ComEd scandal sparks revamp of clean energy plan

Source: By Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 6, 2020

A sprawling energy and climate bill has been redrafted ahead of the Illinois Legislature’s fall session, as lawmakers grapple with a bribery scandal involving Chicago’s major utility and the state House’s powerful Democratic speaker.

The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which includes several dozen environmental, labor and social justice groups, announced yesterday that its proposed “Clean Energy Jobs Act” now includes ethics reform, ratemaking changes and a bolder plan for modernizing the electric grid. The legislation has been pending in Springfield for more than a year (Greenwire, Feb. 28, 2019).

Hopes were high that Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s call for climate action would spur lawmakers to pass an energy and climate bill this spring. But the COVID-19 pandemic ended talks just as they were beginning.

The Legislature won’t reconvene again until November when members are scheduled to gather for a six-day veto session.

Casting a shadow over any debate on energy legislation will be Commonwealth Edison’s admission last month that it arranged jobs, contracts and payments to associates of House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) in return for helping pass two energy bills over the past decade that provided the utility more than $150 million in benefits.

The Chicago-based utility, which formally pleaded not guilty to bribery charges yesterday, signed a deferred prosecution agreement and will pay a $200 million fine to end the probe of its lobbying practices. The company has also agreed as part of the deal with prosecutors to cooperate as the federal corruption investigation continues (Energywire, July 20).

Elected officials, led by Pritzker, have called for ethics reforms and sought to distance themselves from ComEd and Madigan, both of whom have historically been key players in getting energy reforms through the Legislature.

The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, too, said it’s looking to change how policy gets made in Springfield.

“Profits, rather than people, have dictated energy policy in Illinois for too long, at the expense of residents and small businesses,” Democratic state Rep. Ann Williams, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, said in a statement. “Energy policy should put people and communities first.”

Williams said the new version of her bill will make Illinois “a national model for addressing climate change and restoring the public’s trust by requiring significant accountability, transparency and ethics requirements for utilities.”

Many specifics of the new energy and climate bill, and how they would be funded, have yet to be released.

Many new provisions are aimed at shaking up utility regulation in Illinois in the wake of the ComEd bribery charge. Changes include ending a system of formula ratemaking favored by utilities. The ratemaking system has been in place for almost a decade and expires next year, and utilities, including ComEd, have pushed to renew the provision in legislation.

Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition members said the bill would also help usher in a new grid-planning process to enable more distributed energy and be driven by the needs of consumers. It will incentivize affordability and equity over investments that generate utility profits, they said.

The coalition said the bill would also provide “restitution” for ComEd ratepayers by requiring utility shareholders to “repurpose ill-gained profits” for underserved communities.

ComEd spokesman Paul Elsberg couldn’t comment specifically on new provisions in the clean energy bill. But ComEd “supports any ratemaking process that is transparent and consistent as we continue to modernize the energy grid to build on investments in reliable service and clean energy growth,” he said.

“We know we have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust, and our commitment to working collaboratively with leaders and stakeholders is stronger than ever,” Elsberg said in an email.