Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Senate overrides Quinn's veto
on 'smart grid' expenses

By Meredith Colias 

The Illinois Senate voted today to override Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto on Senate Bill 9, moving one step closer to reversing a decision by the Illinois Commerce Commission on the smart grid law.

The vote was 44 to 11, with 1 voting present. The House will also need to vote to override the governor’s veto for the measure to become law. The original bill passed in that chamber with a veto-proof majority.

The bill puts “profits of big utilities ahead of families and businesses,” Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette said. “It really sends Illinois in the wrong direction.” The Illinois Commerce Commission is a regulatory body in charge of approving electric rate increases. It also is overseeing the smart grid implementation.

Proponents of Senate Bill 9 have said that the Commerce Commission ruling misinterpreted the intent of the original bill.

In a statement, Senate President John Cullerton said the legislation was “understood to be clear and unambiguous.”

If lawmakers override Quinn’s veto, it would roll back the ICC decision that Commonwealth Edison says would cost the electric utility $100 million annually. Ameren, the other large electric utility in the state, was ordered to reduce its rates by $50 million under the same ruling. But utility companies want the money back, plus interest from their customers.

Lawmakers voted to allow electric companies like ComEd and Ameren to raise their customers' rates to create a ‘smart grid’ electrical system that will do such things as deal with power outages more efficiently. In return, the companies are required to create jobs. But both utilities have said the ICC ruling slowed job creation. (For more on smart grid, see Illinois Issues July/August.)

Interest groups opposing the bill say it may give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren justification to raise electric rates without knowing whether the smart grid system will eventually save money for consumers.

“We were not comfortable with the way ComEd was proposing to pay for those upgrades,” said Jim Chilsen, communications director for the Citizens Utility Board.

“I think the focus now is to make sure that Illinois consumers don’t just get stuck with the bill.” Chilsen said ComEd was now obligated to “build a smart grid that actually benefits consumers.” Estimates for how much the smart grid implementation would actually increase electric bills have ranged from $.80 to a few dollars per customer.

AARP lobbyist Scott Musser said he is concerned the Illinois Commerce Commission could become a “rubber stamp” because of the way the utilities were able to circumvent the ruling of the commission. Musser said the episode set a poor example for those looking to the regulatory commission to protect consumers.

Potentially, he said, “there’s almost no point for any group to intervene anymore in the process because it’s a done deal. We’ve opened up Pandora’s box.” He said utilities could come to the General Assembly and “get much better treatment than they would if you went through the regular process of the Commerce Commission.”


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