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Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he’ll sign sweeping energy proposal that bails out nuclear plants, sets ambitious clean-energy targets, following Senate approval

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, September 14, 2021  |  Article  |  Dan Petrella

Energy, Alternative Energy (93)

The Illinois Senate on Monday approved a wide-ranging energy policy overhaul that sets ambitious goals for a carbon-free future and staves off the threatened shutdown of two of the state’s six nuclear power plants, handing Gov. J.B. Pritzker a key legislative victory heading into his reelection bid.

For the Republicans seeking to challenge Pritzker next year, the bill offers an opportunity to tie the first-term Democrat to power bill hikes that will in part go toward a nearly $700 million bailout of three nuclear power plants owned by the parent company of scandal-plagued Commonwealth Edison.

With 36 votes needed for passage, the Senate voted 37-17 in favor of the package at a pivotal moment: ComEd parent Exelon said it would begin shutting down its Byron nuclear plant Monday if lawmakers didn’t approve the deal.

Exelon confirmed following the vote that it was preparing to refuel the Byron plant as well as its Dresden plant in Grundy County, which was slated to be shuttered in November absent action from the General Assembly.

Pritzker said at an unrelated event in Chicago on Monday that he would sign the measure into law as soon as it reaches his desk.

“Frankly, the people of Illinois, the people of our nation, of the globe can’t wait for a clean energy future,” the governor said shortly after Monday’s vote

Negotiations on the energy overhaul dragged throughout the summer, but House Democrats and Pritzker struck a deal last week with key support from labor unions and environmental groups. The House on Thursday sent the latest version of the plan to the Senate on a bipartisan 83-33 vote.

The package goes well beyond the bailout for Exelon’s Byron, Dresden and Braidwood nuclear plants, and Pritzker and other supporters have hailed it as a crucial step in the state’s effort to battle climate change.We understand the dangers to our environment, the very real threat of climate change and the need to do something now to protect our future,” Senate President Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, said before Monday’s vote.

The measure aims to put Illinois on a path to 100% carbon-free energy by 2050, with coal, oil and natural gas power plants scheduled to close over the coming decades. It also seeks to boosts the development of wind and solar energy across the state, put more electric vehicles on the road, and make it easier for Black and Latino workers and businesses to enter the renewable energy industry.

By and large, coal plants would have to shut down by 2030, while natural gas plants would have until 2045. There’s an exception for two publicly owned coal plants: the city-owned plant in Springfield and the Prairie State Generating Station in southern Illinois, but the measure sets targets for carbon emissions to be cut at those plants by 45% by 2035 and completely by 2045.

The proposal includes several ethics provisions for utilities in light of ComEd’s admitting in federal court last year that it engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme in an effort to advance its Springfield agenda, including a bailout for Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants in 2016.

Public officials will be required to disclose if their immediate family members work for utilities. The Illinois Commerce Commission would create a new position to monitor ethics and compliance at the utilities, which also would have to create their own ethics officers to report to the agency annually.The proposal also would prohibit ComEd from forcing customers to pay for any criminal penalties associated with an ongoing federal corruption probe.

Supporters say the proposal would undo one of ComEd’s key legislative victories during the era of its bribery scheme, the use of formula rates, which allowed the company to reap higher profits from customers as it spent more on energy grid upgrades without having to get state approval for a rate hike.

Consumer advocates dispute that claim, saying the plan would extend policies that guarantee profits for both ComEd and downstate utility Ameren Illinois.

Those policies would be more costly to power customers in the long run than the nuclear plant subsidies, said Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois Public Interest Research Group.

Exactly how much the plan will cost power customers is an open question, with estimates for an increase to the average residential customers’ bill ranging from about $3 per month to as much as $15 per month. The ICC, which regulates utilities in the state, has not completed an analysis of the cost to power customers.

Democratic Sen. Mike Hastings of Frankfort, the measure’s Senate sponsor, pointed to an estimate from the Citizens Utility Board watchdog group that shows the average residential customer would see electric bills go up by about $3.50 per month.

The potential cost of the plan was just one of numerous objections raised by Republicans, all but two of whom voted against the measure.

“The fact is no one knows how much this piece of legislation is going to cost Illinois ratepayers, but what we do know is that it will be borne by all ratepayers in the state,” Republican Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles said. “I guess what we’re seeing and hearing today is that we’ll just have to watch our friends across the aisle pass this legislation and then we’ll find out how much ratepayers will really be on the hook.”

Republicans also raised concerns about whether shutting down fossil fuel-burning power plants would result in less reliable power, particularly in central and southern Illinois, and over a provision that would allow the developer of a transmission line across central Illinois to use eminent domain if necessary to acquire land.

“What we are about to do is to tell Illinois residents one thing: You don’t matter, the Constitution doesn’t matter and your property doesn’t matter,” said Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia in southern Illinois, one of four declared candidates vying for the GOP nomination for governor. “And unfortunately, that’s going to come as no surprise to the average Illinois citizen.”

Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Democrat who represents Little Village and other Southwest Side and southwest suburban communities, said the cost of the proposal “weighs very heavily.”

“But I also know that we need to turn the tide because it’s my community that’s going to be impacted even more so than everybody else’s when it comes to the environmental issues that we are actually seeing today,” Villanueva said.

The cost to electric customers could be reduced if the federal government approves subsidies for nuclear power plants, an issue that is being debated in Washington, said Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat. The federal measure would require Exelon to apply for any available federal support that becomes available and return the money collected from customers in Illinois, Cunningham said.

For Republican Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris, with Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove one of the two GOP senators to support the plan, it came down to preserving jobs at the nuclear power plants, along with the carbon-free power they produce.

“Without this bill, any hope of bringing a carbon-free energy future to Illinois by 2050 will all but be impossible,” said Rezin, whose district is home to Exelon’s Dresden, Braidwood and LaSalle nuclear plants.

In the community of Byron in northwestern Illinois, Monday’s vote brought “utter relief,” said Christine Lynde, the local school board president. Byron Community School District 226 gets about three-quarters of its property tax revenue — about $19 million annually — from the nuclear plant. The district now will be able to better plan for its future, she said.

Lynde, whose husband works at the Byron plant, also expressed “huge disappointment” that the area’s two state senators — Republicans Brian Stewart of Freeport and Dave Syverson of Rockford — voted against the proposal that will keep the plant open.

Echoing a statement Stewart made after the Senate passed an earlier version of the energy bill late last month, Syverson on Monday called the proposal “a lose-lose proposition,” arguing that the Senate should have been given a chance to vote on a plan dealing only with the nuclear subsidies. Pritzker and the legislature’s Democratic leaders have said that idea was a nonstarter.

“I understand there are things that they disagree with,” Lynde said of Stewart and Syverson. “I get that. But when push comes to shove, they should be representing their constituents.”

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

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