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Proposals to phase out coal and natural gas plants stall energy talks in Springfield as Senate again leaves town without a deal

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The Illinois Senate failed to reach an agreement Tuesday on a massive energy policy overhaul that would put power customers on the hook for a nearly $700 million bailout of three nuclear plants owned by the parent company of scandal-plagued Commonwealth Edison.

The Senate was back in Springfield for one day to vote on a potential compromise after the Democratic-controlled legislature failed to come to terms before adjourning its spring session on June 1. Threats by ComEd parent Exelon to shut down two nuclear plants have added urgency to passing a bill this summer.

But disagreements remained among two key Democratic constituencies, labor and environmental groups, and shortly before 6 p.m. Senate President Don Harmon told reporters senators were again leaving town without a deal.

“The caucus made it very clear that we don’t want to vote for something that puts us in the middle of a fight between friends,” Harmon said, while predicting lawmakers would be back later this summer.

“We came up a little short today, but we will get it done,” Harmon said.

The lack of accord this spring on a plan that aims to set the state on a path to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s goal of 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 was seen as a sign of a growing disconnect between the legislature and the Democratic governor.

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The House still was scheduled be in session Wednesday to take up other issues, including a plan previously approved in the Senate that eventually would create an elected school board in Chicago. The proposal faces fierce opposition from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

A push from Pritzker and environmental advocates to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2035 and natural gas plants a decade later remains the main sticking point in the energy talks, even as the governor has made concessions to his original proposal. A bill Pritzker unveiled earlier this spring would have shut down coal plants by the beginning of next decade.

The revised proposal Pritzker put out going into Tuesday’s session would have raised bills to utility customers by nearly $3.

The political fallout from approving subsidies for Exelon nuclear plants less than a year after its ComEd subsidiary admitted to a yearslong bribery scheme in an effort to advance its agenda in Springfield was seen as a major hurdle to energy legislation. Instead, one of the main obstacles that remains is the fate of two downstate coal plants: the Prairie State Generating Station in southern Illinois and a city-owned plant in Springfield.

Towns across the state, including Batavia, Geneva, Naperville, St. Charles and Winnetka, invested in Prairie State, and many still will be paying off debt on the $5 billion project — one of the top 10 industrial sources of carbon pollution in the country — beyond 2035.

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As recently as late last week, Pritzker’s staff told lawmakers that “an exemption for the nation’s seventh-largest polluter remains unacceptable.” But the governor has since agreed to allow the plants to remain open a decade longer if they are able to capture 90% of their carbon output by 2034, a process that so far has been shown to be economically infeasible.

“We’ve come a long way. We have moved substantially. The other side has not moved much,” Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, Pritzker’s lead energy negotiator, wrote in a statement prepared for a Senate committee hearing Tuesday at which he was never called to testify.

“Everything we were told was necessary for an agreement — including a carbon capture exemption that gives both the governor and environmentalists heartburn — is now present,” Mitchell said in his statement. “And at some point a progressive climate bill is no longer a climate bill, and going further than this is the tipping point.”

Harmon disputed that characterization, saying that “both sides have moved considerably toward the middle, and both sides are operating in good faith.”

Labor unions, meanwhile, have raised fresh concerns over Pritzker’s proposal for lowering limits on carbon emissions from natural gas plants that could lead to closures before the 2045 deadline. Those groups have proposed a more gradual phaseout of the natural gas plants.

Whether the state goes with the more gradual approach or Pritzker’s “accelerated” schedule, it “would make Illinois a leader in this country on decarbonization, arguably the leader,” said Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, a top Democratic energy negotiator.

Lawmakers and the governor are under pressure to act this summer because Exelon has threatened to shut down its Byron and Dresden nuclear plants if the state doesn’t offer more help. The company says the subsidies are warranted because the plants can’t compete with cheaper power from coal and natural gas plants that contributed to climate change.

But the push comes less than a year after ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine and admitted the bribery aimed at currying favor with then-House Speaker Michael Madigan to win support for favorable legislation, including a more costly nuclear bailout approved in 2016. Madigan has not been charged and denies wrongdoing, but former lawmakers, utility executives and lobbyists have been charged in the ongoing probe.

Politicians in Springfield are in a perilous position as they try to avoid appearing to do the company’s bidding in the wake of the scandal while also trying to save thousands of high-paying union jobs at the nuclear plants. The plants are in largely Republican districts, while their workers are represented by the Democrats’ ardent supporters in organized labor.

Republican Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris, whose district is home to the Dresden and Braidwood nuclear plants, blamed Pritzker’s “unrealistic demands” for scuttling a potential deal.

“There simply was not enough support for the governor’s plan, and he was not willing to negotiate with the unions,” Rezin said in a statement.

Under the governor’s most recent proposal, the average residential ComEd customer would pay about 80 cents per month to subsidize the two plants facing potential closure, along with Exelon’s Braidwood plant, which is teetering on the edge of profitability, according to an independent audit Pritzker’s office released earlier this year. The three plants would receive the subsidies for five years.

In addition, the average residential power customer would pay $1.22 per month to double subsidies for renewable energy development and another 86 cents per month for expanded home weatherization programs for low-income customers.

In order to pass, there’s a general consensus that any proposal would have to include provisions dealing with utility accountability and ethics.

Supporters of the plan also tout that it would end one of the other major victories ComEd achieved during the years it admitted to engaging in bribery: so-called formula rates. Rather than having to go before state regulators to win approval of a rate increase, formula rates guaranteed the company would reap higher profits from customers as it spent more on energy grid upgrades.

While proponents say the measure would end formula rates and empower the Illinois Commerce Commission to set rates based on performance measures approved by the agency, advocates argue that the proposal maintains key provisions that guarantee utility profits.

A report released Monday by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group shows ComEd could be in line for an additional $664 million to $893 million in profits over four years under Pritzker’s proposal.

“Completely ending formula rates is the bare minimum we should expect from our elected leaders in response to the ComEd scandal. This legislation fails to,” Illinois PIRG Director Abe Scarr said in a statement. “Illinois needs to marshal all its resources to reach our climate and clean energy goals, not direct billions of dollars in excess profit to ComEd and Exelon.”

Pritzker’s plan also has faced pushback from a broad range of business groups, including organizations representing retailers, manufacturers and building owners, who bill it as a massive rate hike at a time when companies are still recovering from the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown.


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