How ComEd's corruption hurt Illinois consumers, and how we can take our power back

Illinoisans who get their electricity from Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) are paying 37 percent more for their electricity delivery than they did in 2012 — when in fact declines in power supply prices over the last decade should have led to lower electric bills. Why the extra cost? The answer lies in a case of political influence enabling a powerful special interest to upend its own regulation, maximizing private profit rather than the public good.

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Aaron Colonnese
Creative Associate

Author: Aaron Colonnese

Creative Associate

 

Started on staff: 2020
B.A., Brown University

Aaron writes and designs materials with the Creative Team for The Public Interest Network for U.S. PIRG. Aaron lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and spends his spare time playing drums and going for long walks.

Illinoisans who get their electricity from Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) are paying 37 percent more for their electricity delivery than they did in 2012 — when in fact declines in power supply prices over the last decade should have led to lower electric bills.

Why the extra cost? The answer lies in a case of political influence enabling a powerful special interest to upend its own regulation, maximizing private profit rather than the public good.

Last July, ComEd admitted to giving out jobs and contracts to allies of the powerful Illinois House Speaker. This likely influenced a set of state policies that included automatic rate hikes, a weaker utility regulator, a bailout of parent company Exelon's nuclear power plants, and a stalled transition to clean, renewable energy. At the center of the scheme was ComEd’s influence on the 2011 Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) — a law that guaranteed record profits for ComEd on the basis of promised grid improvements which ultimately failed to materialize. Corruption indeed.

Illinoisans deserve their money back. But even more importantly, they deserve to see reforms that will prevent political corruption in the future. So Illinois PIRG has jumped into action to work for accountability, restoration and reform through the Take Our Power Back campaign. And while we’re currently gearing up to pass key bills in Springfield in the 2021 legislative session, Illinois PIRG’s legacy of standing up for consumers in the face of unchecked utility political power has been years in the making.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

  • In the 10 years since it was passed, EIMA has built ComEd and parent company Exelon a profit machine entirely out of proportion to the law’s specified investments.
  • Among Illinois PIRG’s challenges to the political power ComEd accumulated — and the utility-friendly policies that came with it — was a 2016 campaign that won the rejection of a ComEd “demand charge” proposal, which would have hurt consumers’ ability to manage their utility bills and undermined the growth of solar power.
  • For more than a year between 2019 and 2020, Illinois PIRG State Director Abe Scarr and Jeff Orcut, president of Chapman Energy Strategies, worked on a report titled “Guaranteed Profits, Broken Promises.” Abe and Jeff detailed ComEd’s use of automatic rate hikes to lock in private profits, even though the public good of a substantially cleaner, more efficient electricity grid never materialized.
  • Then, in July 2020, a months-long federal investigation resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement in which ComEd admitted to giving out jobs and contracts, often with no expectation of work, to allies of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, in hopes of influencing one of the state’s most powerful politicians. Federal prosecutors deemed these actions as constituting a corrupt bribery scheme, and ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine.
  • Abe and Illinois PIRG launched the Take Our Power Back campaign in the fall of 2020, which kicked off with the release of “Guaranteed Profits, Broken Promises.” In addition to financial restitution for ComEd customers, our advocates are calling for a set of legislative reforms that will ensure ComEd can’t amass so much political influence ever again.

In many ways, the revelation of the bribery scandal simply confirmed what anybody paying attention already knew: ComEd had influenced the regulatory system in Illinois to the point where it was allowed to accrue the financial benefits of investing in better utility infrastructure without the promised benefits of much of that infrastructure ever actually materializing.

But of course, when it came to media attention to this issue, the drama of the bribery scandal provided a clear focal point for more and more political reporters to amplify our report findings and our campaign message. Moreover, Illinois PIRG’s campaign was positioned perfectly to raise awareness of the consumer impact of ComEd’s power and influence, rather than the political impact. Abe was able to shine a spotlight on how ComEd’s conduct impacts every Illinoisan, even in the midst of a dramatic and rapidly evolving political scandal.

Take Our Power Back is part of PIRG’s 45-plus-year history of work in the public interest — and specifically, our legacy of standing up to protect consumers from unfair utility pricing. One example: In the 1980s, at the urging of Tom Ryan, former executive director of Missouri PIRG (MoPIRG), the state’s Public Service Commission blocked Union Electric’s attempt to stick ratepayers with the $106 million tab for a cancelled nuclear power plant. And when a Missouri court upheld that decision in 1988, it created a precedent protecting consumers from utilities’ bad business decisions.

Fast forward to 2021 and we see Abe and Illinois PIRG continuing the work of standing up for consumers, holding government accountable, and ensuring that we make investments in our energy that will lead to a healthier, more sustainable future.

Abe speaks with WTTW about the ComEd's longstanding influence on energy policy, Illinois PIRG's report on how that has affected consumers, and the legislative reforms we need to make it right.

We’re pleased that Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker has proven relentless in his calls to end automatic rate hikes, re-empower utility regulators, and reform ethics and transparency laws. But ComEd and other utilities still have allies in Springfield, and so we’ll keep advocating and organizing for our reform agenda until it’s passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Our work to hold ComEd accountable — and to stand up for consumers everywhere against special interests, corruption, and obstacles to a more sustainable future — has only just begun.

Aaron Colonnese
Creative Associate

Author: Aaron Colonnese

Creative Associate

 

Started on staff: 2020
B.A., Brown University

Aaron writes and designs materials with the Creative Team for The Public Interest Network for U.S. PIRG. Aaron lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and spends his spare time playing drums and going for long walks.