In a world of networks -- from social media to car sharing to online shopping -- it’s difficult to see how the electrical grid network will lose value in future. That's according to Shay Bahramirad, the director of smart grid and technology at Commonwealth Edison.

How the grid operates will change. But, if anything, the value of the grid network will only increase.

“The future is all about networks,” said Bahramirad, in an interview at GTM’s Grid Edge World Forum last week.

“I personally do not agree with the idea that there is a utility death spiral because of these networks. I see our work being about more connectivity,” she said. “Consider Airbnb, where people share their homes with strangers. […] People date through the internet and connect through Facebook. How do you see that, in a world of connectivity, customers will generate energy behind-the-meter in their homes or industrial parks off the grid on their own? I don’t see that silo ever happening, because it’s against the social reality of our lives these days.”

The grid is a network that consumers have already invested billions of dollars into, she said. It is also a network of networks that can be utilized in different ways. There’s the physical network of poles and cables; the communications network, including AMI infrastructure; and the social platform where the utility interacts with every single customer in its service territory. These platforms can be leveraged to produce new services for other customers and for the utility itself.

ComEd is working on a number of fronts to ensure that it is prepared to serve changing customer needs and confront the technical challenges of operating an increasingly sophisticated grid system.

ComEd has already taken several steps to upgrade its grid network. In 2011, the Illinois legislature approved a $2.6 billion smart grid plan to roll out advanced meters and other resiliency measures. In March, a ComEd exec told GTM the investment has resulted in fewer outages and fewer truck rolls, for a combined savings of nearly $67 million, which will be returned to customers.

Last year, ComEd launched an LED streetlight pilot with Silver Spring Networks that links the lights to ComEd’s wireless network, enabling two-way communication. This spring, the utility announced it plans to expand the project by replacing nearly 18,000 ComEd-owned streetlights with new smart-ready LED streetlights across the state of Illinois. ComEd also plans to expand a smart water meter pilot in partnership with Illinois American Water.

In addition, the Illinois-based utility has partnered with the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and several universities to stay on the forefront of developments at the grid edge, including the rollout of a new advanced distribution management system. ComEd has also partnered with the incubator Energy Foundry to forge relationships with entrepreneurs and startups. At the same time, the utility is developing talent retention and analytics training programs to ensure it maintains a strong and well-equipped workforce.

All of these initiatives are part of a broader plan to upgrade the grid system and drive more distributed energy resource (DER) adoption in the state of Illinois, said Bahramirad.

“We try to be proactively looking into what we have to do to design the system and what type of control and data management we need to put in place to operate the system reliably and safety, while adopting more and more DERs,” she said.

Data-driven analysis to accommodate DERs

Bahramirad said that she currently has three separate teams examining what the future of the distribution system should look like for ComEd.

Roughly 18 months ago, ComEd engineers completed a comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the utility’s grid system with input from local and national stakeholders, analyzing everything from substation vulnerability to power quality to the health of various utility assets in 1-mile squares across ComEd’s territory. In a hosting capacity analysis, ComEd ran different scenarios on distribution feeders to understand how much distributed generation each feeder could accommodate without violating voltage standards. These assessments underpin ComEd’s ongoing work at the grid edge and are informing related policy.

Earlier this year, ComEd introduced comprehensive legislation with its parent company Exelon intended to enhance the grid further and drive the adoption of clean energy technologies. The utilities launched the Next Generation Energy Plan (SB 1585) in May after a previous version of the bill failed to win support. The new bill contains a controversial provision providing assistance to Exelon’s struggling nuclear power plants, but includes a number of other alternative energy measures that the utilities hope will help it pass.

There are three main components of the new bill that would help to jump-start the Illinois DER market: a doubling of energy-efficiency programs, creating roughly $4.1 billion in energy savings for customers, including $650 million in efficiency savings for low-income customers; a smart inverter rebate and more than $140 million per year in new funding for solar development; as well as strengthening and expanding the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

The legislation also calls for spending up to $250 million to develop five microgrids around critical infrastructure (a previous version of the bill called for six). The first microgrid, a 10-megawatt system to be built and owned by ComEd, would be able to island and join with a nearby microgrid owned by the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).

ComEd has already has received two grants from the Department of Energy to support the Bronzeville microgrid. The first is worth $1.2 million for a microgrid master controller being developed by Argonne National Laboratory, S&C Electric, OSIsoft, Quanta Technology, Alstom and others. The controller, on track for completion by the end of the year, will connect IIT’s grid with the one in Bronzeville. The second grant from DOE's SunShot Initiative is providing $4 million for 750 kilowatts of solar and battery storage capacity for the Bronzeville project.

