The Power of Change

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ComEd President/CEO Anne Pramaggiore discusses Illinois’ new Smart Grid System.

On a brisk day this past September, Anne Pramaggiore, president/CEO, ComEd, was playing to a full house. Her pre-law school years as a communications and theater major at Miami University in Ohio served her well; the standing room only crowd of 200 or so was riveted by her words – a good thing because the acoustics were lousy. But what can you expect at 6:30am in a remote suburban reporting center with a provisional AV system?

One of her first points cuts to the core of the message she’s delivering – “our grid is critical…data centers are our biggest customers.” It hits home. In a world were we shop, bank, work and even date online, who hasn’t felt that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach at a storm outage over a broken Internet connection rather than lights or food.

“Keeping all this on means ComEd is never off,” said Ms. Pramaggiore to the crowd. And like the power giant she heads, she seems to be always on, easily generating enough wattage to rouse audiences of every scale, even room-sized at the crack of dawn. But rather than forceful and imposing, she’s earnest, straightforward and upbeat while delivering discourse that’s just colorful enough to engage.

On this particular morning, Ms. Pramaggiore was leading a modern day rendition of an old-fashioned, downhome ‘barnstorming’ to share ComEd’s plans to provide power in a new world order. And thanks to the sheer numbers and storm intelligence, it was fascinating stuff.

Who knew there are 37,000 circuit feet of mainline cable to test or replace; 4,000 manholes to assess and repair; 130,000 new smart meters to install this year alone — a number that rises to 400,000 annually in 2013 – or that ComEd has gone social? Customers can now text outages directly to ComEd with their smart phones or using a mobile app – and get answers the same way – while municipalities can get precise and swift outage-related data with a new electronic tool.

This past storm season was less impactful than ever before, despite having more hot days that required high power usage since 1873. But storm response has come a very long way. ComEd has increased field supervisors, wire watchers, patrollers, responders and call center staff; added new generators to generate temporary power during repairs; created a new $1 million high-tech command center to deploy to worst hit areas; created an electronic damage assessment system to collect outage data; and launched an enhanced mapping system that allows customers and municipalities to view affected customers, cause, crew status and ETR (estimated time to restore).

It all sounds very socially savvy and forward. And as Ms. Pramaggiore notes, these are “changes you need to make if you have a 21st century economy and a 20th century infrastructure. Our goal is to make Chicago economically competitive and offer consumers better use of energy in a smart way.” And in truth, we need a very different kind of energy system – one geared to the more stringent demands of digital data and heavy 24/7 usage. “The regulatory model we used until then was 100 years old,” she explains.

And so far, Ms. Pramaggiore has been very smart about the way she’s gone about making changes and transforming that old system into a state-of-the-art Smart Grid (ComEd’s term for the new system), starting with spearheading the utility’s collaboration to pass the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) in October 2011 to revamp the state’s electric grid. For the utility, it means a 10-year investment program that will cost them $2.6 billion.

Executing the program requires more smarts, and Ms. Pramaggiore has them in spades. The ‘barnstorming’ was one of 26 employee presentations she conducted at sunrise this fall, when it’s possible to catch the most workers between shifts. And it is clearly effective, for she has huge appeal in the field.

“She’s such a regular person…and a very good talker. We all enjoy it when she comes out to talk to us. She’s so honest,” whispered Larry Matchen, a meter service supervisor, in my ear. Standing next to me that morning and watching me furiously scribble away, he was determined to let me know she’s beloved by most of her staffers.

The ability to communicate so compassionately and engender such loyalty is no small feat given the enormous scope of Ms. Pramaggiore’s job and daunting schedule she sustains to bring the enormous 112-year-old electric utility out of the industrial age and into the new millennium’s realm of digital communications. “We’re not the same company we were even two years ago,” she points out. “We now have very different needs.”

And as the watch keeper and decision-maker who must address those needs, Ms. Pramaggiore is nothing less than fervent when she discusses the issue. As well she should be, since it still remains to be seen if she can achieve the tough goals ComEd has set for itself to transform the way electricity gets delivered in Northern Illinois.

Simply put, “the old model allowed utilities to make investments at their discretion, with no requirements to meet certain reliability models. It was based on the least cost model, so utilities could go out and build cheap systems,” she explains.

The EIMA requires ComEd to make upgrades, hit certain performance standards and pay penalties if they don’t. It also specifies where the upgrades must be made. “It’s a unique model. There are others around the country that have some of the elements that our legislation does, but no one has pieced it together the same way he have,” acknowledges Ms. Pramaggiore.

But it also stipulates rate increases to generate revenue that would offset costs for ComEd’s $2.6 billion investment in the Smart Grid, and that piece of the puzzle has been stymied by the Illinois Commerce Commission’s ruling last month that altered the way the new formula is applied to increase electricity rates. The result is less money for ComEd – about $100 million a year starting in 2014 and beyond, according to ComEd.

The upshot is that ComEd announced delays to key elements of its grid modernization program right after the ruling, and now will not begin installing additional smart meters until 2015 – two years later than initially planned. And the company publicly noted, “more than $2.3 billion in customer savings and creation of 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs will be delayed.” And yes, they’re appealing the ruling in court.

So where does that leave Ms. Pramaggiore, clearly her company’s most salient and effective emissary, as the pro-consumer activists go head-to-head with ComEd? Right where we would expect to find her – still passionately committed to making it work. “We aren’t going to back off. It’s important to the future of our business and the state’s stakeholders,” she insists. “If they decide that they don’t want this kind of grid, that’s one thing. But if I don’t get out there and fight for it, shame on me.”

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About Lisa Skolnik

Lisa Skolnik is a Chicago-based freelancer. She is contributing editor to Today’s Chicago Woman, Chicago Home & Garden and more. Ms. Skolnik is also regular contributor to numerous print and online publications on business, real estate, personal finance, women’s issues, education, relationships, travel, gardening, architecture, design and food.