The next several days will be a test of the tenacity of lawmakers, the governor’s office and interest groups
as they face an Exelon-crafted deadline to make Illinois a leader in clean energy.
How does Exelon Corp. always seem to win in colossal showdowns with Illinois legislators? Mostly because of money — some of which indirectly comes from customers — and jobs or, more accurately, the threat of lost jobs.
Five years after its first big showdown with lawmakers over subsidies to keep two nuclear plants open, Exelon is back again with the same threat: Come up with big-dollar subsidies, or we’ll start shutting down our other nuclear plants. First up: the 35-year-old Byron plant along the Rock River in Ogle County. Exelon said the Byron plant has enough nuclear fuel to continue operating until next Monday, Sept. 13. And if that’s not enough of a threat, the 51-year-old Dresden nuclear plant in Grundy County would face the executioner in November.
That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of tax revenue for governments and school systems in those areas in northern Illinois. A similar ultimatum paid off in 2016 when the Legislature and former Gov. Bruce Rauner agreed to a bailout involving the Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants. Exelon kept the plants open and was rewarded with a rate increase on its Commonwealth Edison customers in northern Illinois.
This time, though, there’s more at stake. The Exelon provisions are wrapped up in a major energy bill that would establish deadlines for phasing out coal and natural gas plants in Illinois and providing more incentives for clean energy production, including solar and wind.
Cleaner air is a reasonable goal for government to incentivize. And polls show that Illinoisans support the basics of a clean energy bill, although the legislation is constantly evolving.
One version of a clean energy bill passed the Illinois Senate in late August and another version is scheduled to go before the Illinois House on Thursday. Keep in mind Exelon’s Sept. 13 deadline.
There’s an opportunity here for lawmakers to strike a tougher bargain: getting a commitment from Exelon to keep all of its Illinois nuclear plants open for an extended period beyond, for example, the five years remaining on the Clinton and Quad Cities plants. Also offering coal-burning plants the opportunity to keep operating if they can install later-generation pollution control equipment.
The next several days of negotiating will require skilled review of competing clean energy plans. We hope the Legislature and the governor’s office provide transparency about what is being negotiated, with adequate time for review by state agencies and interest groups. Money, jobs, tax revenue and cleaner air for all are all at stake.