Gov. J.B. Pritzker hails energy plan with ambitious climate goals, nuclear bailout as ‘a giant leap forward’

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed a sweeping energy policy overhaul he hailed as “a giant leap forward to mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

“As of today, Illinois is a force for good for an environmental future we can be proud of,” Pritzker said during a ceremony outside the Shedd Aquarium along Lake Michigan’s shore.

The bill, which marks another legislative victory on a high-profile issue as Pritzker heads into a 2022 reelection bid, aims to set Illinois on a path to 100% carbon-free power by midcentury. It also puts the state’s utility 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 bailout for a highly profitable company — along with the other costs of the massive package — will open the door for Republicans to link the first-term Democratic governor to power bill hikes and the ongoing federal corruption probe involving ComEd.

The five-year subsidies will stave off the threatened closings of ComEd parent Exelon’s Byron and Dresden nuclear plants, and also support the company’s Braidwood plant in Will County.

But the nuclear subsidies are only one component of the wide-ranging plan, which calls for coal, oil and natural gas power plants to close over the coming decades. It also seeks to boosts the development of wind and solar energy across the state, put more electric vehicles on the road, and make it easier for Black and Latino workers and businesses to enter the renewable energy industry.

By and large, coal plants will have to shut down by 2030, while natural gas plants would have until 2045. There’s an exception for two publicly owned coal plants: the city-owned plant in Springfield and the Prairie State Generating Station in southern Illinois, but the measure sets targets for carbon emissions to be cut at those plants by 45% by 2035 and completely by 2045.

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The proposal includes several ethics provisions for utilities in light of ComEd’s admission in federal court last year that it engaged in a yearslong bribery scheme in an effort to advance its Springfield agenda, including a bailout for Exelon’s Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants in 2016.

The package received final approval in the Senate on Monday, the day Exelon said it would beginning shutting down its Byron plant absent legislative action The company said without the bailout its plants can’t compete with cheaper energy from fossil fuels and subsidized renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Despite strong opposition from many Republican lawmakers, including some who represent the Byron area, the measure, which required three-fifths majorities to pass because it takes effect immediately, was approved with bipartisan support in both chambers.

Republican Sen. Sue Rezin and Rep. David Welter, whose districts include Dresden, Braidwood and Exelon’s LaSalle nuclear plant, attended Wednesday’s signing ceremony and praised the work of Pritzker’s office and the legislature’s Democratic leadership, House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside and Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park.

“If we’re quiet enough, we might just hear a sigh of relief coming from Morris and Byron and some of these other areas where folks are counting on us to deliver today,” Welter said.

Welch, whose caucus took the lead in negotiating the final package after the Senate passed version that didn’t have Pritzker’s backing, said the strength of the final product is reflected in its broad support.

“This is what legislating is supposed to look like: good faith negotiations and compromise to get to a point where Democrats and Republicans, labor and environmentalists all agree on something,” Welch said.

The plan also won praise from the Biden administration, with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, the former Democratic governor of Michigan, issuing a statement saying it will show “just what bold state-level action can do to usher in the clean energy future” and noting that it dovetails with the administration’s climate and energy goals.

“Preserving our existing fleet of nuclear reactors, adopting more clean and renewable energy, and incentivizing sales of electric vehicles are all key components of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and essential to reaching our nation’s bold climate goals,” Granholm said.

Here in Illinois, some critics contend the plan leaves consumers behind. And questions remain about exactly how much it will tack onto customers’ power bills.

Among the critics is the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, a consumer watchdog, which has warned that the new law extends policies that will unduly enrich ComEd and Exelon at the expense of electricity customers.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

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