Power up a sensible Illinois energy law

A comprehensive energy bill needs to work first for Illinois, its people and the environment — not for Exelon.

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Environmentalists, consumer advocates and others have been working for years to put Illinois at the forefront of renewable energy.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

Someone should flick the “on” switch right about now for really smart clean energy legislation in Illinois.

Instead, nearly 50 Illinois lawmakers informed their leaders by letter on Wednesday that any comprehensive clean energy bill must firmly address climate change and job equity, or there’s no deal. It’s worrisome that the various players are still so far apart. Illinois can’t afford to let this legislative session end on May 31 without getting this job done.

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Environmentalists, consumer advocates and others have been working for years to put Illinois at the forefront of renewable energy. Now Exelon’s demand for far more money than expected to keep two money-losing nuclear power plants running is tying negotiations into a knot in the last days of the session.

Illinois needs to keep all its nuclear plants running to provide power as it transitions to renewable energy. But the state also needs to build up its renewable energy sources, find ways to conserve energy, provide help to those losing jobs in the fossil fuel industry, steer new jobs in clean energy to towns that need them, hold utilities to strict ethical standards and encourage solar installations — all things included in the proposed Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act. Illinois also needs to lock in deadlines for closing coal plants and decarbonizing the power sector. The legislation also should impose a fee on polluters to help pay for it all.

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On Wednesday afternoon, negotiations were continuing and the outline of a final bill was changing by the hour. But this didn’t have to go down to the wire. Labor unions, which would lose 1,000 good-paying jobs if the nuclear plants were closed, should be getting behind a comprehensive bill that would keep the plants open and provide prevailing wage standards on large wind and solar installations.

If Exelon shuts down two or more plants before renewable energy is scaled up sufficiently, new natural gas-powered plants would spring up to meet the power demand. If new fossil-fuel-burning infrastructure were built, Illinois could be stuck with that less preferable source of energy for another 50 or 60 years.

According to the Illinois Power Agency, renewable energy — primarily from wind — produced 8% of the electricity generated in Illinois in 2019, almost triple the amount in 2010. That’s a far cry from the goal of Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others of reaching 100% clean energy by 2050.

For three years, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition has been pushing CEJA, which provides a framework for what needs to be done. Let’s do it.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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