Illinois regulators have launched a collaborative, statewide effort to share knowledge and build consensus around the myriad challenges facing a modernizing, 21st-century power grid.

The effort, called NextGrid, aims to evaluate emerging grid technologies and to educate policymakers on the complex economic and engineering challenges that come with digitizing and decentralizing what for a century has been a largely analog and centralized system.

The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), the state’s public utility commission, will manage NextGrid with the assistance of an unnamed “expert, independent third-party facilitator.” Utilities, communities, academics, environmental groups, consumer groups and other constituencies are invited to participate in the process, which will culminate in reports to be published in early and late 2018.

NextGrid, which was announced last week, comes on the heels of the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act late last year – one of the few legislative accomplishments of a gridlocked Illinois General Assembly. That bill provided a much-needed subsidy for two of the state’s cash-strapped nuclear plants while also expanding funding for renewable development and efficiency programs in Illinois.

“Some of the key elements the Commission will be looking at over the next several years in the wake of the Future Energy Jobs Act are the factors of where on the grid different energy assets create value, when during the day and the year those assets create value, and how they create value to support reliability and efficiency,” said Andrew Barbeau, a consultant retained by the Environmental Defense Fund to work on smart-grid issues. “These are complex questions with no easy answers.”

Utilities, advocates, academics and analysts across the country largely agree that the U.S. power grid – the elaborate, inconspicuous web of electric production, distribution and consumption that keeps the lights on – is in dire need of an upgrade. Earlier this month, researchers at the MIT Energy Initiative published a report proposing one possible framework for regulators that aims to “establish a level playing field for the provision and consumption of electricity services and enable the integration of a cost-effective combination of centralized generation, conventional network assets, and emerging distributed resources, whatever that mix may be.”

Precisely what that power system mix is – and how it balances a dizzying array of new power innovations and constituent demands – is still up for debate.

“[T]he advent of distributed generation and storage, demand response and energy efficiency, interconnected smart devices and appliances, microgrids, electric vehicles, the use of big data and analytics, environmental objectives, and a host of new technologies, products, services—spurring the development of entirely new energy markets—is challenging existing network design, capability, and regulatory policy,” reads the ICC resolution announcing NextGrid. “[T]hese developments promise even greater future consumer and societal benefits as customers take advantage of emerging convergence of the electric and technology industries, and the electric system moves towards the integration of  distributed energy resources and a transactional framework allowing customers opportunities to buy, sell, produce, and store electricity … “

This is not the first time Illinois has organized a push to reimagine the power grid. In 1996 and 1997, the Regulatory Initiative Task Force laid the groundwork for the Illinois Electric Service Customer Choice and Rate Relief Law of 1997, which restructured the state’s electricity market opening up consumer choice for electric suppliers. In 2009 and 2010, the Illinois Statewide Smart Grid Collaborative outlined a strategy for building a smart grid in Illinois. A year later, state legislators passed the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, which spurred the spread of smart meters, real-time pricing programs, and other smart-grid-enabled programs across the state.

Between 2010 and 2015, the number of Advanced Metering Infrastructure installations in Illinois jumped 1,400 percent from 150,000 to 2.3 million. ComEd and Ameren Illinois, the state’s largest utilities are spending billions on smart meters and other grid modernization efforts.

“We see NextGrid as an opportunity to find common ground on critical issues facing our industry and as a driver of the clean, lean, ultra-resilient energy future our customers want,” said Anne Pramaggiore, president and CEO of ComEd, in a press release. Illinois electric utilities will provide funding for the facilitation of NextGrid, according to the ICC.

Consumer and environmental advocates, who have long pushed for utilities to adopt more smart-grid technologies and programs, praised ICC’s announcement Wednesday.

“As Illinois revamps its power grid and prepares to implement the Future Energy Jobs Act, one of the key challenges is: How do we maximize consumer value?” said David Kolata, executive director of Citizens Utility Board, in a press release. “The NextGrid is a vital step toward that goal. This is a great opportunity to create the regulatory framework necessary to allow Illinois consumers to take full advantage of an electricity system that is more reliable and more affordable.”

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.