A nonprofit group formed by the Illinois General Assembly 38 years ago to advocate for utility customers and fight rate increases supported a clean-energy bill estimated to boost residential ratepayers’ bills between $43 and $180 per year.
But backing the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act didn’t conflict with the group’s mission, and that mission hasn’t changed since the inception of the Chicago-based Citizens Utility Board, CUB executive director David Kolata said.
“When all is said and done, we think that this is going to make Illinois a leader on cost-effective clean-energy policy, and we thoroughly expect that electric bills will be lower than they would be otherwise than if no bill had passed,” Kolata told The State Journal-Register.
“So we think it’s perfectly consistent with our mission, and we are proud to support it,” he said.
Supporters of Senate Bill 2408, which passed on bipartisan votes Sept. 9 in the Illinois House and four days later in the Senate, said it was landmark, trend-setting legislation for the country when Gov. JB Pritzker signed it into law Wednesday.
Opponents called it the largest utility rate hike in Illinois history.
Kolata said the costs of the bill will be more than offset by energy efficiencies, lower power bills and savings to ratepayers if the example set by Illinois spreads across the United States and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and slow climate change.
“It’s a big step forward for the state, and it’s certainly the most comprehensive, the most equitable and the most consumer-friendly approach to dealing with climate change in the country,” he said. “It’s important to lead by example. You have to start somewhere. … But it’s not a magic bullet for the global problem.”
Estimates vary on how the wide-ranging bill will affect average Illinois residential ratepayers in the pocketbook.
On the high end, Illinois AARP estimates a $15 per month boost in bills. On the low end, CUB estimated around $3.50 per month, or less than a 5% increase, over a five-year period.
Kolata said the higher estimates from other groups are based on different assumptions and what he called “worst-case scenarios.”
Even CUB’s estimate didn’t account for “significant savings” associated with energy-efficiency measures the bill would encourage utilities to promote, he said.
The estimate also doesn’t include expected reductions in energy prices that will come with the preservation of three nuclear power plants in northern Illinois and the expansion of renewable energy and related technologies, Kolata said.
Moreover, an analysis conducted by CUB and published in June concluded Commonwealth Edison customers would have to pay $10.9 billion more on their electric bills over the next 30 years, mostly through the use of more air conditioning, if climate change isn’t addressed.
Such an increase, which would be mirrored in other utilities’ territories in Illinois, would far exceed any rate increases associated with the energy bill, though CUB hasn’t figured out how much more, Kolata said.
“Because of more weather extremes — hotter summers and colder winters — you end up using more electricity, and that increased electricity increases bills,” he said. “It increases bills just because people are using more.
“The option of doing nothing, I think, wasn’t a real option, because if we did nothing, there’s no question in our minds that bills would have gone up significantly higher. And not only that, it would have really foreclosed us from really dealing with climate change.”
The bill had the support of most of the Democrats who control the General Assembly and by the Democratic governor. Its support from Republicans came in legislative districts that are home to nuclear power plants and the thousands of workers they directly and indirectly employ.
Many Republican lawmakers from central and southern Illinois voted against the energy bill. They said the clean-energy provisions should be studied further.
They said a stripped-down version of the bill should be passed instead — one focused on providing $694 million over five years in rate subsidies to keep the Byron, Dresden and Braidwood nuclear power plants open. But that’s not what happened.
Downstate lawmakers said they worried about the bill’s potential downsizing of the Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois in 2038 and the required closure of coal-fired units operated by Prairie State and by Springfield’s City Water, Light & Power in 2045.
They said the feared the reductions and closures would lead to downstate utilities having to purchase more electricity at a higher cost from out-of-state plants using even less environmentally friendly methods.
However, Kolata said there are regulatory “safeguards” built into the legislation to monitor the growth of renewable energy produced by wind, solar, hydrogen and other technologies. The bill would allow for potential delays in the phaseout of fossil fuel-fired energy production to avoid power reliability issues and brownouts, he said.
“We will have the tools to prevent that type of situation, and at CUB we’re going to be doing everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said. “This is why implementation of the bill is incredibly important. … At the end of the day, I think the doomsday scenarios about reliability are overstated.”
State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, who voted against the energy bill, said the legislation will make “zero dent in climate change” when countries such as China continue to operate and build coal-fired power plants.
And if the safeguards CUB refers to would slow the premature closure of CWLP and Prairie State’s coal-fired units, Rose questioned the logic in setting any firm closure dates for those units.
Coal-fired plants, he said, will be needed for the foreseeable future to provide adequate base-load power in Illinois and elsewhere amid concerns about reliable supplies of electricity in other parts of the United States and world that depend heavily on renewable energy.
Rose said many of his constituents in central Illinois depend on Prairie State for power and are upset the bill passed.
“We get to pay more for electricity while a bunch of leftist progressives can issue press releases and pat themselves on the back while claiming they are ‘clean and green,’” he said.
Illinois is one of a handful of states with a ratepayer advocacy group such as CUB. The organization began operating in 1984 after former Republican Gov. James Thompson signed a bill passed by the General Assembly in 1983. Its supporters at the time included then-34-year-old Pat Quinn, who became the state’s Democratic governor in 2009 and served one four-year term before being defeated by Republican Bruce Rauner.
CUB received a $100,000 startup loan from the state that year, which the group repaid, with interest, in two years. CUB has received some state grants since then, but it hasn’t received state funds in the past decade, Kolata said.
When CUB was formed, Illinois’ residential customers had among the highest average electric bills in the country and the highest in the Midwest, he said. Illinois now has the sixth-lowest residential bills in the country and the lowest in the Midwest, he said.
“It’s not an accident,” he said. “It’s in large part because of the policies that have been passed since the mid-1990s, and while they’re not perfect, they have put us in a good position.”
Kolata specifically pointed to benefits of electric restructuring in 1997, creation of the Illinois Power Agency to handle bulk buying of power for ComEd and Ameren customers, the preservation of nuclear plants and incentives for investor-owned utilities to encourage renewable energy production.
“They put Illinois in a much better position than we were, and a much better position than surrounding states, and this energy bill continues that,” he said.
Contact Dean Olsen: email@example.com; (217) 836-1068; twitter.com/DeanOlsenSJR.
via The State Journal-Register
September 19, 2021 at 08:20AM