Q&A: How Illinois energy bill will help low-income families

The recent passage of a sweeping energy bill in Illinois positions the state to be a leader nationally on energy and climate, says Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy, a Chicago-based nonprofit that develops efficiency programs primarily for low-income communities.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill, passed earlier this month by the Illinois General Assembly, boosts the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year for efficiency efforts, and rescues two nuclear plants from closure. A diverse array of constituents praised the hard-fought bill’s potential to boost the state’s clean-energy profile, and Evens was equally bullish during a recent telephone interview with Midwest Energy News.

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Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy

Evens, who joined Elevate Energy as CEO in 2006, has led the organization as it quietly worked with utilities to implement so-called dynamic pricing models, which charge customers for electricity based on hourly demand and supply. Since 2007, ComEd’s Hourly Pricing program has reduced energy consumption by over 44 million kilowatt-hours and saved customers more than $16 million on their utility bills, according to Elevate Energy, which administers the program.

These kinds of programs can act as “a bridge between people and technology,” Evens says, helping to lower consumers’ energy bills while paving the way for more distributed, renewable sources of electricity.

What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Midwest Energy News: What impact does the recent passing of the Future Energy Jobs Bill have on the future of energy efficiency in Illinois?

Evens: Energy policy is really driven more by state and local energy initiatives, so I’m very excited about the bill that just passed. It represents a broad compromise between environmental groups, consumer groups, wind- and solar-energy industries and other industries who really sought to increase energy efficiency and renewable generation, and Exelon who sought to keep two financially distressed nuclear plants open.

The resulting bill is really – although it seemed like it moved through very quickly – it was really based on almost two years worth of work on the part of advocates and all the companies, and it was passed with really huge bipartisan support.

We are particularly very excited about the significant increase in energy efficiency [funding] for low- and moderate-income communities, as well as improvements in the regulatory environment for community solar and solar-for-all programs that really can benefit low- and moderate-income communities.

The reason we’re so excited about these improvements and new initiatives is we really see the clean-energy economy coming – with companies like Google announcing that they’re going to be 100 percent renewable – we really see the market strongly moving toward a clean energy economy. We want to make sure that as part of that transition, low- and moderate- income communities are included and benefiting at the same rate as the economy is overall.

What is the case for why low-income populations should benefit from energy innovation first as opposed to further down the line?

Low-income families have a higher energy burden, meaning they spend more as a percentage of their total expenses on energy than upper-income families do. We think there are about 300,000 families in Illinois that are spending 25 percent of their monthly expenses on their utilities, so there’s a really strong need to control costs among low-income families.

We believe that models like community solar can be set up in a way that, on day one, customers are seeing lower costs. And we think that these initiatives need to be aggressively demonstrated across low- and moderate-income communities at the same rate as they are being piloted and demonstrated across the economy overall.

There’s a lot of evidence that low-income families get lots of benefits from investing in energy efficiency. Number one: their bills go down. Number two: their health improves. And number three: we’re really driving significant jobs as a result of investments in energy efficiency.

What is the appeal of dynamic-pricing models, and how do you see them evolving or expanding in the years to come?

It’s really exciting now that we’ve got smart meters in so many homes across Illinois, because smart meters enable technology and programs that really help customers save money on their bills. People are mostly drawn to our programs to save money, but as they get engaged and learn more about their energy consumption – the more engaged they get, the more programs they want to take advantage of. It’s really a good transition into a new way for families to interact with their own energy futures.

With regard to the future energy system, we really see dynamic-pricing options, hourly pricing options expanding to meet the needs of customers and technology. It’s really a bridge between people and technology, and with different rate options now becoming available, especially hourly pricing, we’re going to see a greater integration with rooftop solar [and] with electric vehicles. As battery storage advances there are going to be increasing opportunities for people to make use of energy in the most efficient, optimal way.

As the electric grid is changing, and solar installation costs are declining, and we have this new policy environment in Illinois, we’re really excited about the opportunity to ensure that the benefits of this technology reach the low- and moderate-income households who need it most.

Elevate Energy published a report earlier this year calling for moving beyond the “Utility-of-the-future” approach to the transition underway in the power sector, in favor of a “Community-of-the-future” framework. What is the difference between those two approaches, and why does it matter?

The “Utility of the Future” framework is really looking from the utility perspective – how changing energy systems [and] energy efficiency are really working to reduce consumption and reduce demand. There’s a conservation effect with that, and with solar penetration increasing pretty rapidly, utilities need to move from the traditional, vertically integrated model to become more of a platform that enables transactions.

I think that’s – from what I’ve been hearing, reading, talking to people about – that’s really the utility 2.0 frame, and it’s really a utility frame. What we’re really interested in exploring is: what if we kind of flip that and look at it from a community frame. What kind of integrated community-solar, demand-response programs and energy-efficiency programs that are sustained over long periods of time really benefit communities? How can you get communities engaged in planning for their own energy futures, in a way that controls costs, supports local economies and generates local jobs?

What makes Chicago and Illinois a great place to work on energy efficiency? What would make it better?

What makes it great is the people working on this issue – from a technical point of view, from a financing point of view, from a what-works-on-the-ground point of view. I just think we have an amazingly strong ecosystem of people … Now with the [Future Energy Jobs Bill ] that just passed, I believe we have one of the best climate-change/energy bills in the nation – certainly in Illinois’ history – and maybe we’ve set the bar now much higher and put Illinois as a leader nationally.

I still think there’s so much we need to do in [low- and moderate-income] communities that need greater benefits. We’re really thrilled that the bill did include a significant increase for low- and moderate-income communities, and now we’ve really got to implement. We now have to rise to the challenge and run high-quality programs that really drive significant benefits to communities.

One thought on “Q&A: How Illinois energy bill will help low-income families

  1. This article did not address one specific way this bill will help low income households. Half of my disability check is going to exhorbitant energy costs where my energy is literally going out the window in a 100 year old house that been on a waiting list for 3 years for weatherization. Outrageous! I would like not having to choose between eating and keeping my lights on. Energy, especially since we can harness it free from the sun, should not cause a poor person to be making life and death decisions because they cannot afford their utility bills. I would build solar panels myself if I could just so I can at least heat my water and be relieved of that high cost if nothing else.