Our View: New energy policy just the beginning

To Gov. JB Pritzker, the energy policy overhaul that became law this week is one giant leap in the battle to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change – and a campaign promise kept.

To critics, the legislation signed by Pritzker is little more than a bailout for a wildly profitable utility company, paid for by energy consumers across the state, and a sad reminder of the federal corruption investigation of ComEd.

The truth, as usual, is probably somewhere in the middle.

We needed this legislation, given that evidence of climate change is becoming a part of daily life.

“We’ve seen the effects of climate change, right here in Illinois, repeatedly in the last two-and-a-half years alone,” Pritzker said at the bill-signing ceremony on Wednesday. “A polar vortex, devastating floods, microbursts that destroy buildings, record lake levels, extreme heat and emergency declarations in more than a third of Illinois counties.”

The new policy sets the goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 and calls for renewable energy sources to account for 40% of the state’s energy mix by 2030 and 50% by 2040. That’s up from around 8% today. To achieve those goals, the legislation boosts subsidies for renewable energy by more than $350 million a year.

The legislation will force fossil fuel plants in the state to close between 2030 and 2045, depending on the fuel source and level of carbon emissions. The state would have the authority to alter the schedule of closings to ensure the reliability of the power grid. Even so, the legislation leaves open the door to the importation across state lines of carbon-based energy, defeating the purpose of the new policy. (Our suggestion: Make dirty energy – we’re looking at you, coal – so expensive that there’s no incentive to use it.)

Arguably the most controversial provision of the measure is the nearly $700 million in subsidies over five years to three nuclear plants owned by ComEd parent Exelon Corp. One of those plants, in Byron, had been scheduled to close this week. After the legislation passed, Exelon announced it would refuel the Byron facility.

It’s unfortunate, of course, that energy consumers are going to have to pay to keep the nuclear plants alive. Estimates of the impact on ratepayers’ bills range from an extra $3 to $4 a month – that’s from the Citizens Utility Board – to as much as $15 a month, according to AARP Illinois.

But the nuclear plants are going to be more important than ever if the state is going to meet the goals set by the legislation. According to Exelon, its six Illinois nuclear plants already account for more than 60% of electricity consumed in the state and about 90% of carbon-free energy. There’s simply no way to go carbon-free without the nuclear plants.

The problems addressed by the new energy policy won’t magically disappear. The state needs to do a better job of planning its energy future, and it’s a fair question to wonder whether the legislation signed this week would have passed had Exelon not held a gun to the state’s head in the form of its threat to close nuclear plants. Lack of foresight almost always costs more, and in this case those costs are going to be borne by ratepayers.

The sausage-making that produced the energy legislation wasn’t always pretty, but stakeholders such as labor unions and environmental advocates have drawn well-earned praise for coming together to make it happen.

It’s easy to overlook one other group of stakeholders – residents of the communities where nuclear plants were threatened with closure. They may have had more at stake than anyone. A Northern Illinois University study predicted that in Byron, for instance, closing of the nuclear plant would have caused the loss of 2,300 jobs across the local economy and wiped out $38 million a year in property tax revenue, dealing a crippling blow to public institutions such as the Byron school district.

All things considered, the legislation signed this week represents a milestone in one state’s effort to deal with the existential threat posed by climate change. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to work.