After two years of negotiations, it seemed likely that Illinois was finally going to pass ambitious clean energy legislation during its latest legislative session. There were over five bills on the table that included decarbonization goals, expanded renewable energy programs, equity measures, improved energy efficiency standards, and job creation strategies. Even Governor J.B. Pritzker had submitted a bill into the mix. And then, nothing happened.
The Illinois legislature managed to officially declare a state microbe and mandate that Illinois and U.S. flags be purchased from U.S. suppliers, but it couldn’t pass much needed — and much wanted — energy legislation before the end of its session.
The failure to approve a clean energy package hinged on debate over nuclear subsidies for controversial energy giant Exelon and the closure date for one of the most polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States. The situation demonstrates how even with strong support for climate action from the White House, the battle for clean energy at the state level is still far from over.
“We’re one of the last two states with Democratic legislators and Democratic governors that have not passed legislation on 100 percent [decarbonization or renewable energy],” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
A clean energy bill will be essential for Illinois to meet its renewables targets, as well as to work in partnership with climate goals for the United States. In 2019, Governor Pritzker signed an executive order committing Illinois to the U.S. Climate Alliance to reduce state greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The legislation left on the table, Walling said, is “nation-leading” in terms of equity provisions for both low-income communities and communities of color, including workforce hubs in disinvested communities and funds to assist with home energy efficiency upgrades.
Policy experts say that Illinois’ energy package ran into several last-minute roadblocks. During negotiations before the spring legislative session commenced, tension among policymakers increased around the issue of subsidies for energy giant Exelon, a parent company to Commonwealth Edison, or ComEd, the utility involved in a years-long bribery scandal involving former Illinois Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan. Over the course of nine years, ComEd paid $1.2 million in bribes and contracts to Madigan’s associates in exchange for support for legislation in favor of ComEd’s success, resulting in higher utility bills for 70 percent of Illinois residents.
Exelon runs six nuclear power plants in the state, and previously said it would shut down its Byron and Dresden facilities if it didn’t get subsidies to cover purported operating losses. The closure of the plants, however, would have threatened Governor Pritzker’s climate pledge to shift the state to a 100 percent carbon-free power system by 2050. In the early morning the day after the legislative session ended, a tentative deal was reached to increase ratepayer subsidies by $600 million over five years to prevent the closure of Exelon’s nuclear facilities.
Despite that progress, a last-hour disagreement over the shutdown date of a major coal plant — the 1.6-gigawatt Prairie State Generating Station — derailed the legislative process once again.
“Last night, despite broad agreement on a comprehensive climate and equity bill, a last-minute request to exempt a massive coal plant halted all progress,” the advocacy group Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition tweeted Tuesday.
The Prairie State Generating Station, located in the southwest corner of the state, is the biggest carbon polluter in Illinois and in the top 10 industrial sources of carbon dioxide in the U.S. — releasing an amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to 2.7 million passenger cars per year. It is also Illinois’ top emitter of the harmful air pollutants methane, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, and causes one premature death each week, according to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank.
“It isn’t really a climate bill when you’re excluding the biggest polluters from having to close,” Jessica Collingsworth, a lead energy policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Grist.
With the end of the legislative session behind them, policymakers departed from the Capitol, leaving Illinois without a clean energy bill and the future of expanding solar programs uncertain. Utilities were required to spend money collected from customers, part of the state’s last energy legislation, to expand renewable capacity by June 1. Without new legislation, it means utilities will need to return $300 million to customers that otherwise would have been spent on expanding Illinois’ solar capacity.
Governor Pritzker and advocates for clean energy, however, are still hopeful that some sort of clean energy deal can be passed in the next few weeks. Sometime in the nail-biting negotiations Tuesday, the governor and Exelon reached another deal over subsidies — the details of which have not been made public.
“We have done everything that we can to stand up for clean energy principles,” Pritzker said in a press conference on Tuesday. “My hope is that we’ll end up with a good energy bill.”
State Senate President Don Harmon and Speaker of the House Chris Welch recently said they are willing to reconvene the legislature soon to pass an energy bill.
John Delurey, midwest director of Vote Solar, tweeted out a fact sheet with details of a possible negotiated bill that’s on the table right now. But, no one has actually seen the final copy. The highlights include a 100 percent carbon-free power sector by 2045, 40 percent renewable energy by 2030, plans to protect and create jobs, and a pledge to spend more than $100 million a year for equity focused workforce development programs. One energy sector left out of the near-final bill, however, is natural gas, several policy experts noted.
“Our work is not done and a landmark climate and equity bill is within reach,” Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition tweeted on Tuesday.
Now that the spring session deadline has passed, a super majority of votes is needed — 11 more votes in the House, and six more votes in the Senate, than was needed before the session deadline. “It would have been way easier to get it done May 31,” said Walling, “but I think we are in a place to do it.”