Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Legislators override Quinn's veto on smart-grid bill

By Jamey Dunn

Lawmakers today overturned Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of a bill that will allow the state’s two biggest utility companies to raise customers' rates in exchange for investments in the state’s power grid.

Under the plan, Ameren and Commonwealth Edison will be able to increase customers' rates by 2.5 percent annually in exchange for $3.2 billion in spending on the grid over 10 years. The companies will add smart-grid technologies that allow them to monitor transmission and respond quicker to outages. The measure would also require ComEd to create 2,000 new jobs through the plan and Ameren to create 450 jobs.

Supporters were able to pass a trailer bill this week that would impose reliability standards on the utilities. It would also require them to spend more on traditional infrastructure, such as underground wires, to prevent blackouts. The bill also calls for $60 million from the utilities annually to go toward rate relief programs for low-income customers.

Backers of the overall plan say the so-called trailer bill helped pull in the three-fifths majority needed to override Quinn’s veto. Sen. Mike Jacobs, a sponsor of the plan, said the state’s increasing demands for energy make upgrades to the out-of-date grid a necessity. “If you look around the room here, everybody is on the phone. Everybody’s got a computer in front of them. Everybody’s got a smart phone in their pocket. We need the power.”

Opponents say the bill is just a way for the utilities to skirt the authority of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which rules on proposed rate hikes. “I’m not sure smart grid’s really the issue here. It think the real issue is that this is a new way to recalculate rate hikes because Ameren and ComEd didn’t get the approval that they wanted from the ICC. Let’s be honest, that’s what this is about. If you put the name smart grid on it, it doesn’t make it any better,” said Rep. Kyle McCarter, a Lebanon Republican.

McCarter said that increased energy rates would drive business out of the Illinois. “One of the last good things we’ve got going in this state for businesses is affordable power. We’ve increased taxes on people, we’ve got high regulation. and we still have high workers’ compensation rates.”

But Jacobs, a Democrat from Moline, pointed to the economic development that he says the plan will bring. “I don’t know the last time I was in a legislative body when anyone stood up and said they we’re going to create 2,450 jobs. And these are good paying jobs. … These are jobs that are written into the contract.”

Quinn, a vocal opponent of the plan from the start, would not say whether he plans to sign the trailer bill containing some consumer protections. “The consumers of Illinois are deeply disappointed in the General Assembly’s action today to give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren guaranteed annual rate increases for each of the next 10 years… and so am I,” said a prepared statement from his office. “The fight for consumers against unfair utility practices will go on and will never end as long as I am governor.


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