Illinois House Passes A Sweeping Energy Bill That Would End The State’s Reliance On Fossil Fuels

Nuclear energy plant
This March 16, 2011, photo shows steam escaping from Exelon Corp.'s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill. The Illinois House passed a deal to keep the plant open, and close polluting coal plants by 2050. Robert Ray / Associated Press, File Photo
Nuclear energy plant
This March 16, 2011, photo shows steam escaping from Exelon Corp.'s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill. The Illinois House passed a deal to keep the plant open, and close polluting coal plants by 2050. Robert Ray / Associated Press, File Photo

Illinois House Passes A Sweeping Energy Bill That Would End The State’s Reliance On Fossil Fuels

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The Illinois House put its stamp of approval on a “historic” energy package Thursday that aims to end the state’s reliance on high-polluting fossil fuels by 2050, keep Exelon’s fleet of nuclear plants operating and entice motorists to convert to electric vehicles.

The long-stalled green-energy measure, which earlier had pitted labor unions against environmentalists, now moves to the state Senate with backing from Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and, according to sponsors, could mean an increase in residential electricity bills of roughly $4.50 per month for an average residential customer.

If the legislation reaches Pritzker’s desk as anticipated, it arguably would represent the single biggest legislative accomplishment for the first-term governor who in 2018 campaigned on a green-energy platform and is ramping up his 2022 re-election bid.

After the House vote, the governor pledged to sign the measure if it passes the Senate.

“The state of Illinois is one historic step closer to reaching a 100% clean energy future. For many years, comprehensive energy legislation that puts consumers and the climate first has been debated while scientists around the world have sounded the alarm about the growing impacts of climate change.

Pritzker paid homage to environmentalists “for fighting this urgent battle for the next generation of Illinoisans” and unions for “fighting for working families across the state and ensuring a just energy transition for Illinois’ energy workforce.”

He also said electricity ratepayers are winners in the legislation.

“The days of utility companies writing energy legislation to pad their profits has ended because SB2408 puts consumers and climate at the forefront, prioritizes meaningful ethics and transparency reforms, and institutes key ratepayer and residential customer protections,” he said.

The plan, which passed the House 83-33, authorizes nearly $700 million in ratepayer subsidies for Exelon during the next five years to keep its cash-draining Byron, Dresden and Braidwood nuclear plants open.

The utility, which went on record Thursday in support of the House-drafted legislation, had set a Monday deadline for action by the legislature to stave off its threatened closures of the Byron and Dresden plants this fall.

The package contains a timeline to wean Illinois from reliance on fossil fuel, which is regarded as the single largest factor in the earth’s warm-up and the resulting, catastrophic weather events that have whipped rampaging fires in the West and flooded parts of the eastern seaboard.

The plan also mandates that 40% of the state’s power come from wind and solar sources by 2030 and 50% by 2040, and it establishes a state goal of having 1 million new electric vehicles in use by 2030 with rebates of $4,000 per purchaser.

Thursday’s vote represented the first big legislative test for new Democratic House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, who assumed power in January after his predecessor, Democrat Michael Madigan, was driven from office by fallout from the Commonwealth Edison lobbying scandal.

“What we have done here today is monumental, and it should be celebrated, not castigated. It’s historic, and it will positively impact people in each and every one of our districts,” Welch said during a fiery floor speech in support of the bill.

“Our climate cannot wait. Climate change is going to cost us more if we don’t act now. Climate change is costing homeowners right now because of the spike in insurance after every flood and every tornado in each of our districts,” Welch said. “I’ve had the ‘100-year flood’ in my district every three years. Insurance is through the roof because the climate is changing.”

Ending Fossil Fuel Emissions

Under the plan approved Thursday, a downstate, coal-fired plant known as the Prairie State Energy Campus, which supplies power to Chicago suburbs like Naperville, Winnetka and Batavia, would have to shut down by 2045 if it cannot find ways to end its carbon emissions completely. Additionally, it and another municipally-owned coal plant in Springfield would have to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2038 to remain in operation.

An earlier version of the legislation contained $200 million in ratepayer subsidies over 10 years to help Prairie State and the Springfield plant develop and acquire technology to meet those pollution-control thresholds, but that wound up being stripped from the final bill.

Prairie State, which opposed an earlier version of the bill but moved to neutral on the final legislation, is one of the nation’s most prolific air polluters.

After the House vote, the Democratic-led Senate announced it would reconvene in Springfield on Monday to take action on the energy package with its leader praising the House vote.

“The shared goal among the Senate, House and Gov. Pritzker has been to position Illinois as a national leader on reliable, renewable and affordable energy policies. This proposal accomplishes that shared goal,” said Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park. “I commend the work the House has done to build on the progress the Senate had made.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot showed support for the legislation Thursday afternoon in a Tweet, praising the legislation’s “equity & economic opportunity that builds a clean energy future for all.

