Week in Review: Rising energy prices, tornado season, boating safety and more


Illinois House holds joint hearing on rising energy prices in Ameren territory. On Thursday, May 26, the House Energy & Environment and Public Utilities Committees held a joint hearing at the Capitol to discuss rising energy prices for Ameren customers in downstate Illinois.

Ameren Illinois customers received an email Wednesday warning about higher prices on the horizon this summer. State lawmakers had the opportunity to ask energy leaders why this is happening and what they could do to help Thursday.

“The primary reason you will see an increase in your monthly bill is because of the increase in the electric supply costs, which are collected on your utility bill and paid directly to power generators,” the utility wrote to customers. “Ameren Illinois does not profit from these charges.” 

Jim Blessing, the vice president of regulatory policy and energy supply, told lawmakers this hike was caused by inflation, the Russian war in Ukraine, and coal plants closing.

Ameren customers can expect a $58 increase from June to September. They will also pay $49 more during the non-summer months. 1.2 million customers will be impacted by the hike that could cost $430 more annually.

“A customer who uses 10,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year will see a $626 annualized increase on the power supply side of their bill or an increase of approximately $52 per month,” Blessing said. […]

Many people are already preparing for the possibility of brownouts and blackouts. Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville) has a generator for backup power on his farm, but he knows that many homeowners don’t have that option.

“I had to spend close to $20,000 last week to make sure that my livestock will be able to survive if I’m not there to turn on the generator,” Meier said. “All of our small businesses and our farms are going to have to do that because we’re living in a state where we’ve taken our destiny away from ourselves.”

Experts from MISO Energy say there is a gap between when fossil fuel facilities close and when there is enough replacement capacity online to power communities.

“We’re seeing a lot more retirements coming quicker, for whatever reason, than we’re seeing generation be able to get online,” said Melissa Seymour, vice president of external affairs for MISO. “The gap could be filled with numerous things. It could be filled with wind and solar. It could be filled with hydrogen in the future.”

Seymour says MISO believes it will become worse before it gets better. Several downstate lawmakers have been telling Democratic leaders that Illinois needed to prepare for this type of crisis over the past several years.

“Our constituents are worried, and they should be worried,” said Rep. Amy Elik (R-Alton). “Reliability is the most important factor. It means nothing if we don’t have reliability.”

“We are facing an immediate crisis,” said State Representative Dan Caulkins, (R-Decatur). “This starts next week, June first. Our electric bills will soar.”

Electricity costs will soar beginning in June in central and southern Illinois, due to inadequate power supplies following coal-fired plant closures. Ameren Illinois is within the MISO grid covering much of downstate Illinois.

Critics of policies phasing out coal and natural gas in favor of renewable power are seeing their doomsday forecasts start to come true far faster than even they thought. The price shock downstate also hands Republicans who didn’t support Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s sprawling, costly Climate & Equitable Jobs Act, or CEJA, last year an issue in the upcoming election.

The statute requires the closure of all fossil fuel power plants in Illinois no later than 2045. Effectively, it’s made the usual method of addressing power-supply shortages—construction of new natural gas-fired plants—uneconomic and significantly reduced the tools available to address the shortage that’s emerged.

Rep. Batinick proposes solutions for high gas prices in Illinois. In response to skyrocketing gas prices in Illinois, State Representative Mark Batinick produced a new video proposing solutions to alleviate this problem for middle and lower income Illinoisans. His video highlighted his recently introduced legislation on this issue, House Bill 5723, in particular.

“Illinoisans are being hurt by high gas prices we are experiencing today,” said Rep. Batinick. “What is not helping is Illinois’ current system of charging a percentage-based additional sales tax on top of a per-gallon gas tax. I introduced House Bill 5723 to provide immediate relief for those who are disproportionately hurt by the current system. This legislation will provide more lasting, meaningful relief than the motor fuel tax increase pause we passed during our spring session. We need to debate and consider this legislation to provide needed relief for Illinoisans.”

House Bill 5723 caps the sales tax on gas at 18 cents per gallon for motor fuel. During this recent spring session, the bill was not released from the House Rules Committee, preventing debate on it. According to AAA, the Chicago Metro area experienced the highest regular unleaded gasoline price on May 22nd at $5.203 and the highest diesel price on the same day at $5.313.

