There is a lot of strife about smart grid in Illinois these days. The issues at the center of the debate include how the cost will be recovered, when smart meters will be deployed and whether the business case is strong enough.

Commonwealth Edison, which is part of Exelon Corporation (NYSE: EXC), has faced repeated scrutiny from the Illinois Commerce Commission despite the backing of the state legislature’s Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA). Although the utility was allowed to delay the installation of its smart meters until 2015, grid modernization is still underway. 

In 2012, ComEd installed 470 automatic circuit reclosers. The switches allow ComEd to automatically isolate outages on the distribution network. The technology saved about 80,000 customers from losing power in 2012. The project is part of about $245 million in distribution automation, part of a larger $2.6 billion grid investment over the next decade. 

Costs will continue to be a point of contention for each part of the project. While smart meters represent the lion’s share of the price tag, the distribution automation program’s allocation of about $245 million is nearly $100 million more than ComEd’s original plan.

ComEd DA budget

The utility said the increased figure was due to having calculated more accurate costs of the communications network and the cost of each device. However, the utility also noted that the increases would be offset by smart meter program cost reductions. With the delay in the meter installments, however, it is not clear whether the smart meters will still be deployed under budget.

Before the EIMA was passed, ComEd already had about 2,500 smart switches that covered less than half of its customers. In total, the utility will deploy another 2,600 to cover more than 90 percent of its customers. The switches are being placed on the distribution circuit so that an outage from a single event will ideally not affect more than 500 people, according to Mike McMahan, vice president of smart grid and technology at ComEd.

ComEd smart switches

With the 470 additional devices, supplied by S&C and G&W Electric, ComEd had 82,000 fewer customer power interruptions in 2012. When the whole system is in place, ComEd hopes to avoid about 700,000 power interruptions annually. The utility put a $100 million value on the lower outage rates, but “we were being very conservative,” said McMahan. The integration of smart switches and smart meters should garner even more benefits, as it has for EPB Chattanooga.

ComEd will deploy 630 devices in 2013 and complete the project in 2016. There is also a possibility the smart meters could be installed starting in late 2013. The distribution automation project is happening in tandem with some substation automation upgrades, which should further help with outage restoration and duration, according to McMahan, who added, “We’re pretty excited about this."