Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed a massive climate and energy plan into law — the last and hardest fought of his agenda items for his first four years in office as he gears up to run for a second term.
The energy debate tied Springfield up in knots much of the spring and summer as stalemate threatened to derail negotiations more than once. But work on the legislation date back to Pritzker’s earliest days in office, when Illinois’ political landscape looked much different.
Since then, three of the General Assembly’s four legislative leaders have changed, the most dramatic exit being that of longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan. Though the powerful former speaker has not been charged, it’s his dealings with past energy policy — particularly utility giant Commonwealth Edison — that are at the center of a wide-ranging federal probe that’s ensnared politicians, lobbyists and business executives. from Chicago to Springfield.
But in that same time period, global warming’s consequences have become more and more evident, Pritzker noted during Wednesday’s bill signing at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
“We’ve seen the effects of climate change right here in Illinois repeatedly in the last two and a half years alone,” he said. “A polar vortex. Devastating floods. Microbursts that destroy buildings. Record lake levels. Extreme heat.”
Madigan’s exit and the cloud cast by ComEd’s $200 million deferred prosecution agreement last summer admitting that it engaged in a years-long bribery scheme to influence the former speaker meant those negotiating the energy plan had to tread extremely carefully, which meant barring utilities from the bargaining table as much as possible.
“It includes some of the strictest utility ethics reforms in the nation, which are very much needed,” Madigan’s successor, House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) said of the new law during Wednesday’s bill signing at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. “We know that. We’ve read the headlines. We’ve read the same headlines that all of you have read.”
State Rep. Ann Williams, who introduced the first iteration of a climate and energy bill in early 2019, had been vocal about keeping utilities out of negotiations. Though not all of her ethics goals made it into the final deal, Williams hailed the outcome Wednesday as a victory for ratepayers.
“We worked together to put communities and consumers first,” Williams said. “We put people before utility company profits.”
The average customer will be paying at least a few dollars more on his or her annual power bill, though estimates for the exact amount vary widely and businesses will pay more. But those pushing for the bill have framed the increase as a much lower burden than the cost of climate change or the cost of allowing half of Illinois’ nuclear power plants to shutter without state intervention.
The law includes nearly $700 million in ratepayer subsidies over five years to prop up three power plants that ComEd parent company Exelon had identified for closure. The plant in Byron was scheduled to be permanently decommissioned on Monday, but the company said it would instead refuel the plant after the Illinois Senate approved the legislation Monday.
“If we’re quiet enough, we might just hear a sigh of relief coming from Morris and Byron and some of these other areas where folks are counting on us to deliver today,” GOP State Rep. David Welter said of the nuclear plant workers whose jobs were spared due to the deal.
Welter and other Republicans who voted in favor of the law emphasized they weren’t happy about all of it, but ultimately decided preserving those jobs and by extension the economic vitality of nuclear plant towns was reason enough to vote yes.
The law will also double the amount of subsidies available for renewable energy companies to build wind and solar projects — another cost to ratepayers — to get Illinois to 40% renewable energy by 2030.
Fossil fuels as power sources will be phased out of Illinois’ energy portfolio by 2045 at the latest, save for two municipally owned coal-fired power plants in Springfield and the Metro East, which have the opportunity to keep running after that if they figure out a way to get to zero carbon emissions.
It’s an unlikely proposition based on current carbon capture technology, but the promise allowed those two plants to drop their opposition to the legislation and allow for a deal. Those coal plants will also have to cut their emissions nearly in half by 2038. Negotiators are hopeful a federal infrastructure deal will help fund those expensive carbon reduction projects.
The prospect of early closure was a difficult pill to swallow for organized labor, which turned its focus to advocating for workers at the plant after the nuclear subsidy was settled in May. But the cities and towns who bought into the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa more than a decade ago are on the hook for paying down the bonds that funded the plant’s construction, in addition to finding new sources of energy for their communities in the future.
Business associations warned cutting out fossil fuels too quickly would lead to energy reliability issues, and Republicans who mostly voted against the deal predicted rolling brownouts in Illinois’ future. But Democrats pointed to provisions in the law to prevent such outcomes, including regular study of the state’s energy market to determine whether the state can truly handle leaving behind fossil fuel power plants as renewable energy ramps up.
President Biden’s administration praised the deal Wednesday, with U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm issuing a statement saying Illinois’ law will show “just what bold state-level action can do to usher in the clean energy future.”
“Preserving our existing fleet of nuclear reactors, adopting more clean and renewable energy, and incentivizing sales of electric vehicles are all key components of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and essential to reaching our nation’s bold climate goals,” Granholm said.