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Illinois Legislature must move quickly to keep electric bills low and promote green energy

The failure of national energy markets to support clean energy soon will force the premature retirement of two of the state’s zero-carbon nuclear plants, putting thousands of people out of work, raising energy costs and taking us decades backward in the fight against climate change.

Exelon Corporation’s Clinton nuclear power station
AP Photos

As a difficult 2020 comes to a close, Illinois policymakers are confronted with the challenges of governing in a time of historic uncertainty.

In addition to finding consensus on a state budget hit hard by the pandemic and addressing calls for social justice reforms, lawmakers face critical decisions about the future of energy that will affect our environment, the economy and the health of every family for years to come.

This is a moment for boldness and a sense of urgency. The good news is that lawmakers have a wide range of policy solutions that could spur economic growth, reduce pollution, improve public health and put Illinois back to work.

What we don’t have is time. The failure of national energy markets to support clean energy will soon force the premature retirement of two of the state’s six zero-carbon nuclear plants, putting thousands of people out of work, raising energy costs and taking us decades backward in the fight against climate change. With these plants gone, Northern Illinois will lose 30 percent of its carbon-free energy, and it will cost billions of dollars and multiple decades just to build enough new sources of clean energy to get us back to where we are today.

And that’s just the beginning. Without reforms, the same market forces could soon threaten two more nuclear plants, putting most of the state’s clean energy supply at risk.

As lawmakers consider a path forward, Exelon will continue to be fully transparent, including opening our financial records to any policymaker who wants to better understand the challenges facing our nuclear plants. At the same time, we urge all to remain focused on addressing this issue before it’s too late to reverse the harm to our environment and economy.

Veterans of the debate over energy policy in Illinois will recall that we have been here before. In 2016, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, environmental groups, consumer advocates and others came together to pass the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which bolstered the state’s broken renewable energy incentive program and prevented the early retirement of two unprofitable nuclear plants.

The state’s own analysis concluded that keeping the plants running saved consumers $259 million in energy costs annually and avoided air pollution that causes $1 billion in societal and environmental harm each year, with benefits of the program outweighing costs by at least eight to one. Today, the average ComEd customer spends less of their household income on electricity than in any state but Utah. This law was — and is — good policy.

We can do it again.

We can start by addressing the broken market policies that are forcing carbon-free nuclear plants to retire and expanding programs that promote the growth of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Experience has shown that we can accomplish these goals while protecting consumers and businesses.

Just as importantly, comprehensive energy reform would prevent thousands of job losses, increased pollution and higher energy costs, which disproportionately burden low-income and diverse communities already suffering from the devastating effects of the pandemic and economic downturn.

While these reforms have never been more important, we must acknowledge that the politics of energy grew more complicated earlier this year when an investigation into Exelon subsidiary ComEd’s past lobbying practices found that a small number of ComEd officers and outside contractors engaged in misconduct over a span of nine years.

We subsequently entered into an agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office that includes paying a $200 million fine, which will come from ComEd’s profits and leave customers unharmed. There is no excuse for this past behavior, and while Exelon and Exelon Generation were not accused of misconduct, we have acted decisively to train employees on four new ethics policies that apply to all Exelon companies.

While we are confident these measures will prevent a recurrence, the findings of the investigation have caused many who have a stake in the current debate over climate policy to pause in their quest for comprehensive energy legislation.

Without question, a clear-eyed reckoning with the past is warranted. But to answer that call with inaction on energy policy will only compound the state’s economic and environmental challenges.

With all the challenges our state faces in the year ahead, this is the wrong time to turn our backs on an issue that threatens our economy, our health and our quality of life. We have the capacity and solutions to address climate change and protect our environment for future generations. Let’s choose progress.

Christopher Crane is the president and CEO of Exelon.

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