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Ameren launches 5-year 'upgrade' program

Ameren launches 5-year 'upgrade' program

February 16th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Local News

Ameren Missouri Central Division Manager Chip Webb talks about Ameren's newly-announced plans to transorm the state's energy grid.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Ameren Missouri is launching what it calls "the largest infrastructure investment plan" in the company's more than 100-year history.

Warren Wood, Ameren's vice president of legislative affairs, told reporters at a Friday morning news briefing the new plan "will transform our state's energy grid into a stronger, smarter and more reliable grid, with cleaner energy for customers."

The "grid" is the network for delivering electricity from producers to consumers, including power generating stations and high-voltage transmission lines.

Ameren Missouri announced its plans a day after filing the proposal with the Missouri Public Service Commission.

"This customer-focused, multi-billion dollar investment plan includes more than 2,000 projects over the next five years that will transform and modernize the energy grid for generations," Wood said, "and the way that consumers receive and use energy — all while keeping rates stable and predictable."

Work on the upgrades is to begin this year, including $1.45 million slated to be spent on two Jefferson City projects — a "smart grid" project in Downtown Jefferson City and an upgrade at the Fairgrounds Substation on Industrial Drive, east of Missouri 179.

The five-year plan also includes substation upgrades in New Bloomfield in 2020 and in Holts Summit in 2023.

The Mid-Missouri substations are among more than 70 in Ameren's Eastern Missouri territory that, Wood said, will "increase reliability and serve customers through a network that is more cost-effective and efficient."

Cyber-security is a major component of the total upgrades.

"One of the key elements is to make sure that we stay on top of the cyber-security," Wood said. "That's a critical part of the plan (because) you do have additional automation in the system."

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe pointed to Gov. Mike Parson's goal of improving the state's infrastructure.

"We talk a lot about roads and bridges," Kehoe noted, "but energy infrastructure, as we know, in our state is aging just as badly."

The last real upgrade to the way Missourians get their electricity came in the 1950s and '60s, Kehoe said, when more and more people began using air conditioning in the summer months, "and we haven't done anything, since."

Wood said highlights of the total plan include:

New "smart grid" sensors, switches and self-healing equipment "to rapidly detect and isolate outages — speeding power restoration when service interruptions do actually occur."

A stronger, more secure energy delivery "backbone, to better withstand severe weather," including more than 12,000 new utility poles — "many fortified with composite materials and stronger equipment," Wood said.

"More than 400 miles of upgraded, underground cable and equipment to create a more efficient underground delivery system, to better serve customers."

The installation of "hundreds of thousands" of smart electric meters by 2023 "to give customers more insight and control over their energy usage, and cost."

Construction of "major clean energy projects" to help continue Ameren's "transition to a cleaner energy future for customers."

Wood said the plan also includes the increased use of solar energy and battery storage on the system, "especially in rural areas."

Wood said changes in state law last year made the five-year project possible.

Those changes included a nearly 6 percent rate cut last August, because the legislation required investor-owned utilities to share with consumers the companies' reduced tax-burden under the 2017 federal tax law.

Also under the state law, base electric rates are frozen until at least April 2020, and future electric rate increases are limited for the next five years.

"In addition to rate stability," Wood said, "this plan also provides for economic development incentives to grow existing businesses and attract new business, creating jobs and supporting economic vitality across the state."

Kehoe was a state senator when the law was passed and called the final bill "a very balanced (compromise) for both the consumer" and the utilities.

He said one of the law's goals was getting Ameren and the state's two other investor-owned utilities — KCP and L (formerly Kansas City Power and Light) and Joplin-based Empire Electric — "to help deploy those dollars into upgrading the infrastructure and giving us reliable energy."

Kehoe said Missouri's utilities have very competitive electric rates, when compared with other states — but the grid reliability is better in other parts of the nation.

House Utilities Committee Chairman Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, said he sees the same thing, as he serves on several national, utilities-related groups.

"We weren't doing anything" in Missouri as compared with other states, Miller said, "and we just kept hitting roadblocks and getting farther and farther behind.

"What's great about this law is that we've made a giant leap forward. It's a great new law for consumers — cutting rates, freezing rates and capping rates are just the beginning."

Miller sees the new law as being part of "a giant economic driver for our area."

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, sponsored the 2018 bill, which he called "a culmination of years of work and countless iterations."

He noted Ameren Missouri's 3 million customers are nearly half of the state's electricity consumers, and will enjoy numerous benefits from the law as the utility company begins improving its system.