The Illinois Senate is set to return to Springfield to vote on an energy policy overhaul Monday — the day scandal-plagued Commonwealth Edison’s parent company has said it will begin shutting down its Byron nuclear power plant if lawmakers don’t approve a bailout.
The House voted 83-33 on Thursday to approve a plan that would put power customers on the hook for nearly $700 million in subsidies to Byron and two of the company’s other nuclear plants over five years.
The measure’s broader goal is to phase out power generated by climate-damaging fossil fuels and put the state on a path to 100% carbon-free energy by 2050.
Approval in the Senate on Monday would send the proposal to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who’s said he will sign it “as soon as possible, because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not wait any longer.”
Here’s a closer look at what’s being considered in Springfield.
What will it cost?
The overall price tag for customers, which includes not just the nuclear plant bailout but also increased subsidies for renewable energy development and other costs, has been a moving target.
As the measure was moving through the House, its sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Marcus Evans of Chicago, gave estimates ranging from $3 to $4.50 per month for how much the measure would add to the average residential customers’ power bill.
The governor’s office has said the nuclear subsidies alone will cost the average customer about 80 cents per month.
Previously, AARP Illinois estimated a similar proposal under consideration in the Senate would cost residential customers as much as $15 more per month, though supporters have disputed that.
Why bail out nuclear plants?
Exelon has argued that subsidies are justified because its nuclear plants, which produce large amounts of energy without spewing climate-damaging carbon dioxide, can’t compete with cheaper, dirtier fossil fuels and subsidized renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Exelon announced last year that it would close Byron this month and its Dresden nuclear plant in Grundy County later this year if it didn’t get additional help from lawmakers.
Supporters of the plan say nuclear plants are an important part of ensuring reliable energy as the state tries to boost its use of wind and solar power. It’s also about jobs — Exelon’s nuclear plants employ thousands of workers, largely in high-paying union jobs. The plants are also major sources of tax revenue for schools and local governments.
Opponents say customers shouldn’t be forced to pad the bottom line of a highly profitable publicly traded corporation.
What about wind and solar?
The proposal sets a goal of moving the state to 100% “clean” energy by 2050, with interim goals of 40% of the state’s power coming from renewable sources by 2030 and 50% by 2040.
To get there, subsidies for wind and solar projects would roughly double, to about $500 million per year. The plan also would allow the state’s large electric utilities to spend about $317 million in previously collected funds on renewable energy projects rather than refunding it to customers. Under existing law, the money was supposed to pay for projects that came online by May 31 of this year, but many were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic
There are also programs to support job training the in renewable energy industry and provisions that would allow the Illinois Finance Authority to create a “climate bank” to finance renewable energy projects.
What happens to power plants that burn fossil fuels?
All privately owned coal- and oil-fired power plants in the state would have to shut down by 2030. Natural gas plants have until 2045, and until then their carbon emissions in a given year can’t exceed what they spewed out, on average, over the past three years.
Long a sticking point in negotiations, the publicly owned Prairie State Generating Station in Marissa, near St. Louis — one of the largest carbon polluters in the country — and the city-owned coal plant in Springfield would be allowed to remain open until 2045, or longer if they can eliminate emissions entirely. But they’ll have to cut emissions 45% by 2035 or risk the forced shutdown of one or more generating units to meet that target.
Opponents have raised concerns about the cost to municipalities that invested in Prairie State and to the city of Springfield, and they’ve also questioned whether closing coal and natural gas plants would hurt reliability of the energy grid.
But the plan would allow specific units to remain open if regulators determine they’re essential for reliability and stability of the grid.
What’s the response to ComEd’s bribery scheme?
The backdrop to the energy negotiations was ComEd’s bombshell admission in federal court last summer that in engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme in an effort to advance its agenda in Springfield — including a favorable process for setting utility rates and a previous bailout for two other downstate nuclear plants in 2016.
The measure headed to the Senate includes a requirement that state officials publicly disclose whether they have immediate families who work for utility companies. 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.
What about those formula rates?
Supporters say the plan would end so-called formula rates, which were approved in Springfield amid ComEd’s bribery scheme. Formula rates guaranteed the company would reap higher profits from customers as it spent more on energy grid upgrades rather than having to get state approval for a rate hike.
Consumer advocates dispute that claim, arguing that the plan would extend policies that guarantee profits for 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.
What else is in it?
The plan also is loaded with provisions aimed at requiring union-level wages on large-scale renewable energy projects and expanding opportunities in the industry, particularly for Black and Latino workers and businesses.
It also aims to greatly expand the use of electric vehicles in the state, with a goal of putting 1 million battery-powered cars and trucks on the road by 2030. It would create rebates of up to $4,000 for customers who buy electric vehicles.
On the consumer side, it would end deposit requirements and late fees for low-income utility customers and eliminate all fees for paying electric or natural gas bills online.
The Senate is expected to take an up-or-down vote Monday on the House proposal.
If it passes, which would require a three-fifths majority in the Democratic-controlled chamber, it then goes to Pritzker’s desk.
Exelon has said it will refuel the Byron nuclear plant if the legislation is approved by Monday. Otherwise, it plans to begin shutting down and would send the fuel to another plant.