Efforts in Illinois to counter baby formula shortage. Many families have been advised by their medical professionals to feed their babies with bottled formula, a nutritional food that should be made in a secure, sterile factory setting. After a key Michigan factory was contaminated with bacteria, U.S. baby formula production dropped sharply. Since the start of 2022, parents have been searching for this essential family food product. A recent congressional hearing has implicated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an arm of the Biden administration, in the lack of government response to the factory incident and shortage.

The Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) has posted a fact sheet on the baby formula shortage, which includes a hotline, 1-800-843-6154, for Illinois residents seeking further advice. The formula shortage has been exacerbated by well-meaning demands by infant nutritionists that special formulas be created for the specific needs of infants diagnosed with various metabolic conditions. Not only is baby formula short overall throughout the U.S., but specific kinds of formulas needed by specific infants are even shorter. This specialization of formulas is one of the reasons that the overall distribution pipeline has become brittle and inflexible.

Cook, collar counties now at High Community Level for COVID-19. The CDC reported Thursday that 15 Illinois counties are now rated at High Community Level for COVID-19, an area that includes Chicago, Cook County and surrounding counties in northeastern Illinois as well as counties around Peoria. An additional 30 counties in Illinois are now rated at Medium Community Level, according to the CDC.

The counties listed at High Community Level are Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Will, Grundy, Boone, Lee and Winnebago in Northern Illinois and Fulton, Knox, Henderson, Mason, Peoria and Tazewell in Central Illinois.

The CDC recommends the following measures for people in areas that are rated at High Community Level for COID-19 transmission:
  • Wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status (including in K-12 schools and other indoor community settings)
  • If you are immunocompromised or high risk for severe disease
    • Wear a mask or respirator that provides you with greater protection
    • Consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed
    • Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to take other precautions
  • Have a plan for rapid testing if needed (e.g., having home tests or access to testing)
  • IF YOU TEST POSITIVE: Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you are a candidate for treatments like oral antivirals, and monoclonal antibodies
  • If you have household or social contact with someone at high risk for severe disease
    • consider self-testing to detect infection before contact
    • consider wearing a mask when indoors with them
  • Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters
  • Maintain improved ventilation throughout indoor spaces when possible
  • Follow CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine, including getting tested if you are exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of COVID-19
At the Medium Community Level, persons who are elderly or immunocompromised (at risk of severe outcomes) are advised to wear a mask in indoor public places. In addition, they should make sure to get up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines or get their 2nd booster, if eligible.

A total of 22,293,645 vaccines have been administered in Illinois. The seven-day rolling average of vaccines administered daily is 15,443 doses. Of Illinois’ total population, more than 76% has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, more than 69% of Illinois’ total population is fully vaccinated, and more than 52% of the vaccinated population has an initial booster according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data indicates that the risk of hospitalization and severe outcomes from COVID-19 is much higher for unvaccinated people than for those who are up to date on their vaccinations.

All data are provisional and are subject to change. Additional information and COVID-19 data can be found at https://dph.illinois.gov/covid19.html. To find a COVID-19 vaccination location near you, go to https://www.vaccines.gov/.

The federal government has established a new website that provides an all-purpose toolkit with information on how to obtain masks, treatment, vaccines and testing resources for all areas of the country at: https://www.covid.gov/.

Illinois tornado season underway; residents urged to be prepared. Tornado preparedness includes clearly distinguishing between a tornado “watch,” which is a relatively common event that signals the approach of a powerful thunderstorm, and a “tornado warning,” which is what officials issue when a tornado has actually been sighted or tracked on weather radar. Today’s weather radar systems have computer algorithms that can see when air and water are whirling in a tight cylinder.

Authorities broadcast a single-tone warning sound by public siren and cellphone when a tornado warning is issued. Upon hearing a tornado warning on your pocket phone or through other means, Illinois residents are advised to seek shelter. Typical shelter areas include a basement or non-windowed room indoors. After a storm has passed over a residential area, local roads and sidewalks may be unsafe due to downed electric wires or floodwaters. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) has posted a fact sheet on Illinois tornado preparedness.

