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Illinois consumers may be in the dark about the future cost of electricity

Public interests groups say plans for the electrical power grid, and electricity rates, too often are being worked out in the dark. | AP file photo

A commission that oversees utilities in Illinois is drafting a plan for the state’s electric grid and market for the next few decades. But a public advocate and electricity firm claimed Monday that too much of the power work is being done in the dark.

What’s at stake is how much we all pay for electricity — and how clean that energy will be.

Consumer advocate Illinois PIRG, a non-profit public interest research group, and energy firm GlidePath Development LLC filed suit Monday in Cook County Circuit Court saying the Illinois Commerce Commission repeatedly has violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act since launching its “NextGrid” project to identify, research and recommend options for improving Illinois’ electricity generation and delivery.

OPINION

The suit says the ICC and chairman Brien Sheahan have failed to post meeting notices and details, denied the public opportunities to attend meetings, failed to post agendas in advance, failed to keep precise meeting records, stopped some people from participating in meetings, excluded comments from working group members in records, and included content in draft reports that had not been worked on publicly.

An ICC spokesperson called the suit off-base and “frivolous.”

Electric power planning is a dense and technical topic for most of us in Illinois. But the accusation that Illinois’ utility guardian is doing the public’s work in the shadows isn’t. The plaintiffs say we could end up paying more and for things we don’t want.

Abe Scarr, director of Illinois PIRG, said he’s seen this pattern before, where the studies benefit strong special interests. “I’m worried the process benefits a certain set of interests and privileges those over others,” he said.

Scarr and Dan Foley, GlidePath’s founder and CEO, said those special interests are Commonwealth Edison and Ameren, the big electric utilities operating in Illinois.

Vickie Crawford, the ICC’s senior public information officer, blasted the lawsuit, noting GlidePath is a member of one of several NextGrid working groups.

“This is a frivolous lawsuit. We are in compliance with Illinois law and the ICC has gone out of its way to ensure an open and transparent process,” Crawford said in an emailed statement.

“NextGrid is a collaborative study that relies on the input of technical experts, stakeholders and the general public, and the ICC is actively soliciting involvement in the process through e-blast, press releases and public comment sessions. Meeting agendas, summaries and presentations and information about the various working groups are all available for public review and comment through the NextGrid website. Interested parties are and have been encouraged to submit written input.

“The litigants have been offered numerous opportunities to participate in the study as well,” she continued. “In fact, one of the litigants, Glidepath, is a member of Working Group #5 and participated in a meeting today. The ICC is proud of this study and remains committed to ensuring a wide array of perspectives are heard throughout the process and are included in the final report. We look forward to vigorously defending against the lawsuit.”

GlidePath is indeed a member of the Electricity Markets working group. Foley said his firm has tried to join other groups and follow their work, but failed because “they’re not posting minutes. They’re not posting when the meeting times are. They’re not saying who’s on committees.”

A lawyer who dialed into one January conference was disconnected three times before the meeting was shut down over the objection of a group member, the suit claims. It says that objection also wasn’t noted in meeting minutes.

In a letter announcing NextGrid, Sheahan said, “To control the number of participants and encourage frank, open dialogue and a participatory environment, we decided to cap the number of participants in each Working Group,” but, he added, members of the public are invited to comment or submit papers or research.

Still, Foley and Scarr argue vendors and others are being excluded, which could result in less competition, less transparency and less diversity of ideas. They hope their suit ends in a ruling requiring the ICC to start over publicly.

Scarr said Illinois already is behind when it comes to solar energy storage, cleaner energy and lower rates. Foley, a former ComEd employee, said similar previous efforts ended with recommendations that cost consumers thousands of dollars more.

Is NextGrid compliant with the Open Meetings Act and transparent enough? Illinois PIRG and GlidePath are betting a judge will say no.

“If we’re going to go through something this important and monumental for the future of Illinois,” Foley said, “then we really need transparency and to understand what’s going on.”

Madeleine Doubek is vice president of policy for the Better Government Association.

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