Illinois is no stranger to energy innovation. In 2011, the state passed its Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, which authorized a $3.2 billion investment in smart grid infrastructure by ComEd and Ameren Illinois. However, in addition to the funds earmarked for infrastructure, the bill also mandated the creation of $50 million in education funding to grow awareness of the smart grid and its benefits to Illinois consumers.
Out of this fund, the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF) was born. ISEIF is a nonprofit, grantmaking organization that essentially serves as a third-party education arm for Illinois’ two main utilities. Through two annual grant cycles totaling $5 million, the organization has developed a wide-ranging community of grantees that are deeply embedded in their respective communities.
Unlike traditional utility education efforts, in the ISEIF model, the utility isn’t directly in the picture. The community engagement partners work in their self-defined context and utilize their own self-generated engagement plan, and there’s no utility branding involved. This model gives the messaging much more credibility within the communities than if it had come from directly from a utility.
The results so far validate ISEIF’s unique model. Through their community partners, ISEIF has held over 5,000 community outreach events, which have reached nearly two million individuals. Of the $20 million in funds that have been distributed so far, nearly two-thirds have been allocated to low-income and senior populations, and through the Smart Grid for Schools program, ISEIF has been educating the next generation on the benefits of advanced energy technology. So far, over 35,000 schoolchildren and their parents have been educated through this program.
With the significant infrastructure investments that are being made in grid modernization, it’s important that consumer education is a part of the investment. ISEIF’s model provides a blueprint for effectively educating consumers on the benefits they can receive through smart grid-enabled programs through existing community channels.