This cleantech hotspot is giving New York and California a run for their money

Look no further than the heart of the country: Illinois.

California and New York often steal the spotlight on cleantech innovation, but those in the know are keeping their eye on Illinois.

The energy sector has been undergoing rapid change in the Land of Lincoln, thanks to a slew of innovative initiatives. More than ever before, Illinois’ buildings are more efficient, its electric grid is more modern, and its electricity use is smarter. And the state is just getting started.

Powering all of the buildings in the United States costs over $400 billion a year. Many of these buildings were built long before modern energy codes and, therefore, use more power than they should. This gap presents a ripe opportunity: The retrofit industry is now valued at $20 billion, and Illinois is paying attention. The state topped the list of most LEED-certified buildings from 2013–2015, and has remained in the top 5 since.

Chicago also continues to put buildings’ energy efficiency front and center, as evidenced by its annual Energy Benchmarking Report. Begun in 2013, the yearly report is an overview of Chicago buildings’ energy performance, as well as a summary of energy findings and trends. Over the past two years, Chicago’s largest buildings decreased emissions by nearly 20 percent, and buildings have saved more than $39 million from lower energy use over the course of the forward-looking program.

And an innovative pilot program will use real-time data to further solidify Chicago as an energy efficiency pioneer. In a collaboration between Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Accelerate Group, and the state’s largest electric utility, ComEd, the program aims to inform — through smart meter data — the day-to-day decisions of equipment operators at 10 large Chicago buildings. By uniquely combining real-time information, hour-by-hour energy-use targets, and financial incentives, the pilot will motivate building operators to make more energy-efficient choices.

While Illinois’ buildings are getting more efficient, the state continues to be at forefront of grid modernization. Updating grid infrastructure can take many forms, like smart meter deployment and inventive rate designs, all of which are designed to improve customer choice and strengthen grid resilience. In the GridWise Alliance’s most recent Grid Modernization Index, which ranks states in terms of state support, customer engagement, and grid operations, Illinois came in second of all 50 states.

As Illinois continues to invest in smart meters and other grid modernization efforts, the state’s utilities want to know the effect these investments have. Specifically, are grid programs fulfilling environmental promises and cutting pollution? Illinois is the first in the country to adopt a new tool that calculates clean air benefits from investments such as advanced meters.

Illinois further displayed its advanced smart-grid approach last year when it approved an energy data-sharing program for ComEd. The program, developed and advanced by EDF and the Citizens Utility Board (CUB), allows companies and researchers access to anonymous energy-use data from ComEd’s nearly 4 million smart meters.

EDF and CUB have already begun digging into this treasure trove of energy data, beginning by asking how customers would have fared under a “real-time pricing” program in which power prices change hourly. Anonymous data from over 300,000 homes revealed several interesting tidbits, including this juggernaut: Real-time prices would have saved 97 percent of customers money in 2016 — even if the customers made no changes to how they use electricity. The new data analysis is an exciting step toward better understanding how well-designed electricity pricing can help people save money, as well as create a more efficient, cleaner electricity system.

Harnessing the power of data can create more customer choice and opportunities for new players to enter the market, a critical step toward smarter electricity use. Microgrids also have a key role to play.

Essentially a mini-power grid that can “island” itself from the larger grid, microgrids can be a single building, an entire campus or neighborhood, or even larger. Although the use of microgrids has been increasing quickly across the country, it’s only been certain kinds of microgrids. That’s because utilities are largely the gatekeepers of the infrastructure needed to accelerate development, and most aren’t exactly eager to share or relinquish control.

An unprecedented agreement in Illinois is set to change that. ComEd will work with EDF and CUB to create a first-of-its-kind tariff that will allow non-utility third parties to develop and manage microgrids — with the option to use ComEd’s wires and poles. This decision will kick off a process to facilitate a whole new kind of microgrid, with the opportunity for entrepreneurs and other new players to strengthen resilience, increase efficiency, cut pollution, and more.

We could go on and on about all the ways Illinois is using technology, data, and innovation to break down barriers and create a system where buildings and the grid are both smart and efficient. It’s true California and New York are making moves, but the Midwest is proving itself to be a real contender on clean energy progress, innovation, and investment.

Read more on the possibility of a modern power grid delivering cleaner energy here.


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