Power Play: New Energy Bill Keeps Customers In The Dark

Clinton power station
Exelon said it would have to close its nuclear power plant in Clinton, Ill. (above) and another plant if it did not get subsidies. Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons
Clinton power station
Exelon said it would have to close its nuclear power plant in Clinton, Ill. (above) and another plant if it did not get subsidies. Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons

Power Play: New Energy Bill Keeps Customers In The Dark

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Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill Wednesday that gives billions of dollars in subsidies to Exelon for two aging nuclear power plants.

Without the subsidies, the company said it would close the two downstate plants and lay off 1,500 workers.

So last week legislators passed the measure, dubbed the “Future Energy Jobs Bill,” after a heated debate about how much it would raise electric bills.

But as the measure becomes law, no one seems to have an answer.

A look back to the day state lawmakers approved the energy bill shows why some of the big questions remain in the dark.

‘Everything’s moving so fast, it’s difficult to keep up’

On Dec. 1, the last day of the legislative session, Senate Bill 2814 was already hundreds of pages long, and amendments were flying fast.

Sue Satter, the public utilities counsel at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, had burned the midnight oil trying to make sense of a 60-page amendment that had come out late the day before.

“We have made an attempt to review the language we received last night,” Satter told the state Senate’s Energy Committee. “It was a very late night. … I’m not in college anymore. I don’t do these all-nighters. … But we did go through it. We have several concerns.”

Before she began, the committee’s chair, state Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), had a question: Which amendment was Satter even addressing?

“Your concerns are with amendment five, right?” Hunter asked.

“Amendment four, with the rate caps,” Satter said.

“You know, everything’s moving so fast, it’s difficult to keep up with everything,” Hunter said.

Amendment four included language that was supposed to protect customers from big electric-bill increases. But Satter was not sure it did.

Who pays, and how much, are important questions for legislators because the people utility companies call “rate-payers” are the same people legislators call “voters.”

‘We’re not driving this bus’

In that same hearing, Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), the bill’s sponsor, grilled lobbyists from ComEd and Exelon about customer protections.

The lobbyists said on average, a typical customer will actually see lower bills.

That, Harmon said, was part of the problem: The proposal limited average rate increases and didn’t protect individual customers — or their legislators.

“I’m sure we represent people who will save two dollars, but they will not stop us in the aisle at the grocery store to say thank you,” Harmon said during the hearing. “But the customers whose bills go up three dollars will stop us.”

Hunter said she was surprised that, as the bill’s sponsor, Harmon didn’t have more information. Harmon admitted he had not been involved in the latest round of negotiations. He said Rauner had been leading those and hadn’t invited him.

“Well, I just got a Tweet,” Hunter replied, “saying the governor’s office is now questioning the rate caps.”

In other words, while the senators were theoretically deliberating, the governor was in a back room somewhere deciding what might actually happen.

“We’re not going to solve this rate issue in this committee, I’ll tell you that right now. Because we’re not driving this bus,” Hunter said. She pushed the meeting to a quick conclusion.

And amendments kept coming. There were five more before the day ended.

When the 500-page bill came up before the full Senate a few hours later, Harmon did not vote for it.

The next day

The day after the vote, Harmon said he just hadn’t known enough about how the bill would affect his constituents and what kinds of conversations he would have in the grocery store.

However, he couldn’t bring himself to vote against it either.

“There are some really good things in the bill,” Harmon said. “There are environmental victories I’ve been fighting with my colleagues to achieve, for years.”

Harmon is a member of the legislature’s informal “green caucus,” and the the bill includes provisions to expand wind and solar energy, and to expand energy-efficiency programs.

Harmon said he didn’t decide where he’d come down until the last minute. And ultimately, he chose not to vote at all.

“I’m not usually that conflicted about legislation,” he said. “I can usually land on one side or the other.”

That same day, someone else expressed mixed feelings about the bill: Rauner, who had taken over negotiations and pushed the bill through.

Rauner said he did not like subsidizing a big company like Exelon, but he didn’t want to throw 1,500 people out of work either.

And the impact on electric bills? Rauner admitted he was stumped.

“I’ve got experts—who are unbiased, no connection to me to me at all—who said, ‘Governor, if you let these Exelon plants close, energy prices in Illinois will go up significantly,’” Rauner told reporters at an event Friday. “I don’t know. I’m not an expert. …I also had other experts who said, ‘Governor, that’s not clear. In fact, if you let those plants close, you can’t tell where energy prices will go, that’s not clear at all’. I don’t know.”

Disputes over those questions continue.

Business groups, like the Illinois Manufacturers Association, are concerned that higher rates will make it more expensive for their members to operate—and could cost jobs.

Consumer groups, including the AARP, are worried that higher electric bills would make life harder for people with limited incomes.

But Dave Kolata, who runs the Citizens Utility Board, is psyched. He thinks the energy efficiency parts of the bill will actually save people money.

“I feel confident that when you write a story about this in a couple years, it’ll be a positive one,” he said.

Time will tell.

WBEZ reporters Tony Arnold, Max Green and Patrick Smith contributed to this story.

Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @danweissmann.