In the midst of a climate crisis and rising utility costs, People’s Gas, the private utility which provides gas service in Chicago, is asking to increase their rates by $400 Million in order to build more fossil fuel infrastructure in our city. In order to protect the health of our lungs and our planet, and keep heating affordable for every household, we must oppose this rate increase and demand a plan for ending the use of gas in Chicago.
In Illinois, roughly 80% of households use fossil gas powered appliances, such as heaters, boilers and stoves, which are responsible for a large share of the city’s total emissions that are driving the ever-worsening climate crisis. These appliances are not only bad for the planet, but burning fossil fuels inside our homes is also bad for our health. One in five cases of childhood asthma are attributable to gas stove use in Illinois. Children living in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to develop asthma. Residential gas combustion is the single most racially inequitable form of pollution exposure, with people of color exposed to 41% more than white people.
In addition to these environmental and health costs, there is also a large financial cost to the residents stuck paying ever increasing utility bills. Nearly one third of all households in Chicago incurred a late fee last year because they struggled to afford to pay their bills in full. Illinois is #1 in the nation for gas shut offs, with gas utilities shutting off service to more than 82,000 customers last year. Black and Latino households in Illinois are twice as likely to experience gas disconnection compared to white people. Many households are being forced to make impossible choices between keeping the heat running and other necessary tasks, like going to the doctor. On top of these already unbearable costs, People’s Gas wants to raise rates by another $400 Million which will raise the average gas bill by $12/month.
The rising costs of gas and the lowering costs of electricity generation also present another problem in the future, as gas utilities like People’s Gas may start to enter what is known as a “utility death spiral”. As highly-efficient electrical heating replacements become more affordable, while gas costs increase, more households are going to opt-out of gas usage altogether. This leaves a shrinking number of households left paying off the massive costs of the gas network that we are still building today. These households will inevitably be the most vulnerable and low-income households who cannot afford the upfront costs to switch to lower-cost electrical alternatives. This is why we need a plan for the managed decline of gas usage, designed to distribute benefits with equity in mind. The alternative is a system that will only get worse for those who are already unable to afford the basics of a dignified life.
All of these shutoffs and late fees are happening as People’s Gas continues to turn a record profit. As a private utility, People’s Gas operates as a regulated monopoly, which means they can extract profit for their private shareholders, but the rates they can charge are subject to regulation from state agencies. Under this kind of regulation, utilities profits are tied to a fixed percentage of their expenditures. In order to increase their profits, these utilities will enact larger and larger construction programs, regardless of their actual long-term value. State agencies like the Illinois Commerce Commision (ICC) and the state legislature are supposed to act as regulators restricting the excess of these programs, but in recent years they have often served as a rubber stamp. As we have seen from other regulated monopolies, these organizations are adept at influencing politicians and officials to enact policies that help them.
We should take action and demand that fundamental infrastructure like heat and lights are no longer sold to extractive private entities, but instead run as a public good. We need to build power to make sure that we are able to stand up to the private interests, and demand that our government plans and builds a future where energy is clean, affordable and healthy for everyone. You can start by telling the ICC to reject these current proposed rate hikes and make a better plan for our future. You can also join CDSA’s public power campaign, Democratize ComEd, to join the fight for Chicago’s energy future.