ComEd is proposing four other microgrids as part of the legislation: the Illinois Medical District in Chicago; DuPage County government facility and correctional center; the Chicago Heights water facility; and a 17-megawatt system at the Chicago Rockford International Airport. ComEd worked with the Energy Department, FEMA, Homeland Security, the State of Illinois, the City of Chicago and other entities to identify the most critical sites to address first.

ComEd won’t abandon these microgrid projects if the funding request doesn’t pass, said Bahramirad. But if the money does come through, the projects will be completed a lot faster.

“We see microgrids as one of the most important components of the grid of the future that provides resilient, secure and ultra-reliable power for our customers,” she said. ComEd does not plan to build and sell microgrids behind the meter, however; “Our job is to make sure they’re at public places where a large mass of people would benefit.”

Each one of ComEd’s proposed microgrids will include a DER component that will the serve the sites in islanded mode. The utility is currently studying all types of DER for functionality and affordability, including energy storage, solar, geothermal and combined heat and power gas turbines and fuel cells.

“A huge component of the microgrid pilot is DERs and decentralized control; we see in the utility of the future there is going to be both centralized and decentralized control,” said Bahramirad. “The pilot allows us to look into how we can integrate these components and how we can create the measurements and visibility required for these decentralized [assets].”

Fair cost allocation is "the first step to getting more DERs"

There is currently very little distributed generation on ComEd’s system. Today, there are fewer than 600 net-metered customers in ComEd territory, and the utility receives relatively few new interconnection requests. But that’s something the utility plans to change, said Bahramirad.

The confusing part for some is that ComEd’s Next Generation Energy Plan would effectively end net metering -- a policy known to jump-start the DER market -- and require all customers to be on a demand rate.

The proposal has come under fire from the Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) and other backers of the competing Clean Jobs Bill, which seeks to boost Illinois' renewable portfolio standard from the current goal of 25 percent by 2025 to 35 percent by 2030, among other things. Solar advocates have argued that ComEd’s rate proposal is unprecedented, and likely to create confusion for customers and increase overall costs, particularly for DER owners.

To offset the changes, however, ComEd has proposed a solar rebate for smart inverters. Residential customers would qualify for a credit of $1,000 per kilowatt, while commercial and industrial customers qualify for $500 per kilowatt. Over time, the rebates would decline to $750 and $325 per kilowatt, respectively. Once there are 150 megawatts of solar on the system, the commission would be required to conduct a value-of-DER study to establish what the rebate should be going forward.

ComEd focused on smart inverters because they help the utility connect DERs reliably, said Scott Vogt, ComEd’s vice president of energy acquisition. In the future, the technology could enable DERs to provide ancillary services on the distribution system -- enhancing the overall grid network.

Solar rebates will apply to all new rooftop customers staring in 2018, when the legislation is slated to take effect. Customers that already have solar could choose to retain net metering and be grandfathered in, or choose a rebate without having to buy a smart inverter.

Vogt said the rebate option is better than net metering from a kilowatt-hour perspective. “If you take all of the kilowatt-hours rooftop solar is going to produce over the lifetime of the panels and discount back [excess generation], we think the rebate exceeds the value for that,” he said.

Making the rebate available to commercial and industrial customers will also help to expand the DER market, he added.

ComEd’s proposed demand rate for all residential customers -- a policy no other investor-owned utility has implemented to date -- will also produce savings, Vogt said.

The way the bill is written, a utility can opt to introduce universal demand charges, but must agree to reduce customers’ fixed charge for energy delivery by 50 percent. When the demand charge is coupled with the lower fixed charge, a ComEd study found that 66 percent of residential customers can expect to see their delivery service charge (the payment the utility receives to deliver power) decline.

Bahramirad said she sees ComEd’s proposed policy changes as "complementary" to the growth in clean energy technologies. “It’s about making sure there is a fair allocation of cost to whoever is using the grid,” she said. “I see it as a first step to getting more distributed energy resources and solar and renewables in the state.”

For Bahramirad, the future is all about networks. That means enabling all parties to participate in the network, and ensuring they all pay their fair share to maintain it.

ComEd is hopeful that the Illinois General Assembly will take up and pass its energy plan when the new session begins this fall.