April 2022 Illinois unemployment rates announced. The unemployment rate tallied for the first full month of spring 2022 was 4.6%, down 0.1% from 4.7% in March 2022. The announcement came from the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES), which releases monthly figures based upon numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The preliminary job count includes that nonfarm Illinois payrolls increased by 9,300 jobs in April 2022. More than three-quarters of the overall net growth was concentrated in Leisure and Hospitality. This pandemic-hard-hit sector, which includes jobs in hotels, motels, and restaurants, continued to recover in early 2022 from the sharp slowdown imposed on it two years earlier. In a continued recovery pattern, the Illinois unemployment rate was 2.0% less than it had been in April 2021 (6.6% to 4.6%).

Illinois continues to post higher jobless numbers than the rest of the United States, including our neighboring states. The Illinois unemployment rate of 4.6% in April was 1.0% higher than the national rate of 3.6%. By contrast, the Indiana unemployment rate was 2.2% in April 2022; the Missouri rate was 3.4%; and the Wisconsin rate was 2.8%.

IDNR reminds boaters to wear life jackets, boat sober. As the summer boating season approaches, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources conservation police are reminding people to wear life jackets anytime they're on the water and to only operate boats while sober.

The message to "Wear It!" is timed with National Safe Boating Week, May 21-27.

"The ‘Wear It!' message is a simple and easy message to understand," said Illinois Conservation Police Lt. Curt Lewis, who is the state's boating law administrator. "Wearing a life jacket isn't just a reminder for everyone on a motorboat; it's also important for everyone who enjoys paddle sports, such as kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards."

In 2021 there were 93 reportable boating accidents on Illinois waters, resulting in 28 injuries and 16 fatalities, according to statistics compiled by the conservation police. In 2020, there were 81 boating accidents with 21 fatalities and 36 injuries. And in 2019, there were 72 accidents with 14 fatalities and 42 injuries. (Annual boating accident statistics are compiled based on the federal fiscal year Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.)

"With Memorial Day weekend approaching and boating season getting underway, everyone enjoying the waterways needs to make safety their priority," Lewis said. "Wearing a life jacket can save your life, and staying sober while operating a boat is not only common sense, it's the law."

As part of the Illinois Conservation Police boating safety enforcement effort, officers also strictly enforce laws regarding operating under the influence (OUI) for boat operators.

Operating a boat under the influence is in some ways riskier than operating a motor vehicle under the influence, Lewis said. On waterways, there are no lane markers, boats have no seatbelts, and there is little protection for occupants should a collision occur.

In 2021 Illinois Conservation Police officers arrested 65 boaters for operating under the influence (OUI), a 36% decrease from 2020. Four of the 16 boating-related fatalities in Illinois in 2021 involved alcohol or drug impairment. The other 12 who died were not wearing life jackets or vests.

Illinois law requires that personal floatation devices, or PFDs - which are life jackets or life vests - be available for each person aboard a boat or other watercraft.

Effective June 1, 2022, no person may operate a watercraft unless everyone under the age of 13 on the deck or in an open watercraft is wearing an approved and appropriately sized PFD. The requirement does not apply to people who are inside a cabin or below the top deck on a watercraft, on an anchored watercraft that is a platform for swimming or diving, or aboard a charter "passenger for hire" watercraft with a licensed captain.

Illinois law requires everyone to wear a PFD while operating a personal watercraft or jet ski.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources offers free boating safety courses that provide a review of boating laws and regulations, as well as instruction on the safe and attentive operation of watercraft. The department encourages boaters of all ages to take a safety course. Anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1998, must pass a course and have a valid Boating Safety Certificate to operate a motorboat (with over 10 horsepower). State law also requires boating safety education for people ages 12 to 17 to operate a motorboat.

Free safety courses are taught by volunteer instructors and are available throughout Illinois. Find a schedule of courses at https://bit.ly/IDNRsafeboating. For a fee, online boating safety courses are also available.

National Safe Boating Week is observed each year during the week leading up to the Memorial Day holiday weekend. For more information on the campaign, visit safeboatingcampaign.com.