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EDITORIAL: Illinois’ energy future needs sense of urgency

Some in Springfield reportedly are considering putting important energy legislation on the back burner. It’s a horrible idea, and here’s why.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File

Now is no time to duck and cover.

Some in Springfield reportedly are considering putting important energy legislation on the back burner until a controversy involving ComEd contractual lobbyists writing checks to a former aide to House Speaker Michael Madigan blows over. Any new energy legislation would almost certainly involve ComEd.

If they do delay, the Legislature won’t take up proposals including the Clean Energy Jobs Act and a “Path to 100” bill in the fall veto session, which is scheduled for late October and early November.

This would be a very bad idea for two reasons:

1) Ordinary people in Illinois can’t afford it.

2) The planet can’t afford it.

A new energy bill for Illinois, like many other things, was crowded out in the spring session by other major legislation. But even though the veto session is scheduled to last only six days, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Legislature need to roll up their sleeves and get this done. If Springfield delays the process, residential electricity bills could shoot up unnecessarily.

Most people, we’re confident, would not be happy about that.

When we get our power bills, part of what we pay for is the cost of “capacity,” the guarantee that on days of peak demand — think of a sweltering summer day when everyone is running their air conditioners — enough power will be generated for everyone.

Paying for capacity is not chicken feed. The cost of capacity makes up about 21% of our bills in northern Illinois, and ratepayers in northern Illinois fork over about $1.7 billion a year for capacity.

But President Donald Trump’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has signaled that it would like to change the capacity market rules in a way that would make Illinois customers essentially pay twice for capacity as long as Illinois continues to pursue its push toward non-carbon energy.

Obviously, that would be bad for consumers. No one wants higher bills.

The change, however, would benefit power plants that burn coal and other fossil fuels, which Trump favors. Illinois’ efforts to promote renewable energy and give credits to nuclear plants as zero-carbon emitters would be put at a disadvantage.

That would be bad for the planet. A day doesn’t seem to go by when we don’t learn of new evidence that rising temperatures are hurting the Earth and that time is running out to limit the damage. Last week, scientists confirmed July set a global heat record.

Nothing has happened yet in Washington because the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is locked in a 2-2 stalemate between Democrats and Republicans. But one of the Democrats is scheduled to leave the commission at the end of this month, and environmentalists expect the two Republicans will take advantage of a 2-1 edge to quickly put new rules in place. It could happen as early as early September.

If Illinois lawmakers don’t take action in the fall session, electricity providers might be encouraged to build new coal- and gas-fired plants, which would not go away even if environmentally friendly legislation is enacted in the future.

There’s also concern about the next “capacity auction,” which sets the rates power companies will be paid in future years based on how much capacity they provide for the power grid. Presumably, the next capacity auction would be conducted under FERC’s new rules, and Illinois would be a loser.

That would be unconscionable for a number of reasons.

A boost to solar and wind energy from an earlier bill, the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act, will sputter out. Exelon has said some of its nuclear plants could become financially “distressed.” And ratepayers would face higher bills.

Illinois does not have to let that happen.

One of the bills on the table, the Clean Energy Jobs Act, would raise renewable energy targets, train workers for clean energy jobs (particularly in disadvantaged communities) and allow the Illinois Power Agency to handle the capacity market for northern Illinois, keeping money in the state to spend on renewable energy projects. It also is designed to get Illinois to 100% renewable energy by 2050, eliminate carbon from the power sector by 2030 and reduce the number of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles on the roads.

Getting anything complicated done in the Legislature is difficult in six days. But we can’t afford delay.

Every year we lose would be a setback for ratepayers, Illinois and the planet.

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