SUN TIMES EDITORIAL: Springfield Electric Bill Fails to Put Customers First

By: CHICAGO SUN TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD

Almost every bill gets tweaked as it works its way through Springfield. But a 446-page bill dropped on the public Tuesday to revamp Illinois energy policy — beginning with how much you will pay to turn on the lights —requires major surgery.

It would be a disservice to the people of Illinois for the Illinois Legislature to approve this bill in its present form.

At its core, the proposed legislation holds promise. After a year and a half of negotiating, Illinois power companies, environmentalists and consumer advocates have agreed on a plan that would significantly boost energy conservation, make Illinois a leader in renewable energy jobs and benefit low-income communities. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates the conservation provisions would make Illinois one of the top three states in that category.

It also would set aside $1 billion for low-income assistance, including job training.

Unfortunately, the legislation has serious drawbacks. Among what the negotiators call “open issues,” the bill includes an indefensible last-minute bailout for Downstate coal-fired plants, which pollute the environment. Large commercial and manufacturing plants fear their energy bills will soar if this bill becomes law, and residential users of electricity would now get monthly bills based on an incomprehensible formula that figures not just how much power they use but also when they use it.

This is no way to encourage manufacturers and residents to choose Illinois.

The bill, called the Future Energy Jobs Bill, nearly doubles spending on energy efficiency and increases the amount of renewable energy that utilities must buy. Environmentalists say those provisions could make Illinois a leader in wind and solar energy. The bill builds on similar legislation that Citizens Utility Board Executive Director David Kolata said has made the price of power in Illinois among the lowest in the region. In 2008, Illinois raised its energy efficiency standards, and consumers since then have saved more than $1 billion.

The bill also would require Exelon to keep open for at least six years two money-losing nuclear plants — Clinton and Quad Cities — that the utility is in the process of shutting down. The plants would qualify for a subsidy under a new “zero emission standard,” which recognizes they generate power without adding more carbon dioxide to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Exelon, which generates power, says nuclear power also is more reliable. To meet renewable targets in the Future Jobs bill, Exelon says it will have to install the equivalent of a solar panel for every person in Illinois and more than 100,000 additional acres of windmills, but even all that extra renewable energy will not make up for the power lost by closing just the Clinton nuclear plant. Furthermore, renewable energy is not as reliable as nuclear power during peak periods. Solar doesn’t work when there is no sunshine, and windmills generate most of their energy in spring and fall, while the peak demand is in summer.

In exchange for the subsidy, Exelon has agreed to return any surplus to ratepayers if energy prices rise.

For ComEd, a subsidiary of Exelon that distributes energy, the bill would provide “demand rate” pricing — and that’s a big rub. It’s based your “peak” times, such as when you are running the air-conditioner and various other appliances all at the same time, not the total amount of power you use for a month.

In exchange, ComEd has agreed to halve its existing “fixed charges,” which is the amount of money customers pay each month even if they use no electricity at all. It also has tweaked its proposed demand-rate formula to be more user-friendly. The utility estimates 65 percent of customers would see decreases in their bills.

The bottom line, nonetheless, is that demand-rate pricing is way too complicated. Users now understand that if they use less power, their bills will be lower, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case with demand rates, which have been rejected in every other state where they have been proposed. ComEd should find a more comprehensible way to maintain its revenue stream.

What we like about this bill is that it would do much for energy conservation and would provide the incentives for renewable energy that would protect the environment and attract energy investments to the state. A vibrant renewable energy industry would be a strong boost for Illinois’ economy.

But this bill fails to put the customer first. Why not write a bill that does both — conserves energy and treats the consumer fairly.