Closing two nuclear power plants will only hurt Illinois — and the environment

There is no way Illinois can achieve 100% clean energy as fast as necessary if the Byron and Dresden plants are shuttered.

SHARE Closing two nuclear power plants will only hurt Illinois — and the environment

Power lines in northwest suburban Des Plaines.

Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times

Closing two nuclear power plants, as Exelon on Thursday says it plans to do, would be bad for Illinois.

No one wants to provide a blank check to Exelon to keep the plants open. But there is no way Illinois can achieve 100% clean energy as fast as necessary if the two downstate plants are closed. Polluting fossil fuels would be given an edge, and thousands of good paying union jobs would be lost.

Although Exelon is a profitable company, a company spokesperson told the Chicago Sun-Times it plans to close the money-losing Byron Generating Station near downstate Byron and Dresden Generating Station in downstate Dresden in November 2021.

Together, the plants generate 30% of the state’s carbon-free energy. Together, they’re also losing hundreds of millions of dollars, the company says.

Exelon, evidently focused on maximizing its profits, also says its LaSalle and Braidwood nuclear stations are at risk of closing.

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The announced closures create a big challenge for lawmakers in Springfield as they try to pull an ambitious clean-energy bill off a back burner, contend with a large number of moving pieces and enact a law that would make Illinois a leader in green energy.

Nuclear power critical to transition

Environmentalists have always seen nuclear energy — far cleaner than fossil fuels — as an important bridge to making Illinois a renewable energy state. Power from nuclear sources gives the state time to scale up renewable energy, such as wind and solar power.

Exelon has been signaling that a plan to close nuclear plants was coming, but the timing and the inclusion of the Byron plant was a surprise. The utility might be trying to force the state to act on stalled legislation before Exelon must make a decision about whether to lay out a huge sum to refuel the Byron and Dresden plants.

If the nuclear plants are closed, the same reprehensible Trump administration rules that are undermining nuclear and renewable energy will enable natural gas-fired power plants to fill the gap much more quickly than large renewable energy operations can. The gas-fired plants will grab the capacity on Illinois’ power grid freed up by the closing of the nuclear plants.

By the time large renewable energy facilities — hobbled by intentional Trump administration red tape — can react, the cost to add them to the power grid will be astronomical.

If that happens, Illinois will go backward on being a leader against climate change, and it will be a long time before we have the opportunity to right the ship again. Natural gas–fired plants will spew more greenhouse gases, including methane, into the atmosphere just at a time when we need to do all we can to keep the planet from overheating.

The key: Exelon must open its books

A lot of people feel burned by the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, which furthered a number of important clean-energy goals but also gave money to Exelon to keep nuclear power plants open. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has said that Exelon and its scandal-scarred subsidiary ComEd won’t have the same influence anymore to shape legislation, which is all to the good.

We can’t throw money at Exelon every time it threatens to close nuclear plants. We need certified independent financials for policymakers to review before a final law is written.

But that isn’t to say we can let Exelon take its ball and go home, either.

The signs are everywhere that Illinois needs a new clean-energy law. Ratepayers are in line to pay higher bills because Trump’s new rules favor fossil fuels. The state’s solar-installation program is about to fall over a cliff because solar power has turned out to be much more popular than envisioned when the 2016 law was passed. The state subsidies for solar installations in homes and businesses, which were expected to last 12 years, already have been used up and companies are laying off their sales staffs and preparing to leave the state.

The window is closing on this financial incentive for people in Illinois who might be receptive to solar installations on their roofs.

Make a deal happen

On Thursday, Pritzker’s spokeswoman hinted that Exelon’s subsidies from the 2016 bill might be reviewed. State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said he might push legislation requiring Exelon to put the targeted plants up for sale. A legislative working group met Thursday to discuss clean-energy legislation.

Pritzker has dragged his feet on clean-energy legislation. But the governor’s office has showed it can pull together complex legislation and make it happen.

The governor needs to do so — now — before Illinois is locked into fossil fuels for years to come.

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