Expend some energy now or you may pay

Staff Writer
Washington Times-Reporter

Washingtonians barely got a chance to heave a sigh of relief about utility bills before cold weather hit.

Now, to add insult to injury, Ameren is seeking a $247 million delivery-rate hike, in part because the company is under-earning. The delivery-service charge makes up about one-third of a residential customer’s bill. Ameren’s request is before the Illinois Commerce Commission.

It might seem utility customers have few advocates. Hope resides with the ICC and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a bulldog about protecting consumers.

The problem is, utility companies come up with more ways to try to separate us from our money.

A case in point arose last week when Madigan urged the Illinois Commerce Commission to reject a proposal from two natural gas companies who want to impose surcharges on customers for the delivery of gas they do not use.

You read that correctly, these two utilities want to charge customers for using less gas.

As consumers, we have been told we need to learn to conserve, and now these two companies want to profit from that conservation.

The gas companies’ proposal would guarantee that the utilities earn extra profits, especially when customers use less gas. In oral arguments before the ICC on Jan. 23, representatives of Madigan’s office and other consumer groups urged the commission to deny the request from Peoples Gas Light and Coke Co. and North Shore Gas Co.

Passage of this plan could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra charges for residential and small business customers.

“It is clearly unfair to allow utilities to charge customers for the delivery of gas they do not use,” Madigan said.

Madigan filed expert analysis with the ICC showing the utility’s proposal would charge customers an extra fee to protect utility revenues when customers conserve more than expected or when warm weather results in lower gas delivery sales, even if the company was earning the profits authorized by the ICC.

“The proposed billing scheme, called ‘decoupling,’ works by adding a surcharge to customers’ bills that makes up the difference between what customers actually spend and a pre-determined amount to be set by the ICC,” a press release from Madigan’s office said.

Madigan said many utility companies across the country describe decoupling as a way to protect energy revenues as consumers become more educated about energy conservation and, as a result, use less gas. It applies to the rates utilities charge to deliver gas, not to charges for natural gas itself. In Illinois, as in many states, utilities are permitted only to earn a profit on the delivery of gas and must pass through the cost of the gas commodity at the same market price they paid to obtain it.

We are willing to bet if the ICC allows this billing scheme to pass, Ameren CILCO will not be far behind.

Rather than waiting for the inevitable and then reacting, we suggest a pre-emptive strike. Call your legislators, write them, especially Sen. Dale Risinger (R-37th District), who serves as minority spokesman of the Illinois Senate’s Environment & Energy Committee.

Expend a little energy now