Exelon Threatens Nuclear Plant Closure After Springfield Energy Deal Falters

Power Plants in Illinois
In this March 16, 2011 file photo, steam escapes from Exelon Corp.'s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill. A new energy bill expected to be considered in the Illinois legislature next week would ensure Exelon’s Dresden, Byron and Braidwood plants stay open for at least another five years. Robert Ray / Associated Press
Power Plants in Illinois
In this March 16, 2011 file photo, steam escapes from Exelon Corp.'s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill. A new energy bill expected to be considered in the Illinois legislature next week would ensure Exelon’s Dresden, Byron and Braidwood plants stay open for at least another five years. Robert Ray / Associated Press

Exelon Threatens Nuclear Plant Closure After Springfield Energy Deal Falters

The operator of three Illinois nuclear plants facing potential closure said Wednesday that Illinois lawmakers must act on an energy omnibus package in less than two weeks to avoid one of those plants being taken offline permanently.

Exelon’s statement came roughly 12 hours after the state Senate passed a clean energy package that included $694 million in ratepayer subsidies in exchange for a commitment that the company would keep its Byron, Dresden and Braidwood plants operating.

Those nuclear plants are a potent bargaining chip in the high-stakes Springfield utility saga that’s dragged on for months, hobbled by the inability of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Democratic Senate President Don Harmon to broker a deal with one another on a larger clean energy bill.

Even though the package won Senate approval early Wednesday, its prospects in the Democratic-led House are unclear. Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, has insisted that his fellow Democratic officeholders and key stakeholders reach an accord before he’s willing to call a bill for a vote in the House.

In its statement, Exelon didn’t comment directly on the Senate vote or the energy package’s overall prospects of overcoming the political inertia that has kept legislation from having meaningful traction at the statehouse.

But the company underscored the environmental costs of mothballing any of its nuclear plants and reiterated a mid-September deadline for action.

“If Byron and Dresden close, air pollution will immediately increase by the equivalent of adding 4.4 million cars to the road as fossil plants ramp up production to replace their carbon-free energy,” Exelon spokesman Paul Adams said in a statement.

“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,” he said.

“To be clear, Byron will run out of fuel and will permanently shut down on September 13 unless legislation is enacted,” he continued. “We have been clear that we cannot refuel Byron on September 13 or Dresden in November absent policy changes.”

The House hasn’t set a date for its 118 members to reconvene to consider the Senate-passed legislation. Pritzker has made it clear that he wants to amend the bill to toughen up anti-pollution provisions involving a major coal-fired power plant downstate, the Prairie State Energy Campus.

It is one of the nation’s largest polluters, and Pritzker has insisted the plant that supplies power to dozens of Illinois communities – including Winnetka, Naperville and Batavia, among others – must close.

Meanwhile, a leading consumer group, Illinois PIRG, called the Senate bill a boon for Exelon and its subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison. ComEd remains in a probationary status after acknowledging it engaged in a bribery scheme targeting ex-House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, to advance its Springfield agenda over a nine-year span.

Madigan has not been charged criminally.

“Utility companies were in the negotiating room while utility critics were shut out, resulting in legislation that sends more customer money to Exelon in the form of ComEd profits than through the direct $694 million nuclear subsidy,” Illinois PIRG Director Abe Scarr said.

“In the wake of the ComEd bribery scandal, the Illinois General Assembly had the opportunity to make a clean break from the tainted energy policy approach of the past,” he continued. “This legislation fails to meet the moment.”

His organization had called for an end to a lucrative ratemaking formula that guaranteed profits for ComEd, stopping similar gas utility bill surcharges, and preventing utilities’ from charging customers for millions of dollars in utility “charitable” contributions.

Another pro-consumer group also assailed the Senate-backed package, saying it would mean a boost in utility customers’ monthly bills.

Illinois AARP estimated the measure would result in increases of roughly $15 per month for an average household.

One of the measure’s lead supporters, state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, offered a slightly lower estimate.

During floor debate early Wednesday, the chair of the Senate Energy & Public Utilities Committee told senators that consumers would see roughly a 3% increase in their monthly billings. That would translate to $6 a month for someone with a $200-a-month ComEd bill.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government. Follow them on Twitter @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.