SPRINGFIELD — The debate over a new energy policy that Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law Wednesday focused largely on whether utility customers, from individual families to large industrial companies, should be asked to pay billions of dollars over a decade to subsidize two unprofitable nuclear plants owned by a highly profitable corporation.
But supporters say the argument about the $235 million in annual subsidies Exelon Corp. will be eligible to receive in exchange keeping open the Clinton and Quad-Cities nuclear power plants for another 10 years has overshadowed the legislation’s long-term environmental and climate benefits.
At a bill-signing ceremony Wednesday at Clinton High School, Jennifer Walling, the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, which represents more than 80 organizations across the state, hailed the new law as “the most significant piece of climate and clean energy policy in Illinois’ history.”
By keeping the nuclear plants open and increasing investment in renewable power and energy efficiency, supporters in the environmental community say, the policy will forestall an increase in demand for electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, which contributes to climate change.
The fact that the legislation made it out of the General Assembly with bipartisan support and onto Rauner’s desk was due in large part to an unconventional alliance between a Fortune 100 energy company and a coalition of environmental and consumer groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Citizens Utility Board.
”This partnership and coming together is an example of how big policy should get done in Springfield,” Walling said.
Environmental, labor, religious and business organizations joined forces nearly two years ago to form the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. The group aimed to fix flaws in the state’s “renewable portfolio standard,” which under a previous law set a goal of producing 25 percent of the state’s power through renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2025.
Long at odds with Exelon, the coalition joined forces with the company this fall to support the new law, which takes effect June 1.
Because of the way the old law was written, development of new wind farms and other renewable energy projects has been stalled in Illinois for several years. Meanwhile, money Illinoisans paid on their power bills was going to out-of-state projects.
The new law was written to fix those problems, “opening the door to a boom in wind and solar development that had been bypassing Illinois to neighboring states for years,” Nick Magrisso, Midwest legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog post summarizing the legislation’s environmental benefits.
The law is expected to spur 3,000 megawatts of new solar projects and 1,300 megawatts of new wind projects in Illinois, enough to power nearly 1 million homes, Magrisso wrote.
Also included are programs to allow people who aren’t able to install their own rooftop solar panels to subscribe to community projects in their neighborhoods. Another provision, the Illinois Solar for All Program, is designed to encourage development in low-income neighborhoods and to provide job training in the field in those communities.
Spending on energy efficiency programs, such as home weatherization and rebates for energy-saving appliances, will also increase as a result of the new law.
Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison will spend up to $400 million annually in its Northern Illinois service territory, and Ameren Illinois will spend an average of $108 million annually downstate.
ComEd will be required to cut its Northern Illinois customers’ energy demand by 21.5 percent by 2030, and Ameren will have to reduce demand among its downstate customers by 16 percent by the same deadline. There are financial incentives built in if the companies exceeded their annual reduction targets and penalties if they miss them.
David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, said people across the state will benefit from increased spending on energy efficiency regardless of whether they take part in the utilities’ programs. Lower demand for energy will lead to lower prices for everyone, he said.
“Bills will be lower because of the historic investments in energy efficiency,” Kolata said at the bill-signing ceremony.
Opponents of the bill don’t believe the savings will be as great as supporters are estimating because Illinois already generates a surplus of power.
And while the law includes caps on rate increases for customers of all sizes, opponents, including the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and AARP Illinois, among others, also continue to raise questions about their effectiveness.