Daily Herald opinion: Keep politics to a minimum in clean-power transition

Nicor lost 38 customers last year who disconnected natural gas service and replaced it with all-electric service. The gas company added 11,000 new customers. It’s clear that even if it can be seen as a “legacy business” with a limited future, natural gas is not going anywhere soon.

But given the push toward electric power as a clean-environment strategy, it’s easy to see why planners are beginning already to envision the impact of declining reliance on natural gas. And it's encouraging to note they're opening the process to a wide range of influences.

This is the philosophy behind a new Illinois Commerce Commission initiative called the “Future of Gas.” The ICC began the inquiry in March and, as our climate writer Jenny Whidden described in a report Sunday, held the first of two series of workshops in April gathering issues that will need to be addressed. The second will be scheduled later to study solutions and strategies, even as the commission works with utilities and other stakeholders toward identifying future needed infrastructure investments by July 1, 2025.

One important goal of the process is to try to minimize the influence of politics on the policymaking. As we’ve seen in recent years with alarmist predictions of costly bans on gas appliances, the topic is ripe for controversy, especially in today’s fraught political environment.

Can policymakers really overcome that atmosphere to deal with questions about the impact on households of converting to all- or mostly electric power? The costs of expanding the electricity grid to handle dramatically increased demand? The capabilities making natural gas production and use more environment friendly? Ways to make sure that the likely increased costs facing natural gas consumers aren’t concentrated on the users least able to make conversions to electricity?

That’s a big ask. But a worthy goal.

“My hope is, rather than people going to the legislature and lobbying and trying to convince legislators what to do, that we rely on the commission’s expertise and that we let the commission come up with the best plan possible for this transition,” said Robert Kelter, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “Because there is no perfect solution to these problems. There’s too many variables there. It’s very difficult, but it definitely can be done.”

Let’s hope so. Nearly eight in 10 households in Illinois rely on natural gas for heat, and the state has more than a tenth of the entire nation’s total capacity for storing the fuel underground. This is not a purely academic inquiry.

“We’re at this tipping point in the way much of the world is viewing a lot of these different legacy technologies and where we’re going,” said Illinois Commerce Commission Executive Director Jonathan Feipel. “We’ve been doing this model of electric and gas for the last 100 years, and it seems like we’re at a review of, ‘Are we doing the best approach? Are we providing Illinois citizens with utility service at its most effective, most affordable, least cost, (most) reliable and safe? Are we truly doing that?’ We call it the Future of Gas, but really it’s the future of utility service.”

Authorities say more than 800 people and interests are taking part in the process. They include the utilities, of course, but also community representatives, environmental advocates and state and federal agencies. The customer data may not yet suggest an urgency to their task, but the climate science certainly does. Realistically, the implications of that science cannot escape political factors, but the more that stakeholders can cooperate in finding solutions and easing the pathways to them the less the political influences will matter.

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