How to stop Trump from jacking up electric bills and hurting our environment

If lawmakers don’t act fast, Illinois ratepayers could be shelling out an extra hundreds of millions of dollars for electricity.

By CST Editorial Board

Last month, the Trump administration adopted a rule that will raise electricity bills for ratepayers across northern Illinois. The Legislature can put a stop to this, while also moving the state toward carbon-free power, but it must act quickly.

If lawmakers fail to do so, Illinois ratepayers collectively could be shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars more for electricity each year. And the state’s avowed commitment to boosting renewable energy such as wind and solar, which is so important as the ravages of climate change become obvious — witness Australia up in flames — could falter.

On Dec. 19, the Republican-controlled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rewrote energy rules in a way that is obscenely beneficial for coal and other fossil fuels. Those rules are particularly threatening to the environment of Illinois, which has been working to become a leader in renewable energy.

Simply put, the Trump administration wants to make it cost-prohibitive to decarbonize the energy sector by switching to renewables. Even Illinois’ nuclear plants could suffer.

In October, Exelon CEO Chris Crane said four Illinois nuclear plants could close if the Legislature doesn’t do something about the FERC plan, which everyone could see coming. Nuclear plants are not in Illinois’ long-term future, but the state needs the power they generate to give Illinois time to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Last year, environmentalists and others got behind a bill called the Clean Energy Jobs Act that laid out a plan for moving the state to carbon-free energy while keeping costs down for ratepayers. The bill — CEJA for short — built on an earlier law, the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, that the Citizens Utility Board says lowered Illinois electric bills from some of the highest in the country to some of the lowest.

But CEJA stalled, partly because some lawmakers were nervous about dealing with energy-related topics after ComEd became a particular target of scrutiny in a widening federal investigation, even though ComEd had virtually no role in crafting CEJA.

Now, the General Assembly has set up working groups of lawmakers to draw up legislation for the coming session to keep electricity rates from shooting up and to keep renewable energy and conservation efforts on track.

Whatever emerges from the working groups should include all of the key elements of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. Among those elements are encouraging conservation, reducing peak energy demand, transitioning to electric vehicles, subsidizing solar energy installations, creating jobs in economically challenged communities and providing benefits for displaced coal workers in the state.

The Legislature also should allow the Illinois Power Agency to manage the state’s capacity market — a system set up to ensure states have enough energy capacity to meet peak loads. That would get Illinois out from under FERC’s fossil-fuel-friendly ruling for how power plants can bid to provide electricity to the grid.

Illinois now is part of a capacity market that includes the District of Columbia and all or part of 13 states that is subject to FERC’s reprehensible effort to boost coal and other fossil fuels.

State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, who introduced CEJA and who called the FERC decision “horrible,” said she is confident the Legislature will enact a good law.

“It is now time for Illinois to lead, and we are ready to lead,” Castro told us on Friday.

But to keep rates from going up, the Legislature needs have a new law in place before the next so-called capacity auction, when companies that generate electricity guarantee how much power they can be counted on to deliver. The interlocking deadlines are complicated, but it appears the Legislature needs to act before the spring session ends in May at the very latest.

As in every legislative session, many issues will be competing for lawmakers’ attention. But the protection of our environment — and how much people have to pay for electricity — should be at the top of that agenda.

Read at the Chicago Sun-Times.