It’s not enough to close coal-powered energy plants in Illinois by 2045 — start reducing emissions now

Illinois and the nation must finally must get serious about combating climate change and not bequeathing an environmental disaster to our children and grandchildren.

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Pete Southerton and Tom Bradshaw, of solar energy contractor Certasun, install solar panels on a Northwest Side home May 17.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Another failure for renewable power in Illinois cannot be an option.

Early Wednesday, the state Senate passed a bill for clean energy that could put Illinois among the nation’s leaders. But it is missing a critical component: a timeline for reducing emissions from municipal-owned coal plants before they are closed for good along with natural gas-fired plants in 2045.

The House will have a chance to fix that. It should do so, and send the bill back to the Senate, which should concur with the House. The future of the planet depends on lawmakers and others in positions of influence reducing greenhouse gases, which trigger the climate change that already is ravaging the planet. 

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This is not a time when business interests or concerns about preserving every last job in the fossil fuel industry should take precedence. As a state and nation, we finally must get serious about combating climate change and not bequeathing an environmental disaster to our children and grandchildren. We don’t have time for political deals that put other interests first.

That said, there is in fact much to like in the Senate’s bill.

  • It eliminates fossil fuels from the power sector by 2045. That is a huge step toward fixing one of largest existential problems facing Illinois. The downstate Prairie State coal-power plant southeast of St. Louis is the nation’s seventh-biggest emitter of carbon pollution.
  • It nurtures renewable power by requiring that 40% of the state’s power come from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, by 2030 and 50% by 2040.
  • It supports – at a level no other state will do — jobs and a chance to start companies for people from disadvantaged communities in such clean energy areas as installing electric vehicle charging stations, building rooftop solar projects and retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient.
  • It includes an energy code communities can adopt that reduces carbon emissions from buildings.
  • It aims to put 1 million electric vehicles on the roads.
  • It encourages large vehicles such as buses and delivery trucks to go electric to improve air quality in environmental justice communities.
  • Unlike laws in some other states that proclaim lofty goals without explaining how to achieve them, the 980-page Senate bill spells out how the state plans to meet its objectives.

If it feels we have been close to a deal on clean energy legislation before, only to see deadlines slip by without action, it’s because that is what has happened over the past 312 years of work, which was started by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. And there are challenges this time as well. The bill must pass with super-majorities in both chambers.

Fortunately, only a quorum of senators and representatives have to be in Springfield to vote. Others can vote remotely, which gives the bill a better chance of getting the elusive 36 votes needed in the Senate and 71 needed in the House despite possible opposition from some downstate Democrats and most Republicans.

But lawmakers must act with due dispatch. Exelon says it will start closing nuclear power plants on Sept. 13 unless legislation is enacted, and the nuclear plants are needed to provide reliable, zero-carbon energy while the state ramps up renewable energy. Because of such constitutional requirements as reading a bill on three separate days, there is little time for delay.

In one of those arcane legislative twists, the Senate used one of its own bills as a vehicle instead of one the House sent over. That suggests the Senate is inviting the House to fix the bill and send it back. If the House does so, the Senate can vote only yes or no, without any new amendments. If the House does send a corrected bill back, it’s hard to see the Senate killing it.

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On Wednesday, clean energy supporters voiced cautious optimism, while saying outstanding issues must be resolved. The Path to 100 coalition called it “the strongest clean energy, pro-climate legislation in the country.” The Sierra Club Illinois said it represents “real progress toward a comprehensive climate and equity bill that delivers the future we want for Illinois and our planet.”

Because the Legislature acted too late to seize a chance to offset the costs of the energy bill, it will raise the average residential monthly electric rates by $3.51 a month. But if the Legislature acts quickly now, it can at least protect most of a $300 million kitty set aside to fund solar rooftop projects, which is being returned to ratepayers at a rate of $1 million a day, starting Wednesday.

We can’t say it strongly enough. Fix, and enact, this bill.

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