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The Breathtaking Smart City of Tomorrow

Regulators seek collaboration to build smart energy efficient cities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brien Sheahan, the top utility regulator in Illinois, the nation’s fifth most populous state, delivered a major address on the future of utility regulation at the Empowering Customers and Cities conference in Chicago earlier this month. Following is an excerpt from that speech, the last of a three-part series.

Chicago’s and Mayor Emanuel’s vision is built on a commitment to modern infrastructure, smart communities, and technological innovation. A smart, flexible, and reliable power grid built for the 21st century, and appropriate regulatory framework, is essential to achieving that vision, and ultimately meeting the needs of not only Chicago but the entire region.

Among the most important issues from a municipal standpoint are grid resiliency and micro-­‐grids developed around essential infrastructure such hospitals, public safety and public works facilities, and airports. But also interesting are rooftop and community solar deployment, EV charging stations, and smart streetlights and water meters.  All of these smart devices can be networked which create some intriguing possibilities.

Brien Sheahan with an attendee at the Empowering Customers and Cities conference in Chicago last month. // Photo courtesy of ComEd

Smart streetlights, for example, can be outfitted with sensors to dim when not “needed” reducing municipal energy costs. Planned versions of smart streetlights will have the ability to gather hundreds of data points.  They can also take advantage of the mesh communication network that is being built with the installation of Smart Meters.

The same mesh communication system could potentially be leveraged to enable “smart water

meters” or other similar customer enabling opportunities to achieve greater efficiencies. The sensors could also help manage traffic flow allowing city residents to determine the most efficient route destination or detect ground temperatures to help the City manage its snow plowing and salt truck fleet.

Sensors can also detect crashes, fires, floods, and other indicators related to public safety. In sum, these sensors have the capacity to enable greater control over the critical decisions that influence production and consumption patterns, unlocking benefits to consumers, utilities, and governments.  All of these smart devices generate enormous data streams, which will require equally massive data processing and analysis to fully leverage.

In response to the rapid evolution of both the utility industry and technology, the Illinois Commerce Commission is already striving to adapt more quickly and to embrace opportunities that come with being technology enablers versus perpetuating antiquated regulations that no longer make sense.

For example, the commission has started to look at ways to incentivize technology advancements in energy analytics and cloud computing arrangements – or the technology that will make the smart grid “smart” by remotely compiling and integrating data generated by these devices.  Recently, we hosted a policy session to consider whether the regulatory treatment of such devices should be improved by leveling the playing field between cloud-­‐based and on-­‐premise software solutions.

Our aim was to contemplate how to encourage utilities to adopt cloud-­‐based technologies that will be necessary to fully realize the value of the modern grid, allow the delivery of IT services to be secure, reliable, and at-­‐scale, and provide increased value to customers and the environment. Although this is just one subject that will fall within the purview of the Initiative, it illustrates the real need for regulations to catch up with technological innovation.

Regulators understand the issues at stake and create rules that support utilities in ways the deliver even greater benefits to consumers and shareholders alike. The collaborative stakeholder process can be the catalyst for much needed regulatory reform in Illinois.

Brien Sheahan is chairman  and chief executive officer of the Illinois Commerce Commission.  

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