2021 was a year of rate hike battles and the fight to pass the Climate & Equitable Jobs Act. In the new year, we plan to staff hundreds of free events, and handle more than one thousand inquiries from Illinois consumers with complaints or questions about their utility service–and we also expect to defend consumer interests before state regulators, in the courts and at the State Capitol. Here’s a rundown of the top battles consumers face in 2022.
For the last few years, consumer advocates have expected Peoples Gas to file for a rate hike, and 2022 could be the year the company does it. That’s despite the fact that the utility’s overly aggressive spending has helped spark a heating-affordability crisis. In the fall, we reported that nearly 170,000 Peoples Gas customers, about 20 percent, were more than 30 days behind on their natural gas bills, owing an average of $734 for a total debt of $124.5 million. In one neighborhood, 54 percent of customers were behind on their bills, with an average utility debt of $1,053.
Ameren Illinois and ComEd will file formula rate cases in the spring–the last time they will do so before a new system is created. Remember, those filings could be either rate hikes or rate cuts. We’ll let you know.
In the meantime, we’re continuing to participate in a process before the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) to replace the flawed formula rate system. The Climate & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) gives Illinois the opportunity to create a new system that gives regulators more authority, the public a broader role in the process and emphasizes policies that are good for the planet as well as for affordability and reliability. We have a lot of work to do to build that new system, and that will continue in 2022.
As you know, ComEd in 2020 paid a record $200 million fine to federal prosecutors as part of a corruption scandal involving the company’s improper lobbying efforts to secure legislation that created the formula rate-setting system back in 2011. Yet, customers have gotten no refund from the company, even though ComEd has pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in higher formula rates. CUB sued ComEd in state and federal court to win a refund for customers, but unfortunately, those lawsuits were thrown out. Still, we’re continuing to fight before the ICC as part of an investigation exploring refunds.
Illinois consumers have lost more than a $1 billion to alternative electric suppliers since 2015, and one of CUB’s top jobs is to educate people about how to avoid bad deals in the electric and natural gas markets. This is especially important now that the ICC is allowing companies to go door-to-door. Remember, it’s likely that the utility is your best bet, even in times of elevated gas prices, like this winter. In 2021, CUB participated in several settlements that led to alternative suppliers accused of violating state regulations paying more than $2 million in refunds and contributions to an energy assistance program that helps people struggling to afford their bills. We expect to be involved in similar cases in 2022.
Skyrocketing gas prices
For most of 2021, Illinois consumers who heat their homes with natural gas (about 80 percent of households) have faced supply prices that are double and even triple what the utility prices were last year. We opened up an online resource, CUBHelpCenter.com, to give people information about the price spike, help people connect to assistance and give them tips on energy efficiency to help soften the blow of the high bills. We hope the prices begin to ease in the new year, but we will continue to serve as a resource for consumers as long as they stay elevated.
Fighting a bad surcharge on gas bills
CUB has been on a years-long campaign to rid Ameren Illinois, Nicor Gas and Peoples Gas bills of the “Qualified Infrastructure Plant” surcharge. The charge, which went into effect thanks to a law the General Assembly passed in 2013, allows the companies to sidestep the traditional regulatory process and rake in revenue more quickly. The problem is the companies have used the law to go on a spending spree, and the surcharge and massive utility rate hikes have led to rapidly rising heating bills in recent years. It is expected that gas companies maintain their pipelines and other infrastructure, but they can do this without bankrupting their customers. In 2021, Ameren received a $76 million increase and Nicor a record $240 million increase, and we’re concerned Peoples Gas will come in for an increase in 2022.
CUB will continue to work for legislation that eliminates the QIP surcharge on bills, and we’re working on a Better Heat Campaign to begin planning on a transition away from natural gas to cleaner, more affordable ways to heat homes.
The state’s two biggest for-profit private water utilities, Illinois American Water and Aqua Illinois, have been busy buying up depreciated water and wastewater systems across the state. They have purchased 37 systems since 2013, when state legislators passed a law that allows these water utilities to pass acquisition costs—$253 million and counting—onto their customers. We’re trying to pass a law that would bar these companies from buying up systems unless the community OKs the purchase in a local referendum. That would be a strong reform, because after private companies take over a municipal system, consumers often pay higher rates. We’ll continue our fight before the General Assembly in 2022. For more information on this issue, visit our award-winning online resource, CUBWaterTracker.com.
So what can you do? You can support CUB with a donation, but if now is not the right time to give, no problem! Please join our e-newsletter list, like and follow our social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), and visit our website to learn about cutting your utility bills. We appreciate your interest and involvement.