Policy complexity and citizen participation

By Robert and Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The energy situation is complex; energy policy is subject to change and is implemented with limited opportunities for public input. To facilitate public participation, nonprofit organizations such as the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Citizens’ Utility Board exist to ensure the public’s voice is heard in Springfield. The Sierra Club organized a group to make their views known to legislators.

During the dramatic rise in the price of electricity when Illinois was building nuclear power plants, large industries and businesses along with citizens raised concerns and policies were implemented which lessened adverse effects on the state’s economy and competitive position.

In the past few years “community aggregation” programs provided an opportunity to lower the cost of electricity. The opportunity for savings was caused by some high-priced long term contracts which are now ending, so Chicago will once again buy electricity from ComEd. The change is expected to increase funding for renewable energy projects.

Exelon is seeking approval during this legislative session for additional funds to keep three nuclear plants operating. Julie Wernau cited Morningstar’s Travis Miller as expressing doubts about the proposed closing of targeted nuclear power plants. Miller believes they could make more money by “agreeing to be available to the grid as capacity payments.”

Capacity costs are paid by consumers so that power plants deliver electricity during times of high demand. The threatened Clinton nuclear plant recently made half of their plant output available to the grid for capacity payments which Exelon indicates will provide an additional revenue of $13 million. Concerns have been raised regarding the fairness of the auction and its impact on consumer prices. Similar opportunities will be available for the Quad Cities and Bryon plants when capacity payments are expected to double in 2017 and 2018.

Exelon claims its threatened nuclear plants need the state subsidy to keep them operating. The firm’s proposal includes a provision to return funds to ratepayers if energy and capacity payments exceed an undetermined level. Information on the economics of the plants involved has been released to legislators and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan but not to the public.

Other costs to be borne by ratepayers include building new power lines from the Byron plant to redirect production to the Chicago area and the ongoing upgrading of the electrical grid, including installing smart meters.

With the economics of nuclear plants looking a little brighter, Bob Flexon of Dynergy, which operates coal plants in Illinois, is against awarding the rate increase and asked the decision be delayed. Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center has also expressed opposition to the rate increase and has asked for a delay.

The Citizens’ Utility Board, a non-profit, non-partisan organization formed to represent the interests of residential Illinois electric and gas utility customers, has two messages posted on its website to send to Illinois legislators. One asks them to reject Exelon’s proposal to add $300 million/year to ComEd and Ameren power bills. The second expresses support for the Illinois Clean Jobs bill advocating efficiency and renewable energy.

We need to move aggressively to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent for a sustainable energy future. With three contrasting energy bills pending in Springfield a compromise is a likely outcome. It remains to be seen if a compromise occurs and whether it supports a transition to a more resilient, decentralized, safe and sustainable energy system.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl can be reached via e-mail at sonia@essex1.com.

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