SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office unveiled a 900-page energy overhaul bill on April 28, accelerating a yearslong negotiating process which advocates hope will end in a comprehensive clean energy platform as the session nears its final month.
The stated goal of the bill is to drive Illinois to 100% “clean” energy by 2050. That, Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, a former Hyde Park-Kenwood state representative, said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois, would include nuclear power as a major contributor. Another goal is to bring Illinois to 40% of its utility scale energy being produced by renewables, such as wind and solar, by 2030. Right now, that number is around 8%.
The bill contains some of the provisions put forth in other legislation, such as raising the rate cap on ratepayer bills for renewable projects from about 2% to 3.75%; ending formulaic rate increases for utilities immediately; and prohibiting natural gas companies from assessing a certain surcharge on bills starting in January 2022.
It also requires an annual outside audit of Exelon Corporation — the parent company of scandal-ridden Commonwealth Edison — while providing about $70 million in subsidies each year for the next five years to two struggling downstate nuclear plants owned by the company. A 2016 state law has already provided two other nuclear plants owned by the company with state subsidies.
ComEd has been in the headlines since last year after entering a deferred prosecution agreement with the federal government last July in which the company admitted to a yearslong bribery scheme through which they sought to “influence and reward” then-Speaker of the House Michael Madigan with jobs for his confidants in exchange for favorable action on legislation.
Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing.
With other added ethics and accountability measures such as a requirement that the Illinois Commerce Commission “initiate an investigation as to whether ComEd used ratepayer funds in connection with” conduct outlined in that court document, the governor’s office is seeking to strike a balance between accountability and ensuring Exelon’s nuclear fleet remains one of the state’s driving forces in keeping the lights on and reducing carbon emissions.
“We believe that the best way to save our nuclear fleet is going to be at the lowest possible cost to the ratepayer. And what was recommended by our independent audit is some limited short-term help for the next five years,” Mitchell said. “And if you combine that with a carbon price, you actually then can reduce the amount of that help, and if you keep these folks viable for the next five years, our audit – again using all of (Exelon’s) assumptions – would basically say you're keeping them alive for the next 10 years.”
Mitchell was referring to an $8-per-ton price on carbon emissions for fossil fuel providers, such as coal-fired power plants and natural gas plants, that is included in the bill. That fee would escalate each year by 3%.
The audit he mentioned was commissioned by the governor’s office through Synapse Energy Economics Inc., costing the state $208,000. It was based on cost numbers provided by Exelon that have not been made public due to a nondisclosure agreement.
Even state lawmakers have not seen unredacted copies of the audit as of April 28, which was a point of concern for the state senator who chairs a key energy committee deeply involved in energy negotiations.
The Herald has sought comment from state Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th), who is on the Energy and Environment Committee, and state Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th).
Mitchell's successor in the House, Rep. Kam Buckner, who represents Hyde Park west of Ellis Avenue and southern Kenwood west of Woodlawn Avenue in Springfield, introduced the governor's bill.
“We are careening towards a fatal cliff and nothing else that we do in the General Assembly will matter if we don’t very seriously get focused on sustainable, clean energy resources like wind, solar, and energy efficiency to combat global climate change,” he said in a statement.
“The time to act by passing inclusive climate change and clean energy legislation is now and not a moment later. We have a real opportunity to protect consumers, our planet and create well-paying clean energy jobs for the communities who need it the most. It is important that we intensify commitments to addressing long-standing structural racism. The movements for racial justice and for environmental sustainability are inextricably linked and we have to create policies that mirror this moment. Our economic recovery is also reliant on holding utilities accountable and breaking down barriers that have prevented communities of color from sharing in the benefits of clean energy.”
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul also praised the bill in a statement, particularly its expansion of a federal energy assistance program to low-income people and the corresponding elimination of customer deposits and late fees for them.
“The governor’s proposal will help lower consumers' monthly bills by getting rid of costly formula rates and gas surcharges and requiring ComEd and Ameren to return hundreds of millions of excess tax payments back to consumers on a more reasonable schedule,” he said. “The proposal also dedicates resources to environmental justice communities that have long endured the greatest harms from dirty power plants. I look forward to working with the Governor and the Legislature to craft additional energy policies that balance between affordability and clean energy goals while bolstering a strong and diverse workforce in the energy sector.”
The bill aims to accomplish that electric vehicle goal by allocating $70 million from the Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure plan to speed the production of charging stations. The state would offer rebates to companies and organizations up to 90% for the cost of the implementing charging stations, up to $4,000 or $5,000, depending on the charger.
The bill does not include reforms to the energy capacity market – a measure that was a staple of previous energy reform bills that have stagnated in the General Assembly and was once a top priority of Exelon.
Capacity payments are funded by ratepayers, essentially paying electricity generators to stay open for a number of years in order to ensure the grid can meet peak capacity needs. Some bill language for other proposals would have taken capacity procurement processes out of the hands of the federally regulated PJM Interconnection regional transmission organization and put it in the hands of the state.
Advocates have said that will allow Illinois to target capacity payments to clean and renewable energy sources.
But changes at the White House and at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have alleviated some of the pressure that such a proposal be included in Illinois’ reforms, and the governor’s office said their proposal would more efficiently stabilize the nuclear fleet and emphasize the importance of carbon reduction.
The carbon price is key to that effort, Mitchell said, and revenues derived from it are expected to reach between $400 million and $500 million annually.
About 40% of that would go to equity measures written into the bill, Mitchell said, while some of it would go to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for its operations and some would go to bolstering the Illinois Commerce Commission on some of its new regulatory duties.
“There's also money that would go toward making sure that displaced workers and communities that are affected by plant closures have the resources they need,” Mitchell said. “That (the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) can do grants to provide additional economic development opportunity in those areas so that workers get the kind of job training they need to go into the jobs of the future. So it would be split up between priorities on both the operations and investments.”
Some of the money would also go toward “budget stabilization,” meaning it would aid the state’s ailing General Revenue Fund, which is lawmakers’ main discretionary spending account.
The governor’s bill essentially jumpstarts the energy negotiation process that has been ongoing since several overhaul proposals sputtered in his first year. Other proposals in the General Assembly include the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), a coal-to-solar proposal and a Path to 100 Act. There’s also the labor-backed Climate Union Jobs Act, among others. The governor’s proposal contains some priorities of many or all of them.
The Clean Jobs Coalition, which backs CEJA, also gave cautious praise to Pritzker's proposal, saying their bill and his "share many goals, especially on creating equitable jobs in every part of Illinois, holding utilities accountable, and creating a just transition for places where coal companies have said they will cut and run, leaving communities to deal with property tax shortfalls and loss of good paying jobs if we fail to act."
The governor’s measure calls for the Illinois Commerce Commission and the Illinois Power Agency to “initiate a proceeding to examine specific programs, mechanisms, and policies that could support the deployment of energy storage systems,” according to a fact sheet from the governor’s office.
Mitchell said the governor’s office chose that path to avoid “being so prescriptive that the ICC and the IPA can't keep up with changing technology.”
Herald staff contributed from Chicago. CNI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.