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City, utility watchdog group seek probe of Illinois power market

Spurred by consumer complaints about alternative energy suppliers, city officials and a utility watchdog group are asking state officials to investigate Illinois’ power market.

A petition filed Wednesday with the Illinois Commerce Commission takes issue with variable rate plans offered by some alternative retail electric suppliers, according to a statement from the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit group.

“Many Illinois consumers want to be able to shop for a power supplier, but complaints suggest a disturbing trend of marketing abuses that hit customers hard in their pocketbooks,” CUB Executive Director David Kolata said in the release. “This petition is a first step to reform Illinois’ power market and protect consumers from needlessly confusing, less-than-transparent offers.”

One woman, from Melrose Park, told CUB she was promised savings from an alternative supplier, but her rate eventually rose to six times that of ComEd’s rate.

Another consumer, a low-income senior from Maywood, said she didn’t recall signing up with an alternative supplier at all, and was paying double the normal utility rate, the group said.

Other consumers have complained that they didn’t know rates would fluctuate, or realize that prices would spike so dramatically after their promotional rates expired, according to the petition. Others been unable to speak with a live representative when they tried to cancel their accounts, CUB says.

The petition, filed by both CUB and the city of Chicago, asks the ICC to investigate whether descriptions of prices in consumers’ energy contracts meet disclosure requirements in state law.

Three million consumers have switched to alternative suppliers since 2010, according to CUB. Between January and April, the group saw 115 percent increase in complaints about alternative energy suppliers compared to the same period in 2013.

Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection is also investigating some of the complaints and may prosecute cases found to involve consumer fraud, CUB said.

If the ICC moves forward with the investigation, it can order suppliers to correct violations. Companies that refuse to comply could see penalties of $30,000 per day and possible revocation of their certifications to do business in the state.