Illinois’ landmark 100% clean energy bill is headed toward passage

The sprawling bill would bail out nuclear, fund clean energy, boost workforce training — and allow the state’s largest coal plant to stay open through 2038.

solar panels against the Chicago skyline
  • Link copied to clipboard

Illinois lawmakers on Thursday narrowly passed a long-awaited clean energy bill that would set a 2050 deadline for decarbonizing the state’s electricity generation, rescue a renewable energy program that’s run out of money and provide nearly $700 million to prevent the looming closure of the nuclear power plants that now supply the majority of the state’s carbon-free power.

But the bill’s passage in the state House of Representatives, just days before one of the nuclear plants it will bail out was set to begin to shut down, came at the cost of a compromise that will allow two coal power plants, including the state’s biggest, to stay open for nearly two more decades.

Subscribe to receive Canary's latest news

The 83 – 33 House vote, largely along party lines, puts the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act on a path for passage early next week by the Democratic-controlled Senate, which passed a nearly identical bill last week. Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker, who has pushed the compromise bill, has pledged to sign it, which would make Illinois the 11th state to pass a mandate for 100 percent carbon-free energy.

It’s been a nail-biting race to the finish line for a clean energy bill that’s been years in the making and failed to pass twice earlier this year due to disputes over its treatment of two coal plants: The Prairie State Energy Campus and a plant owned by Springfield utility City Water, Light and Power. The former is the largest in the state and the seventh-largest carbon emitter in the country

Earlier versions of the bill would have forced those plants to close by 2035, five years after the 2030 closure deadline for privately owned coal plants in the state. That was unacceptable to representatives of communities served by the plants and shouldering the costs of paying them off over time, as well as labor groups representing plant workers.

A proposed plan to require the plants to meet emissions-reduction targets phased in between now and 2035 also failed to pass muster with opponents. That led to the final bill’s compromise allowing the plants to remain open without emissions reduction until 2038, and then close down at that time unless they’ve cut emissions by 45 percent.

The plants would also be allowed to remain open past 2045 if they can completely eliminate their carbon emissions. But absent a major breakthrough in cost-effective carbon capture and storage technology, those targets are unlikely to be met.

Republican opponents on Thursday attacked the bill as a threat to the state’s economy and supply of reliable and affordable electricity. This will drive jobs out of the state, drive imported energy from other states” and rolling blackouts will become the norm,” Republican Representative Brad Halbrook of Springfield said, citing California’s experience last summer.

Other opponents questioned the bill’s largesse to Exelon, the utility that has threatened to close the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants this year unless it got state subsidies to prop up their viability in the multistate energy markets of mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM. The opponents contrasted the bill’s $694 million in payments to three of Exelon’s nuclear plants over the next five years to its lack of funding to assist the two publicly owned coal plants in reducing their carbon emissions.

Funding for solar, EVs, grid modernization and energy transition

But the bill’s sponsor in the House, Democratic Representative Marcus Evans of Chicago, said Thursday that retaining Exelon’s nuclear generation capacity, which supplies about 58 percent of the state’s power, is critical to meeting its carbon-free energy goals. 

He also emphasized the bill’s $140 million in funds to assist communities losing jobs to coal plant closures, as well as the roughly $80 million per year to fund workforce training programs and support contractors and businesses in disadvantaged communities to seek work in emerging clean energy industries.

Many of these coal plants are retiring and transitioning on their own,” Evans said. We can do nothing and these coal plants will eventually phase out, and what will those communities do?”

Advocates of clean energy contend that the growth in clean energy jobs will outpace losses in fossil-fuel-related jobs. They also note that the bill’s costs to utility ratepayers, estimated to raise average residential bills by about $4.50 per month, could be counterbalanced by falling electricity costs as cheaper renewable energy replaces a larger share of coal, natural gas and nuclear power, according to a study from consulting firm The Power Bureau.

Solar advocates were relieved at the bill’s promised rescue of a funding stream for a state renewable energy program that had dried up over the past year. The bill will reopen solar incentives through the Adjustable Block Program created by the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, which is expected to deliver roughly $200 million per year to rooftop, community and utility-scale solar development.

These ratepayer-funded incentives will more than triple the pace of clean energy development to help meet the state’s target for renewable energy to supply 40 percent of the state’s electricity by 2030, compared to about 8 percent today, according to nonprofit group Vote Solar.

These provisions will save thousands of existing solar jobs and chart a course towards a vibrant, clean, and equitable energy future for Illinois,” John Delurey, Vote Solar’s Midwest senior regional director, said in a prepared statement. 

The Illinois Solar for All program, which targets low-income residents, will also see its budget quintupled to $50 million per year under the bill.

Other clean energy provisions in the bill include a goal to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, backed by EV purchase rebates of $4,000 and financial support for EV charging infrastructure. Utilities Commonwealth Edison and Ameren would be required to develop plans to support EV charging, building electrification and growth of distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar and behind-the-meter batteries. Expanded energy efficiency goals and low-income housing weatherization targets are expected to save customers about $9 billion over the next 20 years.

Some consumer groups had opposed the bill’s treatment of Exelon subsidiary ComEd, the utility serving the Chicago area, contending that it doesn’t go far enough to enhance ethics oversight and more closely examine the relationship between utility spending and public benefits.

ComEd has been embroiled in a bribery scandal that led to it paying a $200 million fine in a deferred prosecution agreement, as well as federal indictments of former top ComEd executives and associates of former House Speaker Michael Madigan (D), a close ComEd ally. The bill will bar ComEd from renewing a multiyear ratemaking policy that critics say has allowed it to reap billions of dollars in windfall profits since 2011.

(Lead image: Archigeek via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.