Monday, September 12, 2011

Quinn vetoes smart grid bill

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn today followed though on his vow to veto a bill that he says asks too much of energy consumers in the name of progress.

Quinn shot down Senate Bill 1652, legislation that would allow the state’s two largest utility companies, Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, to increase customers’ rates by up to 2.5 percent annually as part of a plan to upgrade the state’s electric grid. The companies would be required to invest $3.2 billion in the grid over 10 years by making basic upgrades, as well as adding so-called smart technologies that would allow consumers to track their energy usage and possibly save money. The measure would also require ComEd to create 2,000 new jobs through the plan and Ameren to create 450 jobs.

Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, consumer advocates AARP and others have vocally opposed the legislation since its inception. “This bill would have been devastating for Illinois consumers,” Madigan said at a Chicago news conference today. “It’s hardly something that we should have shoved down our throats and taken out of our wallets here in the state of Illinois.”

They say the bill would allow companies to defer all the risk of new investments to consumers by ensuring that utilities see all-but-guaranteed profit increases. Madigan said the bill would “gut” the state regulatory system that requires utilities to make their cases for rate increases to the Illinois Commerce Commission. Doug Scott, director if the ICC, said the legislation allows utilities to charge customers for much more than grid upgrades, including lawyers' fees and charitable contributions. “This isn’t just about smart grid, and it isn’t just about infrastructure,” Scott said.

Sen. Mike Jacobs, a sponsor of the bill, said Madigan and others are grandstanding and blocking a bill that would bring economic growth and new jobs to the state, as well as improved service for utility customers. “When you move away from the politics, where everybody wants to make their two cents on their press releases, and look at the bill, it’s an upgrade,” said Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat.

Supporters and opponents of the legislation both point to summer storms that led to mass blackouts in the northern Chicago suburbs as a way to make their case.

“In particular, this bill grants unprecedented advantages to Illinois utilities that have a less than stellar record for providing reliable service. Recent storms in the Chicago area exposed significant service shortcomings, and more than 1.5 million people suffered through lengthy and widespread outages. Local businesses and consumers who depend on regular, predictable electricity suffered enormously. These interruptions impose a profound hardship on the state’s economy and are simply unacceptable,” Quinn wrote in the message that accompanied his veto. “More troubling is that while customers suffer service interruptions and higher rates, these same utilities have been in Springfield advocating for a bill that erodes meaningful consumer protections. These utilities have been trying to dramatically change the rules to guarantee annual rate increases, while eliminating accountability for, literally, leaving people in the dark.’

But Jacobs said that smart-grid technologies could have prevented some of the blackouts and helped to turn the lights back on more quickly for those who lost power.“You can’t buy champagne on a beer budget. … The fact is that Illinois is a leader in energy, and it’s time for the governor to lead,” Jacobs said. He said it is “disingenuous” of Quinn to support energy conservation and earth-friendly policy but oppose SB 1652, which could allow for more power generated by renewable sources.

Some environmental advocates did jump on in support of the plan after a rewrite emerged at the end of the spring legislative session. Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said the bill that legislators passed would allow more companies, such as big box stores, to generate their own power through wind, solar and other means. “We could see every large rooftop in the state potentially being a clean renewable energy power plant, whether it’s a big box store, parking garage or office space,” Darin said. He said his organization backs the bill strictly on its environmental merits, but he said lawmakers should also recognize the concerns of consumer advocates.

Quinn is pushing his own piece of legislation that he says would help to improve the grid while protecting consumers. However, Jacobs and the House sponsor, Orland Park Democrat Rep. Kevin McCarthy, said they are confident that they will be able to find the votes needed to override Quinn’s veto.

Quinn said that business owners came to plead with him to veto the bill and that the majority of Illinoisans do not support the plan. “We’ll, I think, show them… that the people of Illinois are mightier than Commonwealth Edison.”

Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang said ComEd needs to step up its customer service efforts if the company wants lawmakers who did not support the bill last time to change their votes. He said his constituents who lost power over the summer were less upset about the lapse in service and more worked up about the way the company treated them when they called to report that their power was out. “The people that called my office irate did not call here just because they had a power outage,” Lang said.

For more on what defines smart grid technology and its potential public policy implications for the state, see Illinois Issues July/August 2011.


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