New Energy Bill Pushed By Gov. JB Pritzker Would Save Nuclear Plants — But Cost Customers Nearly $700 Million

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, if passed, 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, if passed, ensure Exelon’s Dresden, Byron and Braidwood plants stay open for at least another five years. Robert Ray / Associated Press

New Energy Bill Pushed By Gov. JB Pritzker Would Save Nuclear Plants — But Cost Customers Nearly $700 Million

Exelon customers would be on the hook for $694 million in higher subsidies to keep three Illinois nuclear plants afloat under a sprawling, revised green-energy package that surfaced late Thursday and could be voted on by state lawmakers next week.

The 866-page omnibus pushed by Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker could move one of the major unresolved issues from the spring legislative session closer to fruition and would fulfill a Pritzker campaign pledge to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels if it prevails.

But equally significant, the measure, if it passes, could hand the state’s most powerful utility company a financial boost even as its corporate subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison, remains at the center of a still active federal criminal investigation that cost former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan his job earlier this year.

The plan would phase out coal use in Illinois by 2035 and natural gas by 2045 and authorize $4,000 rebates for purchasers of electric vehicles as part of a strategy aimed at getting 1 million of those vehicles on Illinois roads by 2030.

The legislation also would end a controversial ratemaking formula that delivered windfall profits to ComEd, which last year acknowledged engaging in a long-running bribery scheme to curry favor with Madigan by showering no-work jobs and contracts on his close associates. Madigan has not been charged.

And the package would require state utility regulators to open an investigation into ComEd’s illegal lobbying that potentially could lead to some form of restitution for utility customers, though how much is not spelled out in the legislation.

ComEd signed onto a deferred prosecution agreement last summer with federal prosecutors that said its lobbying yielded legislative wins worth at least $150 million over the course of a decade. The company paid a $200 million fine to the federal government to end its bribery probe.

But several of the meatier ethical reforms once favored by Pritzker — like barring utilities from billing ratepayers for their charitable donations and cutting off a utility-funded revenue stream for the Citizens Utility Board and subjecting the watchdog to state open-records laws — ended up on the legislative cutting-room floor.

The package also did not impose limits on utility company campaign contributions, a restriction that had been sought by other utility watchdogs like AARP of Illinois, Illinois PIRG and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

The measure would, however, beef up disclosure requirements aimed at revealing if public officials have spouses or immediate family members employed at a public utility. That provision would not appear to shed sunlight on the type of patronage hiring that ComEd admitted engaging in by putting Madigan political foot soldiers on the company payroll.

The bill also would put a stop to utility lobbyists from subcontracting. Last fall’s federal indictment of former ComEd lobbyist Jay Doherty alleged he secretly funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to clout consultants, including two former Chicago aldermen and two 13th Ward precinct captains.

Pritzker’s office briefed lawmakers on the plan late Thursday afternoon and made clear he would sign the package if the General Assembly approves it when the House and Senate return to Springfield on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“As we have said all along, Illinois can and must lead on clean energy, and it must lead in the light of day — ethically, honestly and toward the collective goal of empowering Illinoisans to lead the United States in transitioning to a clean energy economy,” the governor’s office said in a memo outlining the bill obtained by WBEZ.

On Thursday, Pritzker’s office described the measure as one that “protects consumers and the climate.”

“We did not let the utility companies write this legislation,” Pritzker told WBEZ in an interview last week. “You know and I know that people who believe significantly in fighting climate change really were at the forefront here and that we need to preserve our nuclear fleet and the jobs associated with that because that’s good for Illinois.”

To pass the House and Senate next week, the measure would need three-fifths majorities in each legislative chamber, and Democrats have those margins. How Republicans will react to the revised plan is not clear, and a spokesman for Exelon did not immediately respond to WBEZ for comment.

The package attempts to address a major sticking point that caused an earlier version of the energy omnibus to stall in the legislature during what was expected to be the final day of the General Assembly’s spring session last week.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, put the brakes on the package amid concerns from suburban members of his caucus over the forced closure of a coal-burning plant southeast of St. Louis that powers Naperville, Winnetka, Geneva and other towns outside Chicago.

Those municipalities had engaged in long-term borrowing to help finance construction of the Prairie State Energy Campus. A forced shutdown of that plant in downstate Marissa could have saddled those suburbs with continuing debt payments even as they were acquiring electricity from other sources.

Under the package unveiled Thursday, $2 million in ratepayer funds would be devoted toward the 2035 decommissioning of Prairie State, which ranks among the country’s largest polluters of the air.

The higher subsidies for Exelon would mark the second ratepayer bailout of the company’s Illinois-based nuclear fleet since 2016. This latest round aims to ensure Exelon’s Dresden, Byron and Braidwood plants stay open for at least another five years. Last year, Exelon threatened to close Dresden and Byron without additional state subsidies.

That $694 million commitment is central to Pritzker’s statewide decarbonization efforts and a bouquet to labor, which had been fighting to preserve unionized jobs at Exelon’s nuclear plants. The increased subsidy was estimated by Pritzker’s office to cost average residential ratepayers roughly 80 cents a month.

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