In the Land of Lincoln, significant investment and effort has gone into ensuring that smart grid-enabled programs and services actually serve to benefit consumers and not only utilities, generation companies or other stakeholders. Founded in the early '80s to protect consumers from nuclear power cost overruns, the Illinois Citizens Utility Board (CUB) has been at the forefront of these efforts, serving as a “voice of the consumer” in the Illinois Commerce Commission, Illinois General Assembly and court system, when necessary.
CUB also conducts extensive consumer education and outreach on utility issues, including participating in over 500 community events each year (one-on-one bill consultations, library events, community festivals, etc.) and operating a direct hotline that typically receives about 7,000 calls per year on utility-related questions and complaints. This adds up to a lot of experience on consumers’ primary pain points in their relationship with their utilities.
While CUB has the reputation, one they willingly accept, as a gadfly that's always getting on the utilities’ cases, they generally have a positive outlook on the energy-related changes that are taking place in Illinois. Consumers today have access to a number of tools to take charge of their energy usage, and these programs, thus far, seem to be working for the consumers’ benefit and have generally high satisfaction from those who have used them.
Both major Illinois electric utilities, Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), are fairly far along in their AMI rollouts and share a lot of the same utility programs in their respective halves of the state. CUB has typically been supportive of many of these programs, including energy efficiency, A/C cycling, hourly pricing and peak-time rebates, and has been active in educating consumers on the benefits of these programs and, in many cases, also enrolling them.
Over the years, CUB has gained significant experience about what it takes for energy-saving programs to be effective for consumers. One important factor is that utilities offer a variety of programs that meet the needs of different types of consumers. For example, some consumers may gravitate toward ground-level, low-risk programs (like peak-time rebate), while others may prefer programs that require more in-depth engagement or initial financial investment (like a smart appliance-based program). In CUB’s view, utilities also must be acutely aware of the digital divide that exists between various cohorts of consumers and design programs accordingly.
Of course, for CUB to support a particular utility program, it’s essential that it actually works in the ways that the utility claims it does, i.e. that it’s easy to understand and enroll in, that the technology functions smoothly, that promises are kept and that customer service provides adequate support. Finally, when looking for an effective utility program, CUB wants to see the utility involved take a holistic view for how it fits in the consumer’s world, which can help overcome barriers to entry. On this point, CUB works extensively with the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF), a nonprofit that supports energy consumer education.
Has Illinois been able to move the needle on realizing consumer benefits from its smart grid investments? So far, the answer is overwhelmingly “yes”. When AMI rollout started in Illinois, there was some apprehension that there would be a significant consumer backlash and that consumers wouldn't take advantage of smart meter-enabled programs. However, neither have come to fruition thus far.
Overall, Illinois consumers have been highly satisfied with new energy programs, and the utilities have seen relatively high enrollment numbers. In many cases, CUB has seen consumers that you wouldn't necessarily expect to see as “early adopters” enrolling in these programs. In addition, Illinois recently passed the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) to build on the AMI investment with the expansion of distributed energy resources.