Illinois governor signs affordable energy bill

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CHICAGO – Governor Pat Quinn signed into law an affordable energy bill, July 10, at a west side senior citizen center here. The new law will benefit tens of thousands of low-income utility customers.

The measure creates a payment option for low-income customers, caps the amount those customers pay for utilities and expands an energy efficiency program.

Joining Quinn at the signing were dozens of city and state lawmakers, environmental and senior citizen advocates, local community and labor groups, consumers and Illinois utility and industrial representatives.

“Energy costs continue to rise and Illinois families are feeling the crunch,” said Quinn. “This legislation allows many working people to keep their energy costs down and use that extra money to pay for other important and basic needs.”

Quinn continued, “This is a landmark legislation and a special day for the people of Illinois. People have suffered for a long time in fear of losing their energy at home and this new system works for everyone in a fair way.” Quinn added, “We want to encourage energy efficiency, predictability and economic security.”

“It’s very important during these tough economic times to take care of Illinois consumers,” said Quinn. “And we have to have a new green way of thinking and acting and we must be more energy efficient.”

Quinn said the new program would also help create jobs and identify neighborhoods to implement weatherization initiatives.

Senate Bill 1918 was sponsored by Democrats Senator Kimberly Lightford and House Representative Robert Flider and was passed by Illinois lawmakers overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support.

“There is a lot of history behind this piece of legislation – people have labored for this since I was in high school,” said Lightford. “This effort was a shared sacrifice.” Lightford said having heat in the winter and air in the summer is not just a desire for people – “it’s a basic necessity.”

For Laurice Brown, energy director with the Chicago Labor Coalition for People’s Action and Public Utilities, this day was a long time coming. Brown has served union households for the last 20 years and helps families in need of energy assistance every winter and summer. In her area alone, she serves about 3,000 people in the winter and 1,000 in the summer.

“This is truly a historic moment to have energy representatives, elected officials, seniors and generations of utility consumers all in one room to pass this legislation,” said Brown. “Those of us on fixed incomes or low-incomes don’t have to choose weather to pay for our medication, buy groceries or pay our utility bills now,” added Brown.

It’s been at least 17 years since we began fighting for this type of relief program, she said. “People want to pay for their energy bills but they just don’t have enough income to do so.”

The measure requires utility companies to participate in bill payment assistance programs for customers through a Percentage of Income Payment Plan. The PIPP makes it possible for tens of thousands of low-income households to pay an affordable amount each month for their gas and electricity bills, allowing eligible customers to pay no more than 6 percent of their income towards their energy costs.

The new program targets households across the state with incomes up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level guideline.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has been in the headlines lately after announcing she will not be running for governor or senator, was instrumental in collaborating with the parties responsible for making the measure a success.

In a press statement she said, “This new law protects the interests of consumers by mandating significant ethics reforms at the agency that sets energy prices and by making it easier for families to invest in energy efficiency programs and bring down the cost of their utility bills.”

The law will also create a better system to assist low-income families manage their utility bills and end the cycle of disconnection and reconnection, she said.

The bill also allows electric and gas utility customers to purchase cost-effective energy efficiency products or services with no required up-front payment and expands the program to include natural gas. Customers who take advantage of this program can pay the costs of products and services over time on their utility bills.

“Illinois will now be at the head of the class when it comes to saving energy,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter.

“This legislation is going to save us all $10 billion over the next decade, and make the air we breathe cleaner and healthier. Coupled with a similar program to cut electricity bills enacted in 2007, and with new requirements for renewable energy, Illinois is making a fast transition to the clean energy economy of the future,” he said, in a press statement.

The bill requires Illinois natural gas utilities to reduce natural gas use seven percent below today’s levels by 2020, and an additional 1.5 percent per year thereafter.

Utility companies are expected to meet this target with new programs, incentives, and assistance to help homeowners winterize their homes and upgrade to better gas appliances, and help businesses cut costs by reducing their natural gas consumption.

The program will be implemented by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Limited enrollment PIPP pilots will be available starting in the fall. The full implementation of the PIPP statewide will occur by September 2011. For more information consumers can call 1-877-411-9276.

Most affordable energy activists applaud the measure yet some say more needs to be done to address the deeper problems when it comes to paying for light and gas bills.

Elce Redmond, organizer with the South Austin Community Coalition said the underlining problem when it comes to energy affordability is due to mass poverty.

“Poverty is the overall critical issue here and there needs to be a major campaign to address it,” said Redmond. “People are suffering because they can’t afford to pay their energy bills.”

Some are living on $600 checks every month and their energy bills add up to $1,000 on top of that, said Redmond.

Too many families right now are struggling with energy shut-offs, home evictions and foreclosures and they can’t afford adequate health care, he said.

“Federal stimulus money is not reaching the chronic unemployed or under-employed,” said Redmond.

And the rise in city crime continues to be dismissed by the police as gang-related violence, but the reality is there are no youth programs and there is a lack of quality jobs, he said.