Thursday, October 06, 2011

Quinn looks to public to fight smart grid plan

By Jamey Dunn

Gov. Pat Quinn is gearing up for a battle with legislators over smart grid legislation.

Quinn toured the state today pushing back against backers of Senate Bill 1652, which he vetoed last month. Supporters say the measure would help the state’s two largest utilities upgrade infrastructure and add new technologies to make power delivery more reliable. Quinn — who is joined in his opposition by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, AARP, the Illinois Commerce Commission, which oversees utilities and signs off on rate increases, and others — says the legislation would lock in “automatic rate hikes” for consumers and loosen oversight of utility companies. “We’re really on the eve of one of the biggest consumer battles in Illinois in the last generation really,” Quinn said today at a Peoria event. “It’s very very important, I think, that consumers in Illinois know that this is a bill that will impact their utility rates now and for years and years to come.”

Quinn said today he is hoping to spearhead a “statewide movement of citizens and businesses” opposing the bill. He rolled out a new website that prompts visitors to contact their state representatives about the legislation. “[Commonwealth Edison and Ameren] have a lot of campaign money. They have a lot of lobbyists. As a matter of fact, I think they may have hired a lobbyist for each member of the General Assembly. … They’re putting every ounce of their power and money behind this bill. They want to override my veto. I believe the people of Illinois are on our side,” Quinn said at a Decatur news conference. AARP has joined Quinn in his opposition tour. “This bill would give many of our members increased utility costs. A lot of our members live on fixed incomes. And when their expenses go up, their standard of living goes down. It’s a balancing act,” said Dean Clough, a member of AARP’s Illinois Executive Council.

The governor said the potential rate increases would be bad for business in Illinois. “One of the very best and most important things that businesses look at is what your utility rates are. And it’s not good at all for the people of Illinois and their jobs to have a permanent raise in utility rates. That is something that’s going to hurt the jobs climate in our state of Illinois.” At least one Illinois business agrees with this assessment. “[Archer Daniels Midland Co.], like other employers in Illinois, relies on competitively priced, reliably delivered electricity in order to operate,” said Greg Webb, a spokesperson for Decatur-based ADM. “Unfortunately, this bill does neither of those things in our view. Its reliability provisions are not strong enough. And its rate provisions could very well lead to Illinois businesses paying higher rates than neighboring states without commensurate benefits.”

But the bill’s sponsors maintain that an upgraded grid — which could help consumers save energy and make utilities more responsive to outages — would be a business draw. “It seems to me that the governor has a right to set up a media campaign and hire lobbyists and do everything that he’s doing,” said Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat.“But at the end of the day, this comes down to the question, do you want a smart grid or don’t you?”

Jacobs said that smart grid technologies, such as allowing consumers the option to track real-time power prices and lower their usage when rates are highest, would result in savings on many power bills. He added that customers would value getting their lights back on more quickly after an outage with the help of smart grid technology that notifies utility companies when there is a problem with power transmission. “When the power goes out, right now nobody even knows. How can that be good for consumers?” Jacobs said the use of more technology in Illinoisans’ everyday lives has created the demand for grid upgrades. “You can’t have all these brand new iPads and not provide a way to power them,” he said. “Yes, things cost money. You can’t have something for nothing. Those days are over.”

Jacobs is confident that the three-fifths majority needed to override Quinn’s veto will materialize by the legislature's veto session, which is scheduled to start Oct. 25. But he said things could change. “Nothing’s ever a lock in government. People have a right to change their minds.” If Quinn’s efforts work to urge large numbers of voters to call their legislators in protest, he may be able to scare some votes off of a potential override. However, his repeated use of the bully pulpit on this issue, capped off with a campaign-like tour of the state, may alienate some lawmakers from his cause.

For more on smart grid technologies and how they might affect public policy in the state, see the July/August 2011 Illinois Issues

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