Monday, May 30, 2011

House approves rate increase plan for smart grid

By Jamey Dunn

The two largest electric utilities in Illinois would have the opportunity to annually increase the rates they charge customers, under a plan approved today by the Illinois House that would require the companies to make billions of dollars worth of improvements to the state’s electrical grid.

Under Senate Bill 1652, Commonwealth Edison, which provides power for much of northern Illinois, and Ameren, which services much of downstate, would be allowed to increase rates up to 2.5 percent a year to pay for work on the existing grid, as well as adding so-called smart-grid technologies. The new features include smart meters that customers can use to track their power consumption and cut costs by reducing usage during peak hours, when energy costs more.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, which rules on rate hike requests from the utilities, would still have the power to review and potentially reject increases meant to fund grid projects. The bill caps the utilities’ profits and sunset in 2017, so legislators would have to reapprove the plan at that time. If a review in 2014 finds that rates have increased by more than 2.5 percent annually, the law would phase out then.

Ameren and ComEd would be signed on to investing about $3.2 billion in the grid over 10 years. The measure also requires ComEd to create 2,000 new jobs through the plan and Ameren to create 450 jobs. If they fall short of those totals, the companies must pay $2,000 in fines for each job, to be spent in part on training and development programs.

Proponents lauded the bill as a boon for the Illinois economy because of the job growth included in the plan, as well as the potential for cutting-edge energy infrastructure to help attract new businesses to the state.

Both Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan have voiced strong opposition to the bill, and Quinn has threatened to veto it if it comes to his desk.

“We understand that electric utility companies must make investments to ensure consumers across Illinois have reliable and safe energy. In fact, Illinois law already requires this investment. But utility companies must not be given a blank check to spend billions of dollars at the expense of the hard-working men and women of our state. They should justify their multibillion-dollar investment plans before consumers are on the hook to pay for them,” Quinn and Madigan said in a joint prepared statement.

The statement goes on to say: “We believe there are ways to encourage greater investment to upgrade the electric grid and create more jobs while protecting consumers. We urge members of the General Assembly to reject Senate Bill 1652 and send a strong message to Commonwealth Edison and Ameren that we care more about protecting the pocketbooks of Illinois families, than the profits of electric utility companies.”

The measure passed with 67 votes in favor and 47 votes in opposition and awaits a vote in the Senate. Supporters will need 71 House votes and 36 in the Senate to override a potential veto from Quinn.

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