Clean Energy Advocates Hope to Capitalize on ComEd Backlash

Amanda Vinicky | WTTW

Efforts for a major energy overhaul that stalled with the coronavirus were further waylaid when in mid-July, prosecutors charged Commonwealth Edison with bribery.

A coalition of advocates says rather than be timid, legislators need to approve a clean energy plan now more than ever.

They’re seizing the opportunity of the Springfield power vacuum left by ComEd’s injured reputation to introduce a revamped package that will move Illinois toward carbon-free energy, and eventually 100% renewable energy, and that would also enshrine in law stricter oversight of utilities.

“We must interrupt business as usual, hold utilities accountable and pass clean energy legislation that isn’t written by or for utilities,” activist Tonyisha Harris said

While ComEd on Wednesday pleaded not guilty to the charge, the company has a deal with the feds, known as a deferred prosecution agreement, in which it admitted to a nearly decadelong scheme of paying off people connected to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. During the same period, ComEd was instrumental in getting two other major energy packages passed and signed into law.

“We will repeal the automatic rate hikes that have been granted to ComEd and Ameren in 2011 and impose strict new ethics and transparency requirements on all Illinois utilities. We will finally put consumer and communities, not corporate profits, first,” said director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, Jack Darin.

In a quarterly earnings call earlier this week, ComEd’s Joe Dominguez stood behind laws cited in court filings, laws that put in statue the formula used to set electric rates, and said they have been transformative for customers, including with advances such as the installation of smart electric meters and improvements of underground components of the electric grid.

The new version of the measure hasn’t been filed, but the Clean Energy Jobs Coalition outlined the broad strokes on Wednesday.

“Illinois People’s Action has never believed corporations should police themselves; not the banks, not the coal merchants and not the utilities,” said Peoria Rev. Tony Pierce of Illinois People’s Action. “Let’s move forward by making the deferred prosecution agreement accountability structures permanent and make sure we’re not relying on ComEd or any other utility to police itself.”

Energy consultant Andrew Barbeau, president of The Accelerate Group, said the focus will also be on utilities’ lobbying practices and transparency.

“The system has been so tilted in the favor of fossil plant and polluters over the course of the last decade,” Barbeau said. “As the facts have come to light, we think it’s appropriate for regulated utilities to be subject to these transparency and strong ethics guidelines. We want to be sure that, as we look at how the utilities spend their money, they’re not doing it in a way that creates conflicts of interest.”

In addition to requiring an independent monitor over utilities and a rollback of the formula currently used to set electric rates in favor of a new rate-setting method that gives regulators and the public additional agency, the plan will require that more jobs and resources go to communities most affected by the impact of dirty power producers, including communities of color.

“The Clean Energy Jobs Act will address the historic inequities of pollution, and create jobs in communities that need them the most,” said Dulce Ortiz of Clean Power Lake County.

Ortiz lives in Waukegan, home to a coal-fired power plant, which she blames for the asthma from which she and her mother suffer.

In a statement, ComEd spokesman Paul Elsberg said that as it works to rebuild trust, the company’s commitment to “working collaboratively with leaders and stakeholders is stronger than ever. While we can’t comment specifically on proposed bill changes, we have made significant improvements to our compliance practices to ensure that nothing like the past conduct ever happens again. We support 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 that have resulted in a 70 percent improvement in reliability while keeping energy affordable for our customers.”

Exelon CEO Chris Crane gave investors and analysts Tuesday during a quarterly earnings call a similar message about building trust.

“Our job is to rebuild the trust of those we serve and make sure that we can show that we have done a fantastic job … in the investments that have been made at ComEd, and what the rate structure has done for us has been totally super beneficial to the consumer. But there’s a period of time where we’re just going to have to continue outreach conversation and show our commitment to ethical behavior that doesn’t compromise our integrity or the trustworthiness of us going forward,” he said.

But in what could prove to be a wrinkle for clean energy advocates’ goals – and for ComEd’s parent company, Exelon, depending on how it’s received by lawmakers in the new era – Crane also warned that the company will not hesitate to close down nuclear plants if they’re a drag on the company’s profits and investor ratings.

“If we can’t find a path to profitability we’ll have to shut them down which is a sad turn of events that will affect the state’s goals on carbon reduction. It will severely affect the communities around the plants and the very high-paying, critical jobs that those communities benefit from. So, it’s an unfortunate thing,” Crane said.

Nuclear plants, of course, do not emit carbon, so preserving them had previously meant Exelon, ComEd and clean energy advocates loosely collaborated toward a shared goal.

“This is part of the old playbook, where utilities try to dictate to Illinois policymakers what is in their interest and therefore what they think we should be doing and we can’t do business that way anymore in Illinois,” Darin said.

But in the wake of the scandal, advocates are distancing themselves from the company, and hope they’ll be able to achieve their goals without depending on collaborating with ComEd – and benefitting from ComEd’s clout with lawmakers.

“Exelon is a highly profitable company that shouldn’t be asking taxpayers to keep their operation running and making money for their shareholders,” Barbeau said. “I think we have a lot of concern about the workers at the plants who might be laid off given these announcements, and the communities that will lose a significant economic engine in their communities.”

Barbeau said Illinois needs a long-term energy policy, one with provisions such as those that are part of the revamped clean energy proposal he backs, that takes those employees into consideration with career training and workforce hubs.

Crane has previously raised the prospect of shuttering as many as four Illinois nuclear plants, including those in Braidwood, Byron and LaSalle.

A 2016 law (cited in court filings as a law that was beneficial to the company as ComEd ran its illegal patronage scheme to curry favor with Madigan) put a charge on electric ratepayers’ bills to prevent Exelon from closing plants in Clinton and the Quad Cities.

While critics say it’s a bailout, Exelon has characterized the subsidy as ultimately saving customers money they would have seen through higher rates should the plants have closed.

Madigan has denied wrongdoing or knowledge of ComEd’s illegal efforts to sway him.

Read the entire article at WTTW.