Illinois to become first Midwest state to adopt carbon-free electric grid

Politics

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Illinois could soon join California, Washington, Hawaii, Virginia, and New Mexico in committing to a 100% carbon-free electric grid by 2045, aligning the state with President Joe Biden’s clean energy agenda to reach net zero carbon emissions before 2050.

Eleven Republicans joined with 72 Democrats in the House to approve Governor J.B. Pritzker’s massive climate change measure, voting 83-33 in support of the plan on Thursday night. Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) immediately announced the upper chamber would return to Springfield on Monday “to advance this vital proposal to the governor’s desk so it can become law.”

The 958-page piece of legislation offers a $4,000 rebate to people who purchase an electric vehicle, forces all private coal-fired and oil-fired power plants to close within nine years, allows methane-emitting natural gas power plants to stay open for another 24 years, and orders non-profit coal-fired power plants to shut down or become “100% carbon-free” by the end of 2045. Both municipal coal plants would also have to cap their total carbon output at 45% before 2035. If they fail to reach that goal, they would have to shut down one of their generation units within three years.

Top negotiators said this compromise also includes leeway for coal-fired power plants to install carbon capture technology, which they said would be paid for in the federal infrastructure package which is currently up for debate in Congress.

The deal also raises the average residential monthly electric rates by three percent, commercial rates by five percent, and industrial rates by seven percent, sending $694 million of that money to Exelon to keep its carbon-free nuclear power plants running, and sends $3.4 billion in ratepayer funds to prop up wind and solar construction projects over the next decade.

The energy omnibus proposal included more bipartisan buy-in from House Republicans than any other massive policy shift in at least two years, but you wouldn’t have known it from the scathing rhetoric and apocalyptic predictions from some of their colleagues during the floor debate.

House Republicans downplayed Illinois’ overall impact on the global environment, highlighted dirtier energy generation in oil from Russia, or coal emissions in China and India, described desperate scenes in developing countries where doctors perform surgeries under flashlights in Katmandu, or “burn dung” to stay warm in Sub-Saharan Africa, warning the state’s clean energy plan “will turn Illinois into a third-world country.”

Exasperated House Democrats tied the combined methane and carbon pollution to more severe weather patterns, wildfires, smoke pollution, and health concerns such as asthma attacks or coughing fits, and heralded the “landmark legislation to address the present and dire issue of climate change,” which scientists recently labeled as “code red for humanity” in a United Nations climate report.

One representative suggested converting to cleaner energy sources could have direct fatal consequences.

“We have to go out and fire up generators when the MISO district doesn’t have enough power,” Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville) said about the power grid that supplies electricity to downstate. “Think about the people who die because they live in an area where they’re afraid their generator’s going to get stolen. So they start in their garage and go back to bed and and get asphyxiated. This happens every time. People die because of that.”

Rep. Tim Butler (R-Springfield), who noted that he didn’t have his “head in the sand on this issue,” raised other concerns about the impact of closing municipally owned coal-fired power plants at City, Water, Light and Power in Springfield and at Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa, both of which supply power to the MISO region.

“50% of the energy generated by MISO comes from coal,” Butler said. “You’re not doing what you think you’re doing with this bill. You’re putting people out of work, you’re raising rates for my constituents, and you’re shutting things down that shouldn’t be shut down.”

House Assistant Majority Leader Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) said Butler’s concerns were “very legitimate” during a press conference after the bill passed, but said the plan will track and monitor the grid performance to prevent outages.

“There are reliability checkpoints every five years,” Hoffman said, who represented the interests of organized labor during the negotiations. “That was very important to all of us because we want the lights to go on, we want the heating and air conditioning to work.”

While some Republicans criticized the amount of coal power going offline, others protested the manner in which the state would go about installing infrastructure to ramp up renewable power during the interim, claiming its construction would trample the private property rights of family farmers.

Republicans Tony McCombie (R-Savanna), C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Jacksonville), and Brad Halbrook (R-Shelbyville), took issue with the eminent domain provisions in the legislation that would allow private solar companies to install high voltage transmission lines through private farm fields in several downstate counties.

“Transmission lines are critical infrastructure,” Rep. Marcus Evans (D-Chicago) responded, cautioning against rhetoric that “conjures up images” of private companies taking private property from other people. The eminent domain process would require wind or solar developers to go through a court process with state regulators and pay landowners fair market value for their property.

In his closing remarks moments before the bipartisan vote, House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) scolded critics who “castigated” the clean energy deal, “because our climate can’t wait,” he said.

“Climate change is going to cost us more if we don’t act now,” Welch said. “Climate change is costing homeowners right now because of the spike in insurance after every flood, and every tornado in each of our districts. I’ve had like the ‘100-year flood’ in my district every three years. Insurance is through the roof because the climate is changing.”

“This bill provides a clear path to reducing our carbon emissions,” Welch said. “It puts Illinois on a clear timeline to a greener economy. It makes significant investments in the development of renewable energy, it protects jobs and people in your communities.”

While the new energy deal does include stricter oversight from the Illinois Commerce Commission that could allow regulators to claw back money that was gained through “undue benefit,” the three House Democrats who negotiated the bill could not point to any written guarantees that Exelon would actually use the bailout to refuel the Byron power plant on Monday.

“I’ll just be very honest with you, I don’t trust Exelon,” Rep. Hoffman said. “I don’t.”

“Exelon has put us in a position of having to pass the bill,” he said. I want the nuclear to stay open, but I just don’t trust them.”

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