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Ameren, business leaders stress grid modernization at symposium

  

ST. LOUIS – When Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the director of Lambert St. Louis International Airport spoke at a symposium on grid modernization Thursday, she recalled the Good Friday Tornado of 2011 that damaged the main terminal of the airport and left thousands without power in North St. Louis County. Power crews from Ameren worked through the night to restore power less than a day after the full force of the tornado hit the terminal.

However, this year when far less threatening storms hit and the airport again lost power July 3, it led to 600 travelers not reaching their destinations. Hamm-Niebruegge noted that for an airport trying to bring back much-needed connecting traffic, those kinds of outages hurt her business, and by extension a facet of St. Louis infrastructure. Because of those circumstances, she believes grid modernization is key.

The symposium, sponsored by the St. Louis Business Journal and hosted by the Missouri Botanical Garden, featured speakers from the business world and Ameren to discuss what Missouri needed to do to join the overwhelming number of states that have put plans in motion to modernize their electric grids.

Warner Baxter, the chairman and CEO of the Ameren Corporation, highlighted that modernization efforts in Illinois, a $500 million incremental investment by Ameren over the last five years, has improved reliability, made rates more affordable and created 656 permanent jobs at Ameren and caused the hiring of over 1,000 contractors. That introduction gave Erin O’Connell-Diaz, the president of FutureFWD Inc., the opportunity to brag amicably about the efforts in her home state.

“It’s my duty as a former regulator to get you guys on the right side of the road,” she said.

She estimated her state’s citizens had seen $4 billion in savings and had seen reduced outages. Baxter said that Illinois has seen power outage frequency and duration fall 17 to 18 percent.

Part of that comes from a more distributed power supply, instead of a centralized, constantly outgoing power supply. With fuel cells and more residential and commercial solar panels generating power locally, that means less logistical strain on the grid and service providers when outages do occur. Both physical and cybersecurity threats have also been addressed in most modernization efforts, but Ameren’s leadership stressed that their own

Michael Moehn, the president of Ameren Missouri, showed that the Show-Me State joins only West Virginia, Idaho and Montana as states that have not passed a grid modernization plan. Legislators tried last session with Rep. Rocky Miller’s 21st Century Grid Modernization and Security Act, supported in large part by the General Assembly, but some senators, led by Sen. Gary Romine, managed to stave off the attempt in the last weeks of the regular session. Romine argued that the bill would have essentially allowed the energy companies to regulate themselves and bypass the Public Service Commission.

Warren Wood, vice president of external Affairs and Communications at Ameren, said that this characterization of the legislation was untrue, echoing

“It doesn’t take a lot of people in the Senate to kill something,” Wood said.

Yet he and Moehn agreed that Ameren was the party that needed to convince Romine and others that grid modernization was the way forward that would benefit consumers, regulators, businesses, and the state itself.

“Change is always hard,” Moehn said. “It’s incumbent upon us to articulate the benefits. What are customers going to see as a result of this incremental investment and then how do we manage there’s appropriate oversight with the Missouri Public Service Commission… We need to make sure they’re going to be part of the process.”

Sen. Ed Emery chaired the Senate Interim Committee on Utility Regulation and Infrastructure Investment which held two hearings over the summer and fall. He and Miller are likely to file legislation on the matter before session begins.