation, if something like that happened, the system knows how to reroute power around the trouble areas, so maybe folks in that immediate area are affected but other people are not."
Schoen said ComEd has assessed more than 100 manholes in Uptown in the last year, with crews replacing aging cables and making other repairs. A pair of ComEd trucks were parked Monday at North Sheridan Road and West Cullom Avenue, where a crew member worked in a manhole.
Upgrading the city's power grid is long overdue, according to Jim Chilsen, a spokesman for the Citizens Utility Board.
"Today's power grid is wasteful, it's unreliable and extremely expensive for consumers," Chilsen said. "Our current power grid is using technology that's about 100 years old."
Last May, the Illinois Senate voted to override Gov. Pat Quinn's veto of a bill that allowed ComEd to hike customers' rates $2.6 billion over the next decade to finance Smart Grid upgrades. Quinn said afterward in a statement: "Today’s unfortunate vote forces electric utility rate hikes on families and businesses all across Illinois."
The utility board opposed the legislation because it was uncomfortable with ComEd paying for the upgrades with rate hikes and felt the law lacked consumer protections against potentially "unfair" hikes in the future, Chilsen said.
The average ComEd energy bill will increase about $5.50 this year with rates hikes scheduled for every January over the next decade, according to the nonprofit organization that advocates for residential utility customers.
Schoen countered that the upgrades will bring customers a more reliable, less outage-prone power grid, provide ComEd with operational savings and help consumers manage their power usage more efficiently, which will "more than offset the costs of Smart Grid."