Credit: gerry_btr / Creative Commons

UPDATE: The Illinois Commerce Commission approved Ameren’s request for lower energy efficiency targets on Sept. 11. 

Next week, an Illinois utility will seek permission from state regulators to lower its energy efficiency targets — in the name of social justice.

On Sept. 11, the Illinois Commerce Commission will consider Ameren Illinois’ request to revisit its targets mandated under the Future Energy Jobs Act.

The targets have become the first battle to play out under the sweeping energy law passed late last year, with lobbying reaching a fever pitch in recent days.

Ameren is framing the debate as a civil rights and economic justice issue, arguing that it needs lower efficiency targets in order to offer programs like free air conditioners to low-income and minority customers, and charging that its critics want to favor big business in efficiency programs.

Environmental and citizens groups, meanwhile, charge that Ameren’s request undermines the integrity of the law as a whole, including its provisions for solar development and jobs in low-income and minority communities. And they say that a restructuring of Ameren’s efficiency plans could offer low-income programs along with greater energy savings.

On August 29 an administrative law judge at the Illinois Commerce Commission turned down Ameren’s request for new targets in a draft order.

Judge Jan VonQualen wrote that by reallocating its spending on efficiency, Ameren “could achieve greater savings than it proposed”; and that the commission will not modify Ameren’s goals “absent a showing that every attempt has been made to meet the goal and it cannot be met.”

The commission will make the final decision about the request after the September 11 hearing.

Critics say Ameren’s request will mean the utility’s rate base will save 27 percent less energy over four years than if they had complied with the targets in the law, and they note that northern Illinois utility ComEd has committed to much more aggressive targets.

“Ameren is quitting on its customers, the General Assembly of the State of Illinois and low-income communities by reneging on its negotiated targets before even trying to live up to the Future Energy Jobs Act, just a few months in,” said Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The rationale advanced by Ameren in support of this betrayal is totally wrong; the energy efficiency goals are realistic and totally consistent with meeting commitments to low income customers, as demonstrated by evidence in the record. Ameren simply has a bad plan that fails to deliver for low income communities and the people of Illinois.”

An Ameren spokesperson did not provide the company’s own analysis of how savings under their proposal differ from the target, but said the utility is proposing “aggressive” goals of 13 percent energy savings by 2025 and 16 percent by 2030. Ameren says it will spend the maximum amount allowed on efficiency under a mandatory cap, an average of $114 million a year over four years.

Words and dollars

In recent weeks, Ameren appears to have been energetically reaching out to state legislators, civil rights groups, minority contractors and their backers.

The president and vice president of the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Springfield Urban League recently filed comments in the commission’s docket supporting Ameren’s reduced targets, and the state president of the Illinois NAACP has supported the company’s proposal. The AARP also filed a comment in support of Ameren’s request.

“Special interest groups favor archaic ‘untargeted’ policies and priorities and oppose Ameren Illinois’ plan,” commented Springfield Urban League President and CEO Nina Harris. “The Natural Resources Defense Council, Citizens Utility Board and Environmental Defense Fund have mounted a campaign to stop investment in our community. They claim it is ‘a luxury that cannot be afforded.’ Nothing could be further from the truth…These groups are hypocritical and don’t want to see Ameren’s plan move forward, but, instead, want to see a plan designed to benefit businesses rather than the people and communities who need assistance the most.”

On August 31, eight public comments were filed by individuals praising Ameren’s commitment to training minority contractors and supporting minority businesses.

Between Sept. 1 and 6, six state legislators also filed comments in support of Ameren. On Aug. 23, Ameren donated $2,500 to the campaign of State Sen. Mattie Hunter, chair of the legislature’s Energy and Public Utilities Committee and one of those who commented, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. On Aug. 25, Ameren’s PAC donated $25,000 to the Senate Democratic Victory Fund and $15,000 to the state Democratic Party.

“We passed the Future Energy Jobs Act with the intent of increasing energy savings in Illinois, creating jobs and boosting investment in local communities,” commented Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne in the docket. “The roadmap for getting us there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Ameren Illinois is focused on serving customers throughout its service territory.”

Since January 2015, Ameren donated $20,449 to Clayborne’s campaign, including $2,000 on Sept. 2. The donations represent a small portion of the $576,188 Ameren and its PAC have donated to Illinois state political campaigns since January 2015, including in-kind donations, according to the state elections board.

“We have put forth a plan that will help business customers as well as low and moderate income customers in our territory to save energy,” said Ameren spokesperson Marcelyn Love. “Our plan has been endorsed by a broad coalition of supporters, including mayors from Illinois communities of all sizes, labor, the Illinois NAACP, Illinois AARP and dozens of members of the General Assembly representing constituents throughout the state.”

Not either-or

The groups pushing for Ameren to be held to the targets in the law have also rallied allies to get involved in the proceedings.

A letter to the commission signed by numerous environmental justice and community organizations said that Ameren can meet its targets in the law without sacrificing programs for low-income customers. The letter says, “[Ameren Illinois President Richard] Mark has alleged that Ameren must decide to either serve low-income customers or meet their new statutory energy-saving goal; this is a false choice and a misleading premise. Under the new law, Ameren can and should do both.”

Public comments filed in the docket also make this point.

“Ameren is antiquated and digressive in its present stance, and is a hindrance to our Illinois economy and the well-being of southern Illinoisans,” wrote Sabrina Hardenbergh, who lives in Ameren service territory. “ I am not pleased to learn that Ameren is trying to disregard the Future Energy Jobs Act by trying to lower the standards already agreed upon for renewable energy and energy efficiency in low-income areas like southern Illinois. Ameren is a large company, as is ComEd. ComEd is cooperating, and Ameren should too.”

Reverend Alphonso Lyons Jr., a Peoria pastor for more than 40 years, described how he’s seen inner cities decimated while big businesses thrive. But he sees the Future Energy Jobs Act and Ameren’s targets enshrined in it as a way to counter that trend.

“Indeed, Ameren has done some good things for some poor people,” he wrote in comments to the commission. “They have recently promised my 90-year-old mother a new efficient furnace in the fall of this year. She lives in the inner city of Peoria. I appreciate Ameren’s efforts. They have provided window air conditioners for some inner-city residents.

“But, the issue at hand is the redistribution of wealth and alternative energy wave now and in the future…FEJA is presently the law, forged by legislators in conjunction with ‘quiet storm revolutionists.’ We need jobs in a rapidly developing solar and alternative energy industry.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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