Illinois moves away from coal, natural gas power generation, props up nuclear, wind, solar in energy shift

Illinois Capitol News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — In a bipartisan vote on Monday, the Illinois Senate adopted a massive clean energy policy that sends a lifeline to nuclear power plants, issues a deadline to coal and natural gas plants, and allows wind and solar companies to install power lines across downstate counties.

In approving Governor J.B. Pritzker’s climate change agenda, the Illinois General Assembly grants the first-term Democrat a major political victory and sends him a bill that he says he will sign into law.

“I look forward to signing this historic measure into law as soon as possible, because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not wait any longer,” Pritzker said in a statement.

Exelon applauded the agreement, which includes a $694 million bailout intended to keep its nuclear power plants open. The Byron power plant was scheduled to go offline today without state subsidies.

“Once the legislation is signed into law, Exelon Generation will move to immediately fill hundreds of vacant positions and resume capital projects required for long-term operation,” a company spokesman said.

Watchdogs at the Citizens Utility Board analyzed the legislation and projected the average Illinois resident will pay an extra $3.51 in monthly electric rates. The state will steer the bulk of those funds toward constructing wind turbines and solar panels over the next 20 years. Combined with current investments, Senate Republicans set the total price tag of state-directed support for renewables at $18 billion over the next few decades. The plan includes $375 million in annual funding for Coal to Solar projects over the next 20 years, and spends $280.5 million on storage over the next decade.

Senator Doris Turner (D-Springfield) was one of three Senate Democrats who did not vote in support of the proposal.

“I was concerned about the rate increases,” she said. With so many various cost estimates, and the question about grid reliability in Springfield if the city-operated City, Water, Light, and Power coal plant goes offline, she figured it was “better to err on the side of caution.”

Senator Sue Rezin (R-Morris), one of two Republicans to support the plan in the upper chamber, called the agreement the “largest job creation bill I’ve voted on since I’ve been in office.”

Senator Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) acknowledged that the bailout for Exelon was inevitable, but framed it as a “lose-lose” proposition, and warned that “the results to our consumers and job creators will be felt for years.”

In many ways, the state’s move away from coal represents a sign of the times. Emblazoned on a statue of a coal miner on the Capitol front lawn, a sculptor from Tinley Park, which happens to be the hometown of bill sponsor state Senator Mike Hastings, wrote in 1964 that a coal miner’s “importance is vital, great, and just,” and that without their work, “civilization would soon crumble into the dust.”

But environmentalists warned that the dangers of inhaling or choking on the pollution and dust particles from coal-fired power plants now outweighed the economic benefits of cheap energy.

“I’ve lived and grown up in an environmental justice community,” Senator Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) said. “There was a dust cloud by a developer that was actually trying to tear down a decommissioned power plant I grew up with and saw from the second floor of my house.”

Villanueva fought to block utility companies from turning off the lights for people who fell behind during the pandemic. She said the decision to raise electric rates “weighs very heavily” on her, but she argued that the cost would come with an investment that will pay off in the long term.

Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) has sponsored legislation to regulate the disposal of toxic coal ash.

“Most of Springfield is over abandoned mines, and that was the economy of yesteryear,” Bennett said. “I have school districts in my district, East Central Illinois, that their mascot was the Kilowatts.

“We benefited from cheap energy while that was the best that technology had to offer,” Bennett said. “The problem with that is that has byproducts, coal ash and other things that we now have to figure out how to clean up. And so what we don’t want is to trade cheap energy today for the future of our kids going forward. Something is a mess, they’re going to have to clean it up.”

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