How Springfield can put a brake on our electric bills and protect the environment

By the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board

The Illinois Legislature blew a chance this spring to make sure your electricity bill doesn’t go up and, while they’re at it, protect the environment.

But there’s still a long shot they could set things right. Just the other day, we urged the Legislature to schedule a special summer session to attend to business that got away from them during a four-day abbreviated session in May. Taking action on a new power bill could be at the top of the agenda.

Right now, about 21 percent of your electricity bill goes for “capacity,” a payment to electricity generators to ensure they can meet peak demand. Together, northern Illinois ratepayers pay $1.7 billion a year for capacity.

That’s a lot of money. But it’s going to be a lot more — $864 million a year more — if the Legislature doesn’t act soon.

That’s because Trump administration has sneakily rewritten the rules governing energy markets to favor fossil fuels, such as coal and gas. For Illinois, that means three things:

First, the average ratepayer will start paying as much as an extra $70 a year or so for capacity. It could be the largest electricity increase in Illinois history. Who thinks higher electricity bills are a good idea right now?

Second, Illinois’ push toward renewable energy will hit a roadblock and might even go into reverse. Instead of building new solar and wind energy facilities — something we need — companies will have an incentive to build more natural gas power plants.

Third, even though environmentalists say nuclear plants are needed to provide a transition to renewable energy. Illinois could see at least one financially stressed nuclear power plant shut down because the new Trump administration rules favor fossil fuels over Illinois nuclear plants.

Let’s not go there.

The Trump administration’s onerous rules affect Illinois because Illinois is part of a large interstate “capacity market” that includes all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia. But Illinois can get out from under the Trump rules by setting up its own capacity market through the Illinois Power Agency. We could use the money we save to keep electricity bills down, invest in renewable energy, bring energy jobs to struggling communities and help displaced coal workers.

A bill has been introduced to do all those things and more, the Clean Energy Jobs Act. But the Legislature has been dragging its feet.

By failing to act already, Illinois has risked missing the next “capacity auction,” where utilities buy electricity before it’s needed. If we do miss the next auction — the first under the new Trump rules — electricity bills will go up. But the Legislature can bring them back down again if it acts before a subsequent capacity auction. The auctions are held periodically, but not on a set schedule. The next one might be as soon as December.

Unfortunately, a special summer legislative session at which an energy bill along the lines of CEJA could be passed appears unlikely. Moreover, because the regular session ended on May 31, any bill with an immediate start date would require a super-majority vote, a high bar for complicated and contentious legislation about energy.

Even if lawmakers don’t hold a special session, they should at minimum negotiate with each other in working groups to thresh out the final terms of a bill so they are ready to go as soon as there is another legislative session underway.

A poll released on Thursday by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition indicated 82% of Illinois voters support the Clean Energy Jobs Act.

The Legislature should energize itself and get to work.

Read the piece at the Chicago Sun-Times.