By Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang
The massive energy bill that passed in the last minutes of Illinois lawmakers’ fall schedule last week has critics fuming about its bailout of Exelon’s two money-losing nuclear plants.
But supporters reply that the time for criticism has passed and it’s time rather to maximize the benefits to the public.
The Future Energy Jobs Bill with over 500 pages and 10 officially-filed amendments in it, requires electricity consumers statewide to finance hundreds of millions annually for two nukes and investments in clean energy as well as energy efficiency programs.
“I’m sure it feels rushed for the legislature,” said Dawn Dannenbring, the lead organizer at Illinois People’s Action (IPA), a group that’s also a member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition.
“But if folks have been following the conversations that have been going on for months, with the exception of the amendments that were added toward the end, I don’t necessary think that it was rushed,” she added.
Why Did the Bill Pass?
In the end, the bill became legislation because it promised enough to a broad array of groups. Although the bill’s nuclear bailout frustrates some environmentalists, consumer advocates, and certain businesses, it contained enough good things for consumers, especially to those in low-income communities, to win political support.
There have been calls for renovating the state’s energy legislation because a lack of funding for the last five years has hampered how the state’s energy law has been carried out, said Lisa Albrecht, vice president at Illinois Solar Energy Association and renewable energy specialist at Solar Service Inc.
The negotiation has been underway this year ever since bills supported by either Clean Jobs Coalition, Exelon, the Chicago-based energy company, or its subsidiary ComEd have been presented to the General Assembly, said individuals close to the negotiations.
By combining those bills, the Future Energy Jobs Bill gained bipartisan support that included almost all energy industry players.
The final version of the bill, without subsidy to downstate coal plants or demand charges that measure ratepayers’ electricity usage with peak hours instead of overall usage, was passed by both the state House and the Senate and will take effect in June, 2017.
“We certainly felt the sense of urgency because the political climate that we are living in now,” Dannenbring said. She is unsure how much attention will be paid to climate change and environmental justice issues, especially “where people are living in polluted areas and need access to clean jobs and clean air in their communities,” she added.
Who Benefits from the Bill?
In the negotiations, IPA, Fair Economy Illinois and others initiated the concept of providing support to low-income and minority communities, said Dannenbring. These communities are considered the most damaged places as a result of coal-fired plants’ pollution, lacking resources to negate the damage, she explained.
In the 13-year life of the bill, $750 million in investments will go to low-income programs, including solar, energy efficiency and job training in economically disadvantaged communities, according to the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. There will also be training programs specifically for ex-offenders and former foster children, it said.
For those communities, “it’s not just say ‘is your family getting enough energy?’,” said Pastor Tony Pierce, an African-American community activist who participated in the negotiation process with IPA. People want energy sovereignty and all the positive implications of the bill that will bring to them, he said.
“This [the bill] is an opportunity to not only achieve environmental justice, but also an opportunity to achieve economic justice and racial justice,” he said.
To be sure, in some Illinois communities, the economic and social disparities between different groups are quite dramatic.
Taking the gap in social and economic measures between blacks and whites into account, four out of the 10 worst cities for blacks in the U.S. are in Illinois, according to a 24/7 Wall St. study. Peoria in central Illinois, was ranked as the number one worst city for blacks this year, up from the sixth-place last year in the study.
Indeed, the job creation spurred by the bill is expected to benefit low-income and minority communities, industry observers said.
Illinois’ energy efficiency programs, begun in 2007, have led to more than 85,000 jobs statewide, and the goal of the current bill is to build on the success, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition said.
Among the new jobs, 2,000 are earmarked for ex-offenders and youth graduating out of the state’s foster care system – individuals whose jobs choices are often slim, Dannenbring said.
Asked what excites the residents in those distressed communities the most, Pierce replied, “it’s everything.”
“If you are a member of a minority and distressed community that is at the bottom of a food chain,” he said, “you are excited about the thought of a job. You are excited about the thought of being able to put food on the table for your family. You are excited about the thought of not being locked out so you have to look at underground, illegal economic means of supporting yourself or your family.”
Lower Utility Bills?
Will the cost of the nuclear bailout and investments in clean energy push up electricity rates dramatically?
The answer might be too far away to see and involves too many uncertainties to estimate. But the Citizen Utility Board (CUB) is optimistic.
It said that ComEd customers will see an average annual reduction of $15 on their utility bills because of energy efficiency programs. Overall, the energy efficiency provisions could lower electric bills by at least $4 billion through 2030, said CUB’s communications director Jim Chilsen.
Exelon and ComEd also agreed on rate caps in the bill, ensuring that residential customers’ rates will not go up more than 25 cents a month, and business users’ rates are capped at an average of 1.3 percent compared to their 2015 rates.
A 10-year bailout, $235 million annually, for two nukes that are owned by a profitable company – Exelon, a Fortune 100 company that made more than $2 billion in profit last year – has caused disputes and worries that the bill might set a precedent for helping a specific business.
Other opponents include the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, which argued that the electric rate increases would jeopardize Illinois competitive advantages.
“I think it is the most difficult and challenging [part] for the supporters of the bill,” Albrecht admitted as the bill is now nicknamed as a “nuclear bailout.” “But that’s where we were. I think the net positives are certainly going to be beneficial to Illinois.”
“We fought like crazy to kill what we could kill. We did not have enough power to affect the nuclear bailout,” said Dannenbring, pointing to the efforts they put on eliminating the demand charges.
“What we are working on now is to make sure that in six years or 10 years or whenever these nuclear power plants do retire, that there will be enough renewable energy that other false solutions like natural gas will not be introduced to tight us over until such a time as renewables can take over,” she added.
Gov. Bruce Rauner plans to visit Clinton, one of the endangered nuclear plant’s locations, and sign the bill on Wednesday, according to the Clinton Chamber of Commerce.
As the new legislation begins to roll out and be implemented next June, more details and programs are expected to be released.
“We are very eager to get going on the education program that has been carved out for low-income communities in particular. We will be educating everyone in Illinois just how important wind and solar is and how they can be part of this clean energy revolution,” said Albrecht.
“Time is against us,” Dannenbring said, adding that the need to employ clean energy and use less energy through energy efficiency is urgent. “Holding it up for politics and concerns about little things in a long run, I think are unimportant.”
“We have a planet to save. We have a big job to do,” she said.