Report from David Kolata, CUB executive director
Happy New Year, everyone. I thank you for your support of CUB and your interest in working for lower utility bills and cleaner energy. As we look ahead to 2021, I want to give you a report on the major challenges facing Illinois consumers.
The issues below—in no particular order—are important to our bottom lines and our planet. Together, we will need to stand up for clean, affordable energy and consumer protections in 2021.
A terrible FERC ruling: Over the last few years this has been a major concern for CUB. Certain members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted in 2019 to revamp electricity market rules and bail out fossil fuel power plants. The move threatens to cost most Illinois consumers up to $1.7 billion in higher power bills over the next decade—and it would make climate change worse.
How to fight it: CUB is working for the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), comprehensive energy legislation proposed in Springfield that would, among other things, protect Illinois consumers from the damaging FERC ruling.
ComEd corruption: ComEd has been fined $200 million by federal prosecutors, accused of using bribery to pass favorable legislation in Springfield. Yet, while the company has paid the federal government for its wrongdoing, consumers hurt by the company’s actions haven’t gotten one cent.
How to fight it: CUB has partnered with former Gov. Pat Quinn and the consumer-rights law firm Edelson PC to sue ComEd in federal court, accusing it of bribery and racketeering activities. Our goal is to fight before anybody (the courts, the Illinois Commerce Commission and General Assembly) to win the most restitution possible for ComEd customers.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) also has a provision that would require ComEd to pay restitution. In addition, CEJA contains provisions that would hold all utilities more accountable, by creating an ethics monitor, and replacing the legislation that allowed ComEd and Ameren to set rates by a formula. That formula rate legislation, which CUB has opposed multiple times and is at the center of the scandal, contained too few consumer protections against unfair rate hikes. CEJA would replace formula rates with a more fair and transparent system that would require ComEd and Ameren to prove how investments would make utility bills more affordable.
Rate hikes: As the year begins, two of the state’s natural gas providers are threatening consumers with more than $100 million in combined rate hikes.
How to fight it: CUB is currently before the Illinois Commerce Commission challenging Ameren Illinois’ natural gas rate-hike request of about $97 million (down from the original $102 million request) and North Shore Gas’ request of about $10 million. CUB is ready to mount similar challenges against any rate-hike request by Illinois utilities.
Rising natural gas bills: A natural gas surcharge approved by the General Assembly years ago helps major utilities sidestep the regulatory process and raise heating bills, forcing many customers into financial crisis to cover billions of dollars in mismanaged utility spending.
How to fight it: CUB, as part of a coalition of consumer advocates, has been working to pass legislation to eliminate the “QIP” surcharge. The charge has contributed to rising gas bills across the state, and threatens to spark a widespread affordability crisis in Chicago.
High water bills: Over the past several years, private water utilities Illinois American Water and Aqua Illinois have been buying up depreciated water and wastewater systems across the state. State law allows them to pass the cost of the purchases—more than $100 million—onto their customers. Private water companies often charge higher rates for their service than municipalities.
How to fight it: CUB is fighting for legislation that would require municipalities to hold a referendum before they could privatize their water system.
Rip-offs: Illinois consumers often go with an alternative electric or gas supplier hoping to save money on their energy bills, but the state has now reached a grim milestone in the history of competition: Losses to alternative electric suppliers have reached more than $1 billion.
How to fight it: CUB will staff hundreds of online events for consumers across Illinois in 2021 to help people identify rip-offs on their electric and gas bills, and we will offer virtual services that analyze utility bills. In 2020, we saved one man $50 a month by catching a bad deal on his natural gas bill: “The savings were remarkable,” he wrote to us. “I want to thank you and CUB for all that you do to help Illinois consumers.” Meanwhile, our legal team will challenge bad behavior from alternative suppliers—we worked on a case that led to a $1 million fine last year.
Utility customers struggling during the pandemic: With the economy hit hard by the pandemic, many people are having a hard time affording their utility bills.
How to fight it: CUB helped create some of the nation’s strongest consumer protections for people having trouble affording their utility bills—and we’re pushing utilities to extend protections. We’ve also converted our formerly in-person events to 100 percent safe online events and services. All our services are free, including a library of publications to help you cut your energy, cable and telecom bills.
Again, thank you for your continued support. Together we will work for consumer protections and lower utility bills in 2021.