There is nothing good to be said about the prospect for significant increases in our residential electricity bills, which ComEd customers will begin seeing this month. No one likes to pay more for a needed service over which they feel little control. But we might find some consolation in a quick review of recent history and, better still, anticipation of the near future.
Announced May 7 by the company that procures energy for numerous companies to supply through ComEd's power infrastructure, the substantial jump in utility rates taking effect this month stem primarily from conditions in the increasingly volatile energy market. But it's worth noting that those same conditions have held costs down, and even produced some decreases, during the past two years.
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Perhaps more worthy of consideration, though, are the pending changes in the "control" portion of the utility-rate equation. On that score, suburban customers will have within the next few years the tools to modify and minimize the effects of similar market fluctuations.
The promise rests in $2.6 billion in improvements ComEd is making to its lines and power facilities and, especially, in the so-called smart grid technology already installed in some Chicago-area communities and making its way toward our suburbs.
That technology has its own price. Under legislation approved in 2011 giving ComEd certain rate-hike guarantees, increases in ComEd's delivery rates boosted residential bills an average $5.50 a month in January. Next January, they could add as much as $3 a month more, if the Illinois Commerce Commission approves ComEd's full latest request.
But the upgrade also has its benefits -- and they are far from insubstantial.
In the immediate term, ComEd estimates -- based on data from upgraded power stations and its own records -- that nearly 1 million Chicago-area customers did not experience outages last year who would have lost power in previous years. Not having to deal with the expense of finding and repairing the sources of outages carries its own cost benefit to ComEd and thus its customers, but early indications are demonstrating the direct effect that consumers can have as well on their own utility bills in the changing technological climate.
A report at the Citizen's Utility Board website says northern Illinois consumers who used "real-time pricing" saved an average of 28 percent off the energy portion of their electricity bills last year. Real-time pricing allows utility customers to modify their electrical usage so that non-urgent functions -- like running the dishwasher or washing clothes -- can operate during off-peak hours when energy prices are cheaper. Smart grid enhancements will give consumers even more power to monitor and manage their energy consumption. In addition, CUB offers a host of additional tips -- from using fluorescent light bulbs to cut bulb energy use by 75 percent to checking the seal on your refrigerator -- at http://www.citizensutilityboard.org/pdfs/ConsumerInfo/EnergyEfficiencyTips.pdf.
So, no, we can't help grumbling about coming increases in our utility bills, but we take some comfort in looking forward to the improvements and the tools on the way for limiting them.