Eye On Illinois: Once again, ComEd wants millions to keep plants open

Commonwealth Edison sells electricity to more than 4 million customers across Northern Illinois. This, unsurprisingly, is a lucrative business.

The company’s net operating income increased from more than $500 million in 2014 to $739 million in 2019, according to Illinois Commerce Commission records. Revenues were about $2 billion in 2012 and almost $2.7 billion seven years later, dramatically outpacing inflation.

Lawmakers approved the delivery rates that generate those revenues and sanction the operating income. They also approved the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, which provided Exelon, ComEd’s parent company, $235 million in subsidies. Per year. For a decade.

So why does Exelon need another $350 million over the next five years to keep open the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants?

That question dominated a Senate Energy and Public Utilities hearing Thursday. According to Capitol News Illinois, the $350 million figure has been on the table since mid-August, the result of a Synapse Energy Economics audit. Senators addressed the challenge of its extensive redactions.

“You expect me to make some sort of determination based off of a report that’s halfway redacted,” said Committee Chairman Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort. “I expect more of us, and I expect more of our government in terms of a report. And I find it just very troubling.”

The audit, which Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency commissioned, cost the state $208,000. Sometimes you’ve got to spend money to save money, but you also need to get what you pay for. It’s entirely reasonable to demand honesty when so much public money is at stake.

CNI reported Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell’s testimony indicated redactions protect company trade secrets, but lawmakers would get unredacted copies upon request. That’s little comfort to the ratepayers and taxpayers who ultimately would foot the bill for any future subsidies package. What good is another layer of obfuscation between a publicly traded company and the people whose bills make it at attractive investment?

Nuclear power is essential to efforts to shift generation to renewable or carbon-free sources. The Exelon plants are fantastic financial engines, factoring the number and quality of direct and indirect jobs, property taxes and ripples through the retail and housing markets. But for many years now that economic upside has come with a consistent fear the company could pull the plug unless its demands are met.

Just as we all need electricity, many communities need these plants to preserve a way of life. The company wants more so lawmakers and ratepayers pony up. This doesn’t seem sustainable, and that’s without considering a federal bribery investigation for which ComEd has already paid $200 million.

It’s all enough to leave an average person feeling powerless. Exactly where they want us.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.