Chicago Utility to Test Distributed Solar

ComEd, the electric service provider arm of Exelon Corporation (which delivers electricity to about 70 percent of northern Illinois), is planning a distributed solar array that will involve outfitting 100 Chicago-area homes with solar photovoltaic panels, and retrofitting at least 50 of those with “smart” meters, net metering, battery backup and a grid-tied status that enables them to send unused electricity from their solar energy systems back to the grid.

The aim, according to ComEd, is to convert each home into a “mini-utility” in an attempt to prove that individual homes can act as power generators, buying and selling electricity in real-time, according to ComEd Environmental and Marketing VP, Val Jensen.

Those who get the solar power systems will be selected via a survey, depending on their roof’s sturdiness, north-south orientation, and absence of significant shading by trees or other buildings.

The homes are part of a pilot program aimed at helping energy customers become better consumers; that is, planning electrical usage to avoid “peak” loading (i.e., the hours of heaviest electrical usage in the morning and evening) – planning which not only influences the size of utility bills, but delays the need for expensive transmission and distribution system upgrades.

Funding for the experiment is coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or stimulus, via the U.S. Department of Energy, which has kicked in $5 million. ComEd and its technology vendors, including Arlington, Virginia-based Gridpoint, have provided $3 million in almost-matching funds.

Eventually, the smart grid will be expanded to 131,000 homes, with a core of 8,000 homes that will be used to evaluate advanced metering capabilities. That is, two-way smart metering that tests consumers’ ability to use the technology to change energy use behaviors, leading to an end to both jaw-dropping electricity bills and peak loading (which can lead to brownouts and blackouts).

The smart-use rollout will include about 3,100 customers using a basic energy-use display meter; 1,500 ratepayers getting a larger, touch-screen device that allows electricity monitoring and Internet access; and 400 ComEd users getting programmable thermostats that allow programming and remote control of heating and air-conditioning units. The idea behind the latter is that smart consumers will raise (or lower) settings during the day when family members are absent and electric rates at their highest.

According to Jensen, the pilot program will run for 12 months, and is the largest in the country to focus on retraining electrical consumers to change their habits to reduce stress on America’s aging electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure.

It is also the first in the world to offer a tiered approach to pricing for those who become part of the pilot, offering one of six electric rates; the current flat rate; rising rates based on more-than-average consumption; hourly rates based on day-ahead wholesale rates; rates sharply rising based on peak demand; a rebate for those who reduce use during peak demand; and a time-of-use rating based on peak loading and non-peak periods, like midnight to 7 a.m.

Author: Jeanne Roberts

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Posted in: Solar Trends

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