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Wednesday, June 3, 2009 08:04 pm

Utility reform emerges from legislative chaos

State promotes energy efficency through utility bills

Last Sunday, amid state budget haggling, lawmakers passed an innovative three-pronged energy package that toughens Illinois Commerce Commission ethics rules, promotes energy efficiency and assists low-income families with utility bills.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office worked with consumer and environmental groups, community action agencies, business organizations and utility companies to craft Senate Bill 1918.

The legislation prohibits private meetings between utilities and the ICC commissioners who make the final decisions on utility rate increases. It also bans commissioners from seeking employment with utilities until two years after their ICC term. Additional reform measures include the call for utilities to address the amount of rate case expenses, such as attorney fees, that can be passed to ratepayers.

The efficiency portion of the bill unveils on-bill financing, a new program that allows residential customers to pay for energy measures like a more efficient furnace by applying the future savings on their utility bill to the cost of their initial investment.

“Even though these systems pay for themselves usually in a couple of years with the money you don’t have to spend, you still have to put that money up front to pay for it,” Susan Hedman, the AG’s environmental and energy counsel, explains.

With the new initiative, she says, “savings on your bill are used to pay off energy efficiency.”

SB 1918 assists low-income families by offering the Percentage of Income Payment Plan, a program that limits participants’ utility payments to six percent of their income. Federal energy assistance monies, which were previously used in the winter to restore customers’ heat, will now provide the remainder of participants’ utility bills for the entire year.

Additionally, the legislation mandates natural gas utilities to offer energy efficiency programs to reduce natural gas use by 8.6 percent by 2020.

“You do see the benefit as a citizen,” Brian Granahan of Environment Illinois, a bill proponent, says. “No. 1 through reduced pollution because the air is cleaner and carbon emissions are reduced, and No. 2, because energy demand is reduced, it creates a downward pressure on price.”

SB 1918, sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Chicago) and State Rep. Robert Flider (D-Decatur), passed by a 117-0-1 margin in the House May 28 and by a 47-11 margin in the Senate May 31. It now awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature.

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