“The bill has the strongest clean energy labor standards across the country & is supported by organized labor & environmentalists,” she said.

Representatives of labor union interests signed onto the legislation earlier Thursday. The measure helped preserve union jobs at Exelon’s nuclear plants, and Prairie State is a big employer of Metro East union contractors. There were other provisions that drew in unions, as well.

“The bill will create thousands of new clean energy union jobs, expand union apprenticeships for Black and Latinx communities, increase energy efficiency for public schools and safeguard thousands of union workers at the state’s nuclear plants that currently generate the bulk of Illinois’ zero-emissions energy,” the union-backed Climate Jobs Illinois coalition said in a statement.

“These key components were our top priorities in any clean energy legislation enacted, so we are pleased with the result,” the group said.

Environmentalists hailed the legislation’s passage.

“This historic bill represents a nation-leading plan to set Illinois on course to 100% clean energy, heeds the call of science for bold action on climate change, and centers equity and environmental justice every step of the way,” said Jack Darin, director of Sierra Club Illinois.

Despite the pile of bouquets from environmentalists, unions and their allied public officeholders, there still were critics to the legislation.

The business-aligned Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which went on record against the bill, derided it as the “largest electricity rate hike in Illinois history.” And the 1.7 million-member strong AARP Illinois, which opposed the plan, said the package would raise electricity prices for single-family households by $15 a month and, through proposed changes in its ratemaking formulas, amounted to a sweetheart deal for Commonwealth Edison, an Exelon subsidiary.

“We do not need to guarantee utility profits to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector nor to invest in renewable energy or to achieve the equity goals contained in the legislation,” said Abe Scarr, director of Illinois PIRG, a consumer-rights watchdog that also opposed the bill.

“Given the ComEd scandal, this year of all years presented the General Assembly the opportunity to make a clean break from the tainted energy policies of the past,” Scarr continued. “It is failing to take that opportunity.”

House Republicans voted en masse against the legislation, complaining it would lead to statewide power shortages, force utilities to import dirty, costlier, out-of-state power to keep their grids lit and cost coal plant workers their jobs.

“You’re not doing what you think you’re doing with this bill,” said state Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, an opponent whose district includes the Springfield coal plant on the bill’s carbon hit list. “You’re putting people out of work. You’re raising rates for my constituents, and you’re shutting things down that shouldn’t be shut down.”

Despite the ComEd bribery scandal, limited ethics reforms

Talks surrounding the energy deal unfolded against the backdrop of the largest corruption scandal to hit Springfield in a generation, with ComEd at the center.

The company acknowledged in federal court filings that it had engaged in a long-running bribery scheme to advance its statehouse agenda by awarding no-work jobs and contracts to associates of former long-time Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

Madigan has not been charged, but he was forced to end his record-setting, 36-year run as speaker in January as a result of fallout from the scandal.

On Thursday, federal Judge Jorge Alonso dismissed some civil cases brought against ComEd over the scandal, stating that the utility watchdog supporting the lawsuit failed to show that ComEd’s bribery scheme caused the Illinois House and Senate to approve legislation the power company supported.

ComEd said its corrupt lobbying strategy during the nearly decade-long run of wrongdoing yielded legislative wins that translated to at least $150 million in profits. To forego prosecution, ComEd last summer agreed to pay the federal government a $200 million fine.

“ComEd’s pay-to-play tactics have proven to be illegal and yet, they are asking to do it again, continuing to place an enormous financial burden on customers who are already millions of dollars behind on their energy bills,” AARP Illinois state director Bob Gallo said in a statement.

Lawmakers inserted several provisions in the energy package aimed at addressing the company’s ethical failures, but more aggressive reforms favored by Gallo’s group and, at one point, Pritzker were left on the legislative cutting-room floor.

The plan would require public officeholders to disclose whether any immediate family members were employed at ComEd or other public utilities, though no such disclosure requirement was imposed on officeholders who sought to pressure a utility to hire members of his or her political organization.

There is language in the bill that also would authorize the Illinois Commerce Commission to open an investigation into whether electric ratepayers are entitled to any restitution from ComEd because of its admitted wrongdoing. The ICC already has opened that probe.

But the bill doesn’t make clear whether consumers might be entitled to a noticeable refund or mere pennies — if that.

Efforts to stop ComEd and other utilities from billing ratepayers for charitable contributions — a reform Pritzker and other groups favored — and to stop the statutorily-created Citizens Utility Board utility watchdog organization from deriving funds from utility-subsidized foundations weren’t included in the final package.

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