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ICC expected to vote Friday on ComEd smart-grid plan

Updated: July 23, 2012 8:02AM

The Illinois Commerce Commission is expected to vote Friday on Commonwealth Edison’s smart-grid improvement plan and whether to re-hear arguments on the electricity rate that ComEd says it needs to finance the upgrades.

The ICC has approved a rate that ComEd claims is inadequate, ruling that ComEd cannot earn a rate of return on a pension asset that is not fully funded.

ComEd had proposed a decrease in its electricity rates of $40 million to $50 million, but because of the pension issue, the ICC decided on May 29 to cut customers’ rates four times that request, for a total of $168.6 million. The ICC ruling would give ComEd customers a $1.70-a-month decrease in their bills, on average, through the end of the year.

The conflict prolongs a hard-fought campaign ComEd waged last year for a $2.6 billion plan to upgrade its electric grid over a 10-year period, including hiring more women- and minority-owned companies to help with the work, upgrading substations to allow faster responses to power outages and installing digital “smart” meters to let people save money by changing when and how they use electricity. ComEd won its efforts to install a controversial new rate plan that critics say will guarantee yearly rate hikes over Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto, and political insiders see the Quinn-appointed ICC’s actions as pushback. No one at the ICC would comment Friday beyond confirming the agenda items.

ComEd has asked for a stay in the smart-meter installation timetable until after a rehearing on the rate dispute, claiming the lower rate made it uncertain it could meet its timetable of deploying the meters to all of its 4 million Northern Illinois customers in the next decade.

On Friday, supporters of ComEd’s power-grid plans pleaded with the ICC to reconsider its rate-reduction decision, saying that new hiring, a much-needed economic boost and staying competitive with surrounding states’ grid updates are at stake.

Ken Aldridge, president of Libertyville-based Aldridge Electric, said he will have to lay off 65 highly paid engineers and electricians if ComEd cannot continue its smart-grid work.

“These jobs are really important,” he said at a news conference with Doug Whitley, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce; Robert Pierson, business manager of IBEW Local 9; Robert Abboud, Barrington Hills village president; and Arthur Miller, president and CEO of contractor MZI Group.

“The ComEd project is a chance for our company to grow and hire more workers,” said Aldridge, whose 650-employee business aims to hire a total of 150 more people by the end of the ComEd project to replace electrical lines, upgrade underground cable and transformer volts and install smart-grid switches, meters and computers at substations.

Miller, of MZI Group, said the 12 electricians his company hired to inspect manholes and do other work at a $42-an-hour wage had been unemployed for 15 months, on average. Miller also invested $350,000 in new utility trucks and equipment.

“These are people who cannot afford not to work,” he said. “They all have families and would otherwise loses their houses.”

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