ComEd CEO details plans to keep the power flowing in the face of climate change

Courtesy of Monika Agnieszka Wnuk
Anne Pramaggiore, President and CEO of ComEd, says changes in the grid will make avert power outages and save energy.
Courtesy of Monika Wnuk

By Melissa Schenkman

ComEd is in the midst of major grid innovations and conservation efforts in the face of climate change, said ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, said on a panel addressing Climate Risk Management and Energy Infrastructure Innovation.

The panel focused on challenges in the water and power utility businesses as well as solutions. Conservation efforts include smart meters that allow customers to monitor their home electricity use directly and energy efficient light bulbs.

Damage from a tornado in Washington, Illinois, in November 2013.  Tornadoes are a result of climate change. Courtesy of Monika Agnieszka Wnuk


Pramaggiore and fellow utility experts addressed the changes in store for the U.S. water and power infrastructure in the face of climate change, providing a glimpse of the future at The Resilient Futures Summit in Evanston, sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

In 2012, ComEd began its commitment to a five-year plan encompassing programs to “refurbish” and significantly improve the grid to reduce energy waste and the risk of power outages.  The plan is part of the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act that allows for a $2.6 billion investment over 10 years, in improving the state’s electric grid. ComEd is working on upgrading its physical grid, power outage prevention and social networks that give people on-going access to information about their power usage.

Improvements to the physical grid include replacing more than 4,700 miles of cable with storm hardening, super reinforced cable that is insulated, moving more above ground cable underground, rerouting customers across 2,600 miles of distribution that is isolated so that these customers can regain power faster when outages do occur and more superconducting high capacity cable.

“We are very cognizant of volatility in weather,” Pramaggiore said.

Storm resistant, super reinforced cable and the movement of more cable underground will combat the effects of winter ice and summer thunderstorms, both which cause trees to fall on power lines. As for superconducting power lines, these technological wonders also protect power interruption in the face of extreme weather events or even a terrorist strike. If one lead on a cable is damaged, the other leads can be employed to prevent power interruption, she said.

ComEd is promoting energy saving opportunities at the community level with the use of LED light bulbs for streetlights, decreasing energy costs by 75 percent. These lights would function on a wireless mesh network, which would allow ComEd to dim and brighten streetlights remotely.

Smart meters are offered to allow ComEd customers to check their usage at home and allow ComEd to monitor customer’s systems remotely. The remote monitoring has avoided 5,000 customer interruptions.

“Smart technology has decreased storm outages by 10 percent. It improves material conduction of the system,” Pramaggiore said.

ComEd is working to build a social network where customers can download usage data without printing it on paper.

As Leal puts it, the trend in the utility business is “letting people know what is behind the curtains.” Given the modifications to the system that are needed in order to adapt to climate change, utilities need to increase the profits they make from their customers in order to have the finances to refurbish the systems.

There are multiple paths to producing technological advanced, energy efficient systems that are robust enough to hold up to the extreme weather predicted to continue with climate change.

“We are very focused in on an interdisciplinary skill set. We are trying to bring in younger people and create areas within the company that do experimentation,” Pramaggiore said. “We are seeking people with innovation.”

Water Utilities Expert and former General Manager of San Francisco’s Public Utility Commission, Susan Leal, pointed out that people often talk about our carbon footprint, but not about our water footprint.

Leal said that in the United States a person utilizes 1800 gallons of water per day and that food preparation utilizes a great portion. In fact, she cited a statistic regarding the amount of water used to prepare an 8-ounce hamburger not even including the bun to be 654 gallons of water.

“We don’t take into account how much water is in the food we eat,” Leal said. And as our water supply becomes limited, she questions, “How can we feed 9.5 billion people by 2050?”

One of the solutions, according to Leal is producing technology to make water use more efficient in farming and educate farmers about this technology.

Bruce Stephenson, of the Utilities practice at Bain & Company, says that environmental concerns, consumer interest in renewables such as rooftop solar panels, and environmental policy are all driving changes in another vital resource, the electricity grid.

“It is a fascinating and changing time for the grid,” Stephenson said.

Changes to the grid will be seen in its distribution system, as consumers demand more control and convenience in energy delivery. Consumers in higher economic brackets are showing a trend towards generating their own energy with the desire for rooftop solar and rechargeable cars. This tends to be on the wealthier end of the spectrum, as self-generation is expensive.

Such self-generation of energy will cause a cost shift, Stephenson said. But, consumer demands and environmental challenges call for greater flexibility in energy generation, he said.

In the end, changing the grid to meet these demands and challenges will result in cleaner energy, a resilient grid and greater consumer control.