The Illinois Senate approved a massive clean energy omnibus package after midnight on Tuesday evening, clearing the last major piece of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s political agenda for a vote in the House.
The proposal aims to put one million electric vehicles on Illinois roads over the next nine years, and to transition the sixth largest state in the nation to a 100% clean energy sector by 2050. The plan would shutter private, for-profit coal powered plants that generate more than 25 megawatts of electric generating units by 2030, and it would close down municipally-owned coal-fired power plants and natural gas power plants by a deadline of 2045.
Senator Mike Hastings (D-Frankfort) said the proposal would raise the average residential monthly electric rates by three percent, commercial rates by five percent, and industrial rates by seven percent, but claimed the higher electric costs for consumers would also amount to “one of the most sweeping investments that our country has ever seen in renewable energy resources.”
The package includes $280.5 million in grants for the ‘Coal to Solar Energy Storage Initiative Fund,’ $203 million in annual grants for various wind, solar, and clean jobs initiatives, $140 million for the ‘Energy Transition Assistance Fund,’ $14 million in new annual spending for regulatory agencies, and it allows the state to spend $10 million each year on purchasing electric vehicles to upgrade the government fleet.
Two Republicans joined with 37 Democrats to endorse the bipartisan plan, cementing it with a veto-proof majority, though Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said Governor Pritzker and House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) “asked for a little more time for us to get together and move forward in a united fashion.”
Pritzker’s office said the current version of the Senate bill would still allow the municipally-owned Prairie State Generating Company and City, Water, Light, and Power coal-fired plants to “continue polluting for 24 years with no restrictions.”
However, Harmon said the bill would make Illinois the “epicenter of the green economy,” and that the Senate had “heard loud and clear the requirements [Pritzker] would have to sign the bill,” including “a hard close of carbon emitting plants, and that there are no special deals.”
The proposal includes $694 million in taxpayer funds for Exelon to prop up its carbon-free nuclear power plants in Byron, Dresden, and Braidwood. The state’s largest utility company paid a $200 million fine to avoid federal corruption charges after a 2016 energy deal raised electric rates and handed the company a bailout.
“Our state government has allowed Illinois workers to be held hostage by corrupt, crony corporate crime syndicate,” Senator Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) said. “Think about that for a minute. We’ve been threatened and pushed around by a corporation that has admitted to criminal wrongdoing.”
Bailey, who is seeking the GOP nomination to run for governor in 2022, slammed his Senate colleagues who supported the measure, claiming they “folded and rewarded corrupt corporations with multimillion dollar bailouts and told families that they get to pay for it.”
“This bill has not been written by public utility companies,” Hastings said during floor debate, offering assurances to legislators who voiced concerns about corruption in the last energy deal the statehouse approved. “There are no backroom deals or insiders unduly influencing this process,” he said.
However, the environmental lobby argued that Hastings and other Senate Democrats had been catering to fossil fuel interests earlier in the week when they attempted to prolong the closure of municipally owned coal-fired power plants if they could invest in costly technologies to scrub, offset, or safely bury their carbon gas deep underground.
“There was a trade off between the massive investment required for that carbon reduction in the short run versus the length that the plant would need to run to recover it,” Harmon explained. “We countered today with a hard close of that plant. I think that there are some advocates who want both. I don’t know if that’s economically feasible. If the governor can negotiate that, I think he’d have broad support in the Senate. But I think that’s a tall order.”
Several Senators had grown weary in recent weeks of the Pritzker administration’s insistence that natural gas and coal-fired power plants must permanently close by 2045, but ultimately decided to give the Governor his wish, since future General Assemblies or governors could always change the law to allow them to extend the life of their power plants in the future.
“There’s always that possibility,” Cunningham said. “We have a habit of about every four to six years of passing a comprehensive energy bill in Springfield. I would not be surprised if that happens again.
“The energy market is always changing,” he said. “Unpredictable things happen. New technologies develop. You know, the natural gas boom 10 years ago has completely changed the economics of energy. That can happen again and it might create a situation where what we passed today is changed. I think that’s a real possibility.”
Senator Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet) raised concerns about giving wind and solar companies too much leverage over private land rights under eminent domain, which he called “completely unconstitutional nonsense.”
“Private merchant lines get eminent domain authority over my constituents,” Rose protested. “The United States Constitution is clear on eminent domain: public use and you must pay for it. You must pay fair market value for it. Yet we’re giving private, for-profit companies the right to put up — public utilities, I guess is what we’re calling them now, even though they’re private, for-profit companies — up over my constituents homes.”
Bailey predicted that the climate plan would mean “more hard working Illinoisans get forced out of their jobs and told by their political elites that they will have to settle for a worthless Energy Transition Workforce Commission.”
Harmon claimed that the combination of climate change and market pressures in the energy sector was so urgent that the legislature must take immediate action to save thousands of nuclear jobs, while he also claimed that job losses in the coal plants were somewhat inevitable in their own time.
“We’re in the midst of a transformation to a new green economy,” Harmon replied. “I think the coal plants are headed out regardless of the legislative action. We may accelerate that, but we need to transform our economy to affordable, reliable, renewable energy.”
“This disruption is challenging, and it’s a it’s a piece that we’ve been fighting for with particular vigor,” Harmon said. “And I’ve taken some criticism for worrying about people who are gonna wake up tomorrow and wonder if they have jobs. We’re trying to strike that balance. And I believe that we’ve we’ve listened to the Governor’s concerns and the stakeholders concerns about real, meaningful decarbonization, but have tried to do it in a humane way that is sensible and rational.”