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Municipal coal plants remain the hang-up ahead of key nuclear deadline
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
The Illinois House is scheduled to return to Springfield Thursday to try again at passing an elusive energy regulation overhaul days after the governor’s office announced support for a new proposal.
It’s the latest push for a legislative accomplishment that has eluded Gov. JB Pritzker in his three years in office, and it’s up against a Monday deadline set by nuclear energy generator Exelon.
The company has announced that after that date its Byron Generating Station near Rockford would not refuel without legislative action assuring its profitability. It set a similar deadline for its Dresden Generating Station in Grundy County for November.
Negotiators have agreed to a nearly $700 million subsidy for Exelon over the next five years to keep its plants online and profitable, a position backed strongly by labor unions representing nuclear workers and accepted by environmental groups because of the importance of nuclear energy as a carbon-free power source.
But a disagreement between labor unions and environmental groups on another matter – what to do with municipal coal-fired power plants – has largely held up talks thus far.
The disagreement largely boils down to one sentence in two differing legislative proposals moving through the General Assembly. Despite that fact, lawmakers were unable to bridge the gap between the two sides at the end of the regular May legislative session or when lawmakers returned in both June and August to try again on a compromise bill.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 18 last week after being the lead chamber in negotiations for several months, moving it to the House for further discussion. Its bill would have closed municipal coal-fired plants by 2045, but would not have set interim carbon reduction goals, meaning the plants could emit as much carbon as they currently do for the next 24 years.
Another iteration rejected by environmentalists would have allowed Prairie State Energy Campus in the Metro East near St. Louis to remain open past 2045 if it offset at least 105 percent of its current carbon emissions through sequestration or other offset measures.
On Friday, Gov. JB Pritzker’s office announced it “strongly supports” House Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 1751, an identical measure to the Senate’s, according to its sponsor, except for that it also requires a 45 percent carbon reduction for municipal coal plants by 2035.
“The amendment builds on the progress made in Senate Bill 18 by requiring a 100 percent reduction in carbon emissions for municipal coal by 2045 with the additional goal of reducing emissions by 45 percent by 2035,” Pritzker’s spokesperson Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement Friday. “We know our planet cannot afford to wait more than two decades before significant progress at reducing carbon emissions is made, and this bill is a reasonable path forward. The administration looks forward to continuing discussions with our partners in the House.”
The labor contingent, which supports the coal plants due to the amount of union labor that runs the facilities and helps maintain them, is represented in the Climate Jobs Illinois coalition, which indicated in a weekend statement that further negotiation is needed
“We are nearly there,” a spokesperson for Climate Jobs Illinois said in a statement over Labor Day weekend. “A deal hinges on a singular albeit complicated issue. Labor has made significant compromises during this process, as have the other parties. We commit to continuing to work through the one remaining difference to reach an agreed bill.”
The latest House amendment is carried by Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, a longtime renewable energy advocate who was the sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act that provides much of the framework for the negotiated bill. It has the backing of leading environmental groups making up the Clean Jobs Coalition.
“I think the decarbonization piece, for many of us, many members of the General Assembly, is an important part of any clean energy package,” Williams said in a phone call Tuesday. “For me, it’s not good enough to do yet another utility bill without addressing the elephant in the room, which is our looming and ever-increasing climate crisis.”
Senate President Don Harmon, after his chamber’s late-night passage of SB18, said it will be difficult to bridge the gap between the parties, because any investment in carbon-capture technology to reduce emissions by 2035 would be cost prohibitive for Prairie State if it had to close 10 years later.
House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, meanwhile, has indicated he won’t call a bill in his chamber until there is wider agreement between stakeholders.
“I am pleased to see negotiations moving forward on a comprehensive energy proposal that prioritizes a greener future for Illinois, as well as meaningful ethics reform and maintaining our current workforce,” Welch said in a statement Tuesday announcing the upcoming session. “I am confident that we will have a plan that Illinois can be proud of and will be viewed as a model for many other states.”
Outside of the decarbonization language, the wide-ranging bill is largely agreed, with strengthened ethics language for utility companies, an increase on ratepayer bills to fund equity-driven clean energy workforce development programs, and a doubling of the ratepayer-funded investment in renewable energy infrastructure, among several other provisions.
Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, said during the Senate’s passage of SB18 it would increase residential ratepayer bills by 3-4 percent, commercial bills by more than 5 percent, and industrial bills by more than 7 percent.
• Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.