AG's opposition could doom Smart Grid

Attorney General Lisa Madigan

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — State lawmakers want to push forward legislation that would increase consumers' electricity bills, even though Gov. Pat Quinn and the state attorney general refuse to support the Smart Grid legislation.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a statement this week, saying her office "walked away" from negotiations with Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison LLC over legislation to upgrade and modernize Illinois' electric grid.

Ameren and ComEd want permission from lawmakers to bypass the Illinois Commerce Commission and add the costs of the upgrades to customers' bills. The commission has had to rule on rate increases in the past.

The Smart Grid proposal, the utilities say, would balance the new charges with new equipment and technology that would eventually save consumers money.

But the attorney general's statement said the proposal would shift the risk to customers and guarantee Ameren and ComEd double-digit profits.

"Attorney General Madigan cannot support a proposal that short circuits the regulatory process and doesn't include strong protections for consumers," the statement read.

ComEd customer Colleen Fox, of Stockton, said she is always a little skeptical of promises made to "consumers," and not just by ComEd.

"I always want more information, so I don't always believe everything that I'm told, especially by utilities," said Fox.

But that doesn't mean she's opposed to the plan, which would have ComEd customers pay an extra $36 a year.

"It's like your house. You don't wait for the small problems to get out of hand," said Fox. "If you wait too long, then it could cost too much."

State Rep. Kevin McCarthy, D-Orland Park, may have to switch to that sales pitch. McCarthy has been trying to push the Smart Grid proposal through the legislature all year.

"These investments are going to have to be made," McCarthy said. "And they may cost more if the utilities have to improve the system as it breaks down."

Both ComEd and Ameren want to replace their aging power grid, including modernizing substations and power lines, and installing new smart meters for more accurate power bills.

"ComEd continues to engage in dialogue around a forward-looking energy policy for the state of Illinois. As a lead proponent of House Bill 14, ComEd has outlined the substantive benefits to Illinois consumers contained in the bill in the form of improved reliability, improved customer service, jobs, business expansion and future economic development," ComEd spokeswoman Alicia Zatkowski said in a statement.

Calls to Ameren Illinois for comment were not returned.

McCarthy hinted that the attorney general may carry more weight than Quinn, who came out against the legislation earlier this week.

"Lawmakers are going to have to weigh the pluses and the minuses," McCarthy said. "(The attorney general's opposition) is certainly one of the minuses."

Ameren customer Lisa Becherer, of Smithton, located south of Belleville, said she still remembers the last time her power bill increased, and she's in no hurry to see it rise again.

"I wait and see with everything that Ameren says," Becherer said. "I do not believe them right away, ever."

Becherer said she understands that Ameren might need to upgrade or improve its system, but she wanted to know more before she'd sign on to pay more.

McCarthy said he still hopes to see a vote on Smart Grid, but it is not a front-burner issue now. He said he expects to wait a week or so before moving ahead with a revised Smart Grid proposal.