Energy Bill Flickers as Time Runs Short To Save Nuclear Plants With Subsidy

A spark of movement on a comprehensive energy package in Springfield prompted a warning from Exelon that time is short for a full-fledged deal if Illinois wants the corporation to keep operating its full nuclear fleet.

Exelon says it will begin deactivating the nuclear generators at its Byron plant come mid-September, unless Illinois enacts a law that provides the Chicago-based corporation with a subsidy paid by electric customers.

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“While we currently have no choice but to continue preparing for their premature retirement, we have established off-ramps that will allow us to reverse that decision if lawmakers pass legislation with enough time for us to safely refuel the plants,” an Exelon spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday. “To be clear, Byron will run out of fuel and will permanently shut down on September 13 unless legislation is enacted.  We have been clear that we cannot refuel Byron on September 13 or Dresden in November absent policy changes.”   

READ: Bye, Bye Byron? Exelon Prepares to Shutter Illinois Nuclear Plants

The Illinois Senate approved a measure (SB18) that would meet Exelon’s demands and make other changes to influence the state’s energy market, including setting a target date of 2050 for relying solely on renewable energy sources, amending how electric delivery rates are set and creating programs to increase the hiring of people of color in the energy industries. 

The AARP’s Bob Gallo said customers shouldn’t be on the hook. He said it feels like deja vu, given that a law passed in 2016 gives Exelon a subsidy to continue operating plants in Clinton and the Quad Cities. 

That law, the Future Energy Jobs Act, was listed in a federal deferred prosecution agreement as one of the measures Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison admitted to using bribery to get passed. 

“My concern all along has been making sure that ratepayers are represented in these conversations and to date they haven’t (been),” Gallo said.

He said the AARP did a study and estimates that the measure will cost $14 billion over the next decade. 

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s initial response to the Senate proposal was muted, with his office offering a list of problems with the measure that need to be fixed, added or removed and reworked. 

“The Governor’s Office looks forward to working with members of the House to finalize an energy package that puts consumers and climate first,” the statement read.

The measure sets a closure deadline of 2045 for all coal-fired power plants in Illinois, including the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa that’s owned by municipalities including some suburbs – a chief demand of Pritzker and environmentalists. 

But the version that passed the Senate does not require Prairie State to decrease its carbon emissions until then. 

J.C. Kibbey with the Natural Resources Defense Council said interim targets must be in the final package. 

“Ultimately, we need to phase out fossil fuels from our economy altogether, but we have to make emissions reductions quickly. This is time sensitive. The longer we wait the more tons of carbon go into the atmosphere, the more our planet gets hotter and the more we get things like heat waves and droughts and floods – and we’re already seeing that in Illinois,” he said. “So it’s not enough just to have a date where we’re going to do this in some far-out future. We have to have those dates. But we also have to start acting right now.” 

Some critics, including state Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, are fighting what they say is the premature closure of plants that will leave energy consumers in central and southern Illinois – where electricity comes through MISO, a different grid than the northern part of the state’s PJM grid – without a reliable source of energy.

He also said Illinois will have to then import energy from neighboring states that continue to rely on coal.

“So we’re going to issue press releases that we’re going to be the toughest state in the union: ‘We’re gonna get rid of carbon!’”  Rose said during the floor debate. “Really? Cause here’s what’s going to happen. Do you know where all those MISO electrons are going to come from? They’re going to get backfilled from Indiana and Kentucky primarily. Which are carbon.”

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, chair of the chamber’s energy committee, called it a “bogeyman talk.”

“There’s mechanisms in this bill that will determine whether or not the baseload generation for the state is adequate enough to reach, or to meet the demands of the consumers,” Hastings said.

A key portion of the package calls for propping up Illinois’ once-soaring renewable energy industry by allocating state funding for solar and wind projects.

State Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Moline, is among those who said Illinois should not be using taxpayer money to promote “inefficient” energy sources.

It’s a complex issue, and one that transcends party lines.

That’s apparent by the inability thus far of Democrats’ key constituencies – unions and environmental groups – to reach an agreement.

Therefore, a deal between the state’s Democratic leaders has also proven elusive.

Senate President Don Harmon struck a hopeful tone, however, in his closing message during the debate in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, saying that it’s “reasonable” that House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Pritzker wanted more time to study what the Senate had approved.

“In my entire time in the Senate this may be the most complicated bill and the most challenging negotiation,” said Harmon, who has served as a state senator for 18 years.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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