The dome of the Illinois State Capitol over a cluster of trees.
The Illinois Statehouse in Springfield. Credit: Keith Ewing / Flickr / Creative Commons

A new coalition has joined the fray in the debate over a sweeping new energy bill in Illinois, demanding ethics and regulatory reforms and restitution for ComEd ratepayers.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, and the AARP call their coalition “Take Our Power Back” and allege that ComEd’s undue political influence, as outlined in a recent federal corruption settlement, led to consumers overpaying for electricity, with little oversight of how ComEd spent the resulting funds. 

While the coalition is focused largely on restitution for customers and reforms that restore regulatory oversight and accountability, they also say that a transition to clean energy is dependent on such protections. 

“If we want clean energy then we need to have clean government,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “As we’ve seen in Illinois and Ohio, utility political corruption has distorted the legislative policymaking process and the public utility regulatory commission decisions,” inhibiting the adoption of wind, solar and efficiency. 

He cited subsidies for nuclear plants enshrined in law in both states, including through Illinois’s 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act. The Environmental Law & Policy Center is also part of the coalition supporting the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act in Illinois, which would offer further support for the state’s nuclear plants — owned by Exelon — while also transitioning the state to 100% clean energy and instituting sweeping equity and just transition programs. Learner said that not all backers of the Clean Energy Jobs Act support further nuclear payments. Meanwhile, the proposal also includes ethics reforms and accountability provisions. 

The Take Our Power Back coalition calls for an end to “formula rates,” in which rates are automatically adjusted between general rate cases. It’s also calling for an independent audit of ComEd’s grid and integrated grid planning between ComEd and Ameren. It demands that ComEd lower bills for customers or otherwise compensate them for past high rates, and it calls for more resources and staff for the Illinois Commerce Commission “to effectively carry out its mission.” 

Abe Scarr, executive director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, said integrated grid planning and the independent audit are crucial for adding more clean energy in Illinois, both in terms of distributed solar and utility-scale renewables. 

“Right now, we suffer from information asymmetry,” Scarr said. “ComEd and Ameren know everything there is to know about their grids. We know only what they are willing or we can force them to tell us. For integrated grid planning to work, we need a shared baseline understanding of the status of the grid, and ideally an independent analysis, not just the utilities’. If we can do this audit first, then we don’t have to spend a bunch of time in the grid planning process fighting to get information from the utility.”

When it obtained the right to institute formula rates, ComEd argued they were needed to enable $2.6 billion of necessary spending on its services over 10 years. The coalition in a statement says, “Instead, it has already added more than $5 billion to its rate base, off of which it earns a profit.”

“They are spending gobs and gobs of money and we have essentially no idea what on,” Scarr said. “I bring this all back to clean energy because there are lots of clean energy investments that need to be made — whether on the distribution side for integration, or for things like electric vehicles and buildings, or just to build the generation. And there is a limited amount of money that is reasonable to spend at any given time to keep bills from going up too high. Formula rates give the utilities way too much unilateral control over what they spend on, and one presumes but it’s hard to know without knowing what they are actually spending money on, that we could be allocating our resources more efficiently and effectively to reach our clean energy goals.”

Along with the Take Our Power Back coalition and the Clean Jobs Coalition, which backs CEJA, the renewables industry largely backs proposed legislation called Path to 100, and a group of powerful labor unions has its own coalition — Climate Jobs Illinois — which is likely to see its own legislation introduced soon. Ameren, the utility serving downstate Illinois, backs its own bill which passed the state House public utilities committee on March 22. 

Ameren says its bill would facilitate increased utility-scale solar built by union labor, and jumpstart electric vehicle adoption, while avoiding rate increases that it says would happen under other proposed bills. Critics note that its renewable targets are much lower than the transition to 100% clean energy proposed by the Clean Energy Jobs Act and Path to 100, and worry about provisions that would let Ameren build and own its own solar and energy storage, seemingly contradicting protections against such moves under Illinois deregulation. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has emphasized his commitment to legislation that furthers clean energy and creates more oversight and accountability for utilities.

“Our assumption is that if there is to be energy legislation this spring, it will be a big negotiated package,” with backers of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, Path to 100 and others contributing, Scarr said. “We see the role of this coalition to have a laser focus on utility accountability and reform, and ensure any final package has meaningful policy in that regard.”

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.