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    An alliance between consumer advocates and environmentalists says it’s time to give consumers a break on their power bills with a "time-of-use" pricing plan.

    Many Ameren Illinois users pay a flat rate for their power that doesn’t vary. But time-of-use would give consumers the option of cheaper rates at certain times, such as late night. Families with the flexibility to shuffle power use, washing clothes at midnight, for example, could save big.

    The Citizens Utility Board consumer watchdog group and the Environmental Defense Fund have joined together to ask the state’s power system regulators, the Illinois Commerce Commission, to look at how the Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison utilities could set up time-of-use. The aim is to thrash out the details and have it in place by 2016.

    Ameren Illinois customers already have the option of Power Smart Pricing, which switches them to a pricing plan where electricity costs rise and fall by the hour. Advocates say time-of-use presents a different option and, while details have still to be worked out, it would mostly likely offer a basic peak and off-peak rate.

    "Power Smart Pricing changes by the hour, but time-of-use might offer customers a little more certainty on knowing when they will pay different rates," said Jim Chilsen, a spokesman for CUB.

    "I think the whole idea is to eventually have a big menu of plans that each family will be able to choose from, according to what their situation is."

    A rolling program giving customers new digital "smart meters," which enable them to closely monitor power use, is making new pricing programs possible.

    The meters are part of a long-term plan to improve the state’s power grid. CUB said consumers are already paying for grid upgrades in their bills, and they deserve to reap some early benefits.

    "In order for the smart grid to work in Illinois, we need to give customers new choices that allow them to use power more efficiently and slash their utility bills," CUB Executive Director David Kolata said.

    The Environmental Defense Fund’s Midwest Clean Energy director, Dick Munson, said time-of-use would deliver cleaner power at less cost by easing peak-time demand on power stations burning fossil fuels.

    "By allowing Illinoisans to run the dishwasher at night when more wind power is available," said Munson, "that’s a win-win for people and the environment."

    Ameren Illinois said it will need to see details of how time-of-use would be implemented, but, in principle, the utility embraces new ways for its customers to save.