The most efficient policeman

By Abe Scarr
State Director

This morning, Illinois PIRG Education Fund and Glidepath Development, a renewable energy and energy storage developer, filed a complaint in Cook County Circuit Court against the Illinois Commerce Commission. The complaint alleges that the Commission has violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act in its management of the Next Grid study.

Next Grid is an 18-month study investigating how transformations in electricity generation, distribution, usage and storage are reshaping our electric grid, and what potential legal and regulatory changes may be needed to transition this marvel of the 20th century into the 21st century and beyond.

Here’s why we took action today.

As a matter of good government, public processes must be public, transparent, and open to all. Next Grid was initiated and is led and managed by the Illinois Commerce Commission, a government agency. Next Grid’s explicit purpose is to “further the Commission's mandate,” and to “identify and recommend to the Commission and the General Assembly a range of tangible actions and policies.” As we detail in our complaint, Next Grid has not met the standards set for public bodies under the Open Meetings Act.

  • Advocates and other stakeholders, including myself, have been excluded from its seven working groups. As a consumer advocacy organization, Illinois PIRG Education Fund has been active in energy public policy debates for decades, including leadership roles in statewide coalitions. I applied to participate in two working groups, but was invited to none. Working groups are closed to non-members.

  • Meetings have not been publicly announced. Minutes have not been publicly posted.

  • During one working group meeting, a member of the public attempted to connect to a webinar, only to be disconnected multiple times. Rather than allow them to participate, meeting organizers shut the webinar down.

  • Working group draft reports have included topics never discussed in working group meetings.

Open government rules exist for a reason: a closed process makes it easier for powerful special interests to get their way, hidden from the light of day.

Electric utilities ComEd and Ameren are not only funding Next Grid, they also helped select its facilitators and have been participants in every working group. Electric utilities generally, and ComEd specifically, are incredibly powerful, with a long track record of bending public decision-making bodies to their will, harming the public interest.

Ok, you may be thinking, open government is well and good, but why is this process so important? Why take this matter to the courts?

The questions being explored by Next Grid profoundly impact every Illinois resident who uses electricity; that is, all of us.  

We are living through a time of great transformation in how we generate and use electricity. These changes could bring great public benefits: 100% clean renewable energy, cleaner air, consumer empowerment, lower bills. But change also brings questions and risks. Who is responsible for making these changes -- a regulated public utility or competitors in the marketplace? Who pays and who profits? Will everyone benefit, or only those who can afford to?

Incumbent utilities want to place as much of the risk as possible on the public, while keeping the benefits to themselves. They want to centralize the decentralized grid. They want the grid of the future to look like the utility of the past. And they want us to pay for it.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

It’s time to let some light into Next Grid.

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