A Massive Green Energy Bill Got Legislative Approval In Illinois Monday. Here’s What’s In It.

Wind turbines in an Illinois field
This Sept. 27, 2012 file photo, shows electricity-generating wind turbines in a corn field just outside Carlock, Ill. The Illinois Senate is set to approve a massive energy bill Monday that would push the state toward 100% renewable energy by 2050. David Mercer / Associated Press
Wind turbines in an Illinois field
This Sept. 27, 2012 file photo, shows electricity-generating wind turbines in a corn field just outside Carlock, Ill. The Illinois Senate is set to approve a massive energy bill Monday that would push the state toward 100% renewable energy by 2050. David Mercer / Associated Press

A Massive Green Energy Bill Got Legislative Approval In Illinois Monday. Here’s What’s In It.

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The Illinois Senate made quick legislative work in passing a major green-energy package Monday, clearing the path on a plan aimed at keeping Exelon nuclear plants open and putting the state on a carbon-free course by 2050.

Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker has already indicated he intends to sign the legislation — which passed 37-17 after months of a legislative stalemate because of a fight between environmentalists and labor unions.

Supporters billed the initiative as a nationally pace-setting attempt at confronting the catastrophic effects of global warming. It will impose new emission standards across most of Illinois’ fossil fuel sector and encourage new use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.

“Our goal all along was to enact reliable renewable and affordable energy policies that put Illinois in a position as the nation’s leader. That’s exactly what we’re doing here today,” said Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, one of the bill’s sponsors.

“The lasting importance of this legislation is that we will forever have redefined our energy future,” Harmon said.

Within minutes of the Senate vote, Pritzker hailed the legislation.

“I’m very proud and pleased to see that Illinois is going to be one of the leading states in the nation when it comes to addressing climate change. This climate bill, this energy bill, really is transformative,” he said.

Critics have contended that Illinois could see brownouts as high-polluting coal- and natural gas-powered plants are mothballed, but Pritzker expressed confidence the state’s electrical grid would stay strong.

“To the question some people have raised…as you bring coal offline or natural gas offline, will you be able to fill it with renewables, which is the desire? The answer is there are so many renewable companies that are looking to do business in the state of Illinois to enhance our capability,” Pritzker said. “That’s precisely what we’re trying to do: Replace forms of energy production that are polluting our air with forms of energy production that are renewable and clean.” 

A few Senate Republicans crossed over in support, but Republicans voted largely against the package, citing uncertainty over how much the package will cost consumers.

Another legislative sponsor, state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, put the total at $3.55 per household. Illinois AARP has estimated the cost to be closer to $15 per month per residential consumer.

“The fact is no one knows how much this piece of legislation is going to cost Illinois ratepayers. What we do know is that it will be borne by all ratepayers in this state,” said state Sen. Donald DeWitte, R-St. Charles.

“I guess what we’re seeing and hearing today is that we’ll just have to watch our friends across the aisle pass this legislation and then we’ll find out how much ratepayers will really be on the hook,” DeWitte said.

In that vein, ratepayers across Illinois will wind up paying nearly $700 million in increased subsidies in order to keep three Exelon nuclear plants — Byron, Dresden and Braidwood — open for the next five years.

After the Senate vote, the company said it would not act on its threat to begin the closure processes for Byron and Dresden this fall as it had pledged if state lawmakers didn’t approve the energy bill by Monday.

“This new policy offers a better future for the employees who have run these plants at world-class levels, the plant communities that we are privileged to serve and all Illinoisans eager to build a clean-energy economy that works for everyone,” said Christopher Crane, president and CEO of Exelon.

With so much crammed into one bill, here is a breakdown of some of the most dramatic changes to the state’s climate and energy policies that won full legislative approval Monday.

1. Municipal coal and natural gas plants must be carbon-free by 2045.

Experts and scientists time and again say the biggest contributor to climate change is our world’s reliance on high-polluting fossil fuels. This came up most recently in a dire landmark report by 200 leading scientists who say the world needs to end its use of those fuels as soon as possible.

This legislation would take a step toward that, as it would enact a plan to decarbonize the state’s energy grid by eliminating and closing down the state’s coal and natural gas plants over time.

In the case of coal, two municipal plants — Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa and CWLP Dallman in Springfield — would have to find a way to become carbon-free plants by 2045 or else face closure. They will be required to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2038.

But that will have a trickle-down effect on cities across the state that get their energy from Prairie State, including the suburbs of Naperville, Winnetka and Batavia. They will all have to find a new source of energy. Similarly, natural gas-fired units face closure by 2045 unless they can find a way to completely eliminate carbon emissions.

2. The state pledges 100% clean energy in three decades.

So, if we take the coal plants away, what will the state replace them with?

In place of all of those carbon-emitting energy sources, the bill calls for gradually increasing Illinois toward using more renewable energy over time, eventually having the state use 100% clean energy by 2050.

Currently, renewable energy such as wind and solar account for about 7% of the state’s energy, according to lawmakers. The legislation will  have that increase to 40% by 2030.

3. Exelon’s nuclear power plants get a bailout.

The driving force behind the legislature’s recent votes has been energy giant Exelon’s threat to close some of its nuclear power plants in Illinois unless the state helps out financially. Exelon has been complaining for years that the plants lose money. The company has given the legislature until Monday to act or else it would begin the process of taking its plant in Byron offline.

The nuclear plants are a source of not only jobs, but also do not emit high-polluting carbon, both important to Democratic legislators and the governor.

The legislation authorizes $694 million in financial aid for Exelon to keep its nuclear plants online.

4. Illinois will offer $4,000 rebates if you buy an electric car.

If you want to cut fossil fuel-reliance, you have to have fewer machines that rely on fossil fuels. Thus, the push for electric vehicles.

The legislation establishes a goal of 1 million electric vehicles in Illinois by 2030. To encourage residents to buy such a vehicle, the state would offer a $4,000 rebate to customers in the Chicago area. It’s also offering rebates of up to 80% of the cost to install charging stations. A recent New York Times article raised the issue of the need for more charging stations across the country.

5. Residents will probably pay more for electricity.

There have been wildly different estimates for what the legislation will mean to consumers’ electric bills.

House Democrats estimated residents could see an increase on each of their monthly bills of about $4.50. Senate Democrats suggested the increase would be closer to $3.55 per month. Business groups such as the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, however, have derided the legislation as “the largest electricity rate hike in Illinois history.”

The AARP Illinois, which also is in opposition to the plan, contends Illinois families could expect to see their bills increase by as much as $15 per month.

6. What about ComEd?

While this is an energy bill that’s meant to curb carbon emissions and support green energy, the debate over the bill came with a certain elephant in the room — one of the state’s largest public corruption scandals, which involved utility giant Commonwealth Edison.

Last year, ComEd admitted that it embarked in a years-long effort to bribe former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in exchange for favorable legislation, which included the ability to essentially guarantee the company a profit, year after year. Madigan, however, denies wrongdoing and has not been charged.

In light of the scandal, Pritzker originally proposed several ethics measures to be a part of this energy package. Many of those reforms, however, did not end up in the bill. What it would do, if passed and signed into law, is require legislators to disclose any relatives who are employed by a utility and requires each utility to employ a chief ethics and compliance officer who must file an annual report to the Illinois Commerce Commission, the state’s utility regulatory body. 

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.

Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney cover state politics for WBEZ. Follow @tonyjarnold @davemckinney.