Everett "Buddy" Parkerson of Ameren Illinois installs smart meters in the Champaign/Urbana area. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Midwest Energy News / file

Last week, Illinois was again awarded top marks in a national assessment of how states are modernizing electricity transmission and distribution systems, even as local energy advocates say there is much more work to be done in the state.

The Grid Modernization Index ranked Illinois second in the nation overall, after California. It was the fourth such assessment produced by GridWise Alliance, a national organization representing grid operators, designers, and other energy stakeholders.

The group applauded Illinois for its NextGrid initiative, a statewide program aimed at building agreement around a pathway to modernize the Illinois electricity system. The state “began aggressively planning in early 2017 for the utility of the future by initiating the NextGrid initiative, which aims to examine the use of new technologies to improve the state’s electric grid while minimizing energy costs to consumers.”

Brien J. Sheahan, the chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, said in a statement that he was very pleased that “Illinois is being recognized as a national leader for our efforts to embrace innovations in technology and modernize our grid.”

David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said Illinois’ ranking is encouraging and that significant progress modernizing the state’s grid has been made. But he said that there is a lot more work to be done.

“We need to make sure that the consumer value for that investment is maximized,” Kolata said. “We are moving in that direction, but there is more to do. We are halfway or two-thirds in an overall modernization cycle that we hope and expect at the end of the day will end up with a cheaper and cleaner grid.”

As part of the NextGrid program, officials are evaluating new grid technologies and training decision makers on ways they can address the challenging financial and technological issues that arise as the state’s centralized grid system is replaced with a more distributed and digital grid.

The study launched last March with a gathering of hundreds of business leaders, regulators, researchers and other industry players.

In the past, ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore has said the goal of the NextGrid study is 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.”

The index ratings were based on several factors. States were assessed on how well they support grid modernization through plans and polices (Illinois ranked second in that category), they were also assessed by their customer engagement—which includes their rate structure, outreach and data collection (Illinois was third), and states were measured on their installation of smart meters, sensors and their overall deployment of new smart grid tech (Illinois was third).

Toba Pearlman, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement that it’s clear that Illinois recognizes that new opportunity and technologies are available—in particular new solar, storage, electric vehicles, demand response and other energy efficiency tech.

But Pearlman said: “The real question, which Illinois will face in NextGrid and elsewhere, is how to appropriately value and incentivize them to ensure that they provide the most value to customers not only in the near term but also in the future. The real work and opportunities are just beginning.”