Put Illinois on track to strong energy future

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Springfield has been no stranger to stalemates lately. But there’s a chance to end one of them — the debate over the state’s future energy policy. The Legislature should make sure it doesn’t fumble the opportunity.

Over the past two legislative sessions, various bills for revamping energy policy have been backed by ComEd, Exelon (C0mEd’s parent company), and the Clean Jobs Coalition, a group of businesses, environmental organizations and faith communities that support renewable energy.

Until now, the goals of the parties have been far apart. Exelon wants more money for nuclear plants it says are unprofitable. ComEd wants to revise the way it charges users for access to its grid. The coalition has backed legislation called the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill, which would raise energy efficiency standards and increase the amount of renewable energy used in Illinois. Those issues will be debated Thursday at a subject hearing in the Illinois Senate.

EDITORIAL

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Earlier this month, Exelon and ComEd moved closer to something environmentalists and consumer advocates could back. We urge the various parties to use that as a starting point to come up with a bill everyone can support, with the proviso that raising energy efficiency standards and boosting use of solar, wind and other renewables is part of the final legislation. We would hate to look back in a year or two and see that we missed an opportunity to put Illinois on track to a sound energy future.

Exelon, which generates power, has said it is losing money on two of its nuclear plants, Clinton and Quad Cities, and needs an increase in electricity bills to keep them open, even though the company remains profitable overall. Consumer advocates worry that could create a windfall for Exelon if market conditions change. If Exelon wants to essentially create a floor on everyone’s power bills, it should agree to some kind of ceiling to protect average customers as well.

ComEd, which distributes power from generators such as Exelon, wants to revise the way it charges consumers for using its power grid partly because of potential growth in so-called distributive energy — people installing solar or other renewable energy sources and selling excess energy they generate back through the grid. In a future where distributive energy is common, ComEd argues it won’t be properly compensated because people won’t be using as much electricity. The utility also would get less revenue if energy efficiency means customers use less power.

ComEd’s proposed solution, though — switching to the nation’s only legislatively mandated “demand rate” — is a nonstarter with consumer advocates. A demand rate bases monthly power bills on a customer’s peak usage, which is unnecessarily complicated. Residential users may not fully understand their bills now, but they know if they don’t turn on extra lights they won’t get charged for extra electricity. With a demand rate structure, they won’t know what their bills will be unless they learn the formula and monitor their energy usage. Two neighbors who use the same amount of electricity, but at different times, could wind up paying vastly different bills.

If ComEd wants to adapt billing to fit the future of energy, it needs to drop its push for a demand rate and find a viable alternative.

Meanwhile, the Clean Jobs Coalition would build on concepts that already have worked. In 2008, Illinois raised its energy efficiency standards, and consumers since then have saved more than $1 billion. The coalition wants to raise those standards even higher and use the savings to pay for an increase in the amount of renewable energy in Illinois. Those are concepts that belong in any compromise.

To build a strong energy future, Illinois needs to provide healthy incentives for renewable energy, not only to protect the environment but also to lure energy investments here, building a vibrant renewable energy industry. The sooner we get started, the better.

A long list of other issues also needs to be hammered out. On Wednesday, one legislator involved in the talks said, “It’s not soup yet.”

Maybe not. But there’s a whiff of it coming from the legislative kitchen. We just need to get that soup — with the proper ingredients — to the table.

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