June 25, 2022

Opinion

ComEd wants a rate hike. Not until utility regains public trust.

Two dollars and 20 cents doesn’t buy much, particularly during these times of stifling inflation. But for ComEd, it buys a lot.

The utility giant is proposing a $199 million rate increase, and $2.20 is what that price hike would add to the average residential customer bill each month. The Illinois Commerce Commission, which oversees utilities, would have to approve the increase.

For ComEd, it’s not just about the money. An approval would signal that it’s time for ratepayers to move on from the scandal that branded ComEd as part of the problem when it comes to corruption in Illinois.

In 2016, the utility’s parent firm, Exelon, secured hefty subsidies from the General Assembly for two of its nuclear power plants – after doling out contracts and jobs to allies of then-House Speaker Michael Madigan. ComEd later admitted the wrongdoing in a deferred prosecution agreement and paid a $200 million fine. Indictments of two top ComEd executives and consultants followed (they all pleaded not guilty). Later, prosecutors charged Madigan’s chief of staff, and ultimately Madigan himself.

If ComEd thinks it’s time to move on from that devastating scandal, well, it isn’t.

That ignominious chapter in ComEd’s history gave Illinoisans many reasons to mistrust the utility. Along with the bribes, there was ComEd’s successful lobbying bid for legislation in 2013 that effectively allowed the utility to sidestep the ICC. And there was the formula rate system that state lawmakers agreed to in 2011, a change that led to automatic rate hikes and guaranteed profits for the power utility.

There’s no doubt that ComEd squandered the public trust. It won’t win it back by hitting ratepayers with one more massive rate hike – the largest in eight years. It would mark the last rate increase under the old formula rate system, and it would come on top of a $46 million price hike the utility slapped onto ratepayers last year. The ICC still has authority to approve or reject the $199 million rate hike, and with changes in how rates are approved set to start in 2023, state regulators will get even more authority over proposed rate increases.

If the rate increase is approved, it would boost to $960 million the total amount of rate hikes since 2012, according to Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.

ComEd says it needs to raise rates to pay for investments in infrastructure that prepare the power grid for a future dominated by renewable energy and electric vehicles. “As we bring more renewable energy like wind and solar onto the power grid to support the state’s ambitious clean energy goals, we must enhance our infrastructure to safely integrate these resources and ensure the more than 9 million people we serve can continue to count on reliable and affordable energy,” the utility’s CEO, Gil Quiniones, said in a news release last week. “We will continue working with local leaders and community groups to ensure the grid can meet the needs of all customers in the 21st century.”

If that’s the entire case ComEd is going to bring to the ICC, it’s not enough. The utility needs to show that this isn’t simply another attempt to pad ComEd’s profits. It also needs to show that it can be trusted as a steward of one of the most vital services a company can provide to northern Illinois – electric power. Proving that isn’t just about supplying a reliable source of energy. It also requires showing that the utility has firmly put in its rearview mirror the legacy of backroom wheeling-and-dealing in Springfield and stratagems to wangle even more money out of the depleted pockets of ratepayers.

Quiniones isn’t part of the utility’s previous leadership. He took over in November, so perhaps he’s in a good position to make the case that his company can be trusted moving forward. But until he convinces the ICC – and ratepayers across northern Illinois – that it’s a new day at ComEd, the utility shouldn’t be allowed to rake in $199 million more each year. Heck, it shouldn’t even get a penny more.

Chicago Tribune