A bill that could result in electric rate increases through the end of the decade as two major power companies move forward on a sweeping grid modernization program was approved Friday by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The measure allows Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois to avoid legislative review of the digital smart grid program until 2019 instead of 2017. Critics argue the move sets the stage for the politically influential companies to win annual rate hikes through a formula that is weighted in favor of utilities over consumers.
“We’re generally supportive of smart grid improvements, but it’s too early to tell whether their full value is being maximized for consumers,” said Citizens Utility Board Executive Director David Kolata, who expressed disappointment at Rauner’s action. “I don’t think it sends the right message to utilities.”
Kolata said he feared that extending the law for two years would mean utilities could take advantage of the formula-based rate increases without enough accountability for their performance.
Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf maintained the law will allow “important investments in the electric grid that will improve system reliability.”
“The underlying law allows the Illinois Commerce Commission to review utility expenditures to ensure they are reasonable as well as set penalties for the failure to achieve implementation metrics,” Schrimpf said in an email. “The ICC maintains its existing authority to initiate an investigation at any time to review concerns it may have with electric rates or implementation of the program.”
Proponents of the new law said the smart grid operations are on track and consumers were starting to see the results of better service. The measure last year passed both houses with bipartisan support.
The bill got to Rauner because of a rare parliamentary maneuver employed by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, that allowed an end run around the governor’s Democratic predecessor, Pat Quinn, a longtime utility company antagonist.
Cullerton won passage of the bill following the November election in which Rauner beat Quinn. But the Senate leader held back on sending the bill to the governor’s desk until Quinn had left office.
“It’s sneaky. It’s not straightforward,” said Quinn, who was quick to lambaste the legislation.
“I think the governor and the legislature let the consumers of Illinois down,” Quinn said Friday. “It is a blow to everyday people who want to have fairness in their utility rates.”
The rate-hike formula went into effect in 2011. ComEd, which handles most of northern Illinois, had argued it couldn’t justify investing $2.6 billion in the modernization project unless it could guarantee the money it invested could be recouped quickly and predictably through utility rate hikes.
Ameren spokeswoman Marcelyn Love dismissed the notion that the law puts in place an annual rate hike, saying consumers with the utility that covers most of Illinois south of Interstate 80 saw rates decreases in some years since the smart grid program took effect.
Love said lawmakers and the ICC still have a major voice in oversight, including annual reviews before the utility regulators.
Source: Chicago Tribune