Illinois NextGrid Roadmap to a Clean Future, Lessons for Other Stakeholder Planning and Blue Ribbon Panel Efforts

Last week was the close of public comments on the final draft of the NextGrid Illinois Utility of the Future Study, a report that — while not an official roadmap for modernizing Illinois’ power grid and energy regulatory framework — represents the state’s biggest effort on that front.

The 256-page document is the result of 18 months of study and collaboration between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Illinois Commerce Commission, utilities ComEd and Ameren, grid operators PJM and MISO, and scores of advocacy groups, researchers, government agencies and companies. Other participating parties include Citizens Utility Board, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and Tesla.

The scope of the report is massive, ranging from deployment and integration of grid edge technologies such as solar PV, energy storage, electric vehicles and community microgrids, to big-picture questions about overhauling the state’s utility regulatory structure to better cope with a more distributed and customer-centric energy future. 

NextGrid’s facilitators didn’t try to get participants in the 12 months of working groups that informed the report to reach consensus on any of these issues — that wasn’t part of its mandate. Instead, its goals are to “explore legal, policy, market-based and technological options for further grid modernization efforts,” create a “common knowledge base about grid modernization” to inform that discussion, and “focus on how potential changes may impact customers, markets, communities, and the utilities [that] serve them.” 

The NextGrid report adopts the following working definition of the term grid “modernization”: “all investments, technology adoption, necessary grid modifications and policy initiatives via legislative and regulatory actions to realize the envisioned capabilities and attributes of future grids.” But it doesn’t include any “investigation of the projected costs and benefits of grid modernization investment strategies,” although it presents plenty of stakeholder viewpoints on the subject. 

The study is not an official ICC proceeding that could deliver an order directing utilities to start following any new policies. It hasn’t had the hearings, testimony or cross-examination that any such ICC proceeding would face. This fact has already led the NextGrid effort into its first legal challenge this week, when a state court issued an injunction against releasing the final version of the report until a lawsuit against the ICC is resolved.

Consumer advocacy group Illinois PIRG Education Fund and battery storage developer GlidePath have accused the ICC of blocking their participation in several report-related working groups that weren’t open to the public, and argue that ComEd and Ameren have been able to influence the study by funding project facilitators and reviewing drafts before they’re released.  

Even so, the NextGrid effort is likely to lay the groundwork for how regulators and utilities define the terms of what is to come next in the state’s grid modernization push, which makes it worth getting into. Here are the highlights from the sprawling document, from its grounding in the state’s energy history, to how stakeholders see its future coming into focus.