Money has been tight since Chicago resident Sylvester Miller was laid off as a packer at General Products Corporation in April 2009.
Miller, 56, gets about $800 a month in assistance. With that, he supports himself, his girlfriend and 13-year-old stepson. Electric bills can run $200 a month, since his stepson, a typical teen, leaves lights blazing and plays video and computer games for hours.
Commonwealth Edison's proposed 7 percent rate increase, or $396 million, would add $14 to Miller's monthly expenses. "That would kind of hurt," he said.
The increase would take place in June, bad timing for Miller because his unemployment checks will stop April 30. Miller has a message for ComEd: "Start looking at the people who can't afford it."
ComEd, which supplies 3.8 million Illinois households with electricity, actually has two requests before the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC). One request is the $396 million increase — not on the cost of power, but on delivery of that power to homes.
Because of this, consumers could take as many frugal steps as they wanted — turn off lights, turn down thermostats — yet still get higher electric bills, said Scott Musser, AARP Illinois associate state director for outreach.
"That's a big hit, especially for our members on fixed or limited incomes," Musser said.
The ICC staff has already proposed reducing ComEd's delivery-charge increase to $78 million.
ComEd's second request is for an alternative rate regulation plan. In essence, Musser said, the company is asking to make a deal: In return for the freedom to levy future surcharges on consumers without going through the usual approval steps, ComEd will spend $190 million on system upgrades.
These upgrades include employing "smart grid" technology to enable engineers to find and fix outages more quickly and installing "smart meters" in homes for remote meter reading. The smart-metering charges variable rates according to when the electricity is used, with higher charges during peak daytime hours. Therefore, Musser said, customers such as retirees who spend their days at home will have higher bills.
ComEd also promises assistance for low-income customers, but that doesn't make alternative rate regulation any more attractive, said John Coffman, an AARP attorney.
"It's an unfair way to charge consumers," Coffman said, adding that the dollar cost to consumers — the surcharges — is not yet clear.
Alicia Zatkowski, a ComEd spokesperson, said the rate increase will help recoup $2 billion in improvements to the electricity infrastructure. And she defended the alternative rate plan, saying it would offset future investments in the electric grid and an electric car pilot development program.
ComEd received a rate increase in 2008, but a portion was repealed by a state appeals court in September. That decision could result in a $48 million refund, or about $12 per customer.
Hearings on the new requests will be held Jan. 10 to Jan. 28. The five-member ICC will make its final decision in May.
AARP attorneys hope to get the two cases combined into one, so commissioners can see the combined effect of both requests on consumers.
Two of the ICC's members were appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn, D, before his reelection on Nov. 2; because Quinn remains governor, the commissioners, both pro-consumer, are expected to be confirmed by the Illinois Senate.
AARP encourages consumers to weigh in. Comments can be submitted to the ICC by phone at 1-800-524-0795. Comments can also be filed online on the ICC website. Click on the case number: 10-0467 for the rate increase and 10-0527 for alternative regulation.
"It's a big, uphill road," Musser said. "We really need ComEd customers to speak up."
If you would like to volunteer for AARP on utility or other advocacy issues, call 1-866-448-3613 toll-free or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lisa Bertagnoli is a freelance reporter based in Chicago.