Exelon’s Legislative Effort to Save Illinois Nuclear Plants Moves Forward

The latest attempt by Exelon Corp. to save two of its struggling Illinois nuclear power plants passed a critical hurdle late last week: the Future Energy Jobs Bill—known as SB 2814—was introduced in the Illinois state General Assembly, after passing the House Energy Committee by a 9–1 vote.

Exelon claims the bill would save and create tens of thousands of jobs, double energy efficiency programs to create $4 billion in energy savings, accelerate the development of renewable energy, and provide more than $1 billion in low-income programs—all while preserving competitive rates and preventing cost increases that would come from plant closures.

Cost Is a Moving Target

However, opponents of the bill disagree with the company. The BEST Coalition— a nonprofit organization composed of business and consumer groups focused on developing better energy solutions for tomorrow (BEST)—claims the bill would result in the largest rate hike in U.S. history.

A study commissioned by the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago (BOMA/Chicago), found that the legislation would cost $24.1 billion in new utility charges for Illinois consumers from 2017 through 2040. Included in those costs is what BOMA/Chicago calls a $6.8 billion bailout for Dynegy coal plants and Exelon’s Clinton station. The group estimates that another $5.5 billion would go toward bailing out other Exelon nuclear plants.

According to Exelon, the legislation would only increase the average ComEd customer’s residential energy bill by 25¢/month. It says the cost of not passing SB 2814 would be much higher, suggesting nuclear plant closures could add $1.85/month to the average customer’s bill.

Rewarding Carbon-Free Power

Exelon points to the establishment of a Zero-Emission Standard (ZES) as a core feature of the lawmaking. The ZES provision would position Illinois as one of the first states, along with New York, to fully recognize the environmental benefits of nuclear power. On August 1, the New York State Public Service Commission approved that state’s Clean Energy Standard—which includes subsidies designed to save struggling upstate nuclear power plants—but a group of generators, including Dynegy and NRG Energy, filed suit in federal court on October 19 seeking to block that incentive program.

“The Zero Emissions Standard is an innovative approach that will preserve the state’s largest source of clean energy,” said Joe Dominguez, Exelon’s executive vice president, Governmental and Regulatory Affairs and Public Policy. “These plants are the backbone of our energy supply, preventing significant carbon emissions and serving as economic engines for the state and the communities in which they operate. It’s critical that we come together now to preserve and grow clean energy at the lowest cost for Illinois consumers.”

Mixed Reviews

But some environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, that were previously in favor of supporting the nuclear plants, have withdrawn support for the bill now that coal plant subsidies are part of the package.

At least one other power company is also opposed to the bill in its current form. The Southern Illinoisan reported that Ameren Illinois is concerned not only with the added costs, but also with the way customers are charged for their energy. Ameren would need all customers to have smart meters before it could implement the latest rate structure provision, and it doesn’t expect that to occur until late 2019.

Due to all of the opposition, further changes to the legislation are expected in the coming days and weeks. Time is running short though. In June, Exelon announced that it would close the Clinton station on June 1, 2017, and retire the Quad Cities station one year later. If the legislation is not passed soon, the company intends to proceed with those plans.

Floor readings of SB 2814 will not occur until the General Assembly reconvenes for its fall veto session after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)