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Energy bill gets kick start from state Senate — but clock is ticking to keep it from sputtering out

Senate President Don Harmon said he believes the energy proposal can be on the governor’s desk “in a matter of days.” Exelon issued its own deadline Wednesday, arguing it will need to close the Byron nuclear power plant unless lawmakers pass a bill before Sept. 13.

Steam escapes from Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron in 2011. A massive energy policy overhaul aimed at making Illinois a fully renewable-energy state by 2050 cleared the Senate early Wednesday.
Steam escapes from Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron in 2011. A massive energy policy overhaul aimed at making Illinois a fully renewable-energy state by 2050 cleared the Senate early Wednesday.
Robert Ray/AP file

After months of fruitless negotiations, the state Senate advanced an overhaul of Illinois’ energy sector early Wednesday, a piece of legislation the chamber’s top Democrat said could be ready for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign into law in “a matter of days.”

But lawmakers in the House — which adjourned Tuesday night without setting a return date — will have their work cut out for them just to avoid a Sept. 13 closure date for an Exelon nuclear plant and to address outstanding concerns of environmentalists, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others at the negotiating table.

That didn’t stop some legislators and advocates from celebrating the jolt of energy in the long stalled legislative effort.

State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, called the bill the Senate passed early Wednesday morning the “most complicated” legislation he’s negotiated during his time in the General Assembly.

Despite the difficulties surrounding getting the measure to the floor for a vote, the Oak Park Democrat said he believes House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Pritzker agree that lawmakers could get the energy proposal to the governor’s desk “in a matter of days.”

State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, shakes hands with state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, on the floor of the Senate early Wednesday.
State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, shakes hands with state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, on the floor of the Senate early Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Pritzker was not quite as sanguine.

His spokeswoman issued a statement about addressing “drafting errors” in the bill that carried potential “unintended legal consequences” and the need to work with the House on final legislation “that puts consumers and climate first.”

Exelon issued its own save the date on Wednesday, arguing it will need to close the Byron nuclear power plant in less than two weeks — and the Dresden plant soon after — unless lawmakers pass a bill in time.

“To be clear, Byron will run out of fuel and will permanently shut down on September 13 unless legislation is enacted,” Paul Adams, Exelon’s spokesman, said in a statement. “We have been clear that we cannot refuel Byron on September 13 or Dresden in November absent policy changes.”

Uncertainty over what comes next didn’t stop sponsor state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, from lauding the legislation as “the most equitable, diverse and inclusive clean energy bill in the entire country.”

State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, center, is congratulated after the omnibus energy bill passes the Senate in the early morning hours Wednesday.
State Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Tinley Park, center, is congratulated after the omnibus energy bill passes the Senate in the early morning hours Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Hastings said the nearly 1,000-page package includes:

  • The creation of a statewide clean energy goal of 100% by 2050 and a renewable energy goal of 50% by 2040
  • Requires utilities to create a chief ethics and compliance officer who must submit annual reports to the Illinois Commerce Commission
  • Requires the closure of all private natural gas facilities by 2045
  • And provides money for the Byron, Dresden and Braidwood nuclear plants for five years.

Senate Republicans were largely against the bill, though some did vote to advance it.

Some, such as state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, took issue with the bill coming up for discussion around midnight, saying “every time something remotely controversial comes up in this chamber — midnight.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, said, “Just when you think this legislative body couldn’t make it any harder for taxpayers and working families to stay in, and thrive in, Illinois someone writes another hyper-partisan, activist bill making it worse.”

“It’s time that we stand up for working people instead of demanding that they continue to carry the load for your woke, unrealistic agenda,” Bailey told Democrats.

State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, gives his remarks on the omnibus energy bill on the floor of the Senate early Wednesday.
State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, gives his remarks on the omnibus energy bill on the floor of the Senate early Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

“Let me ask you this: What’s going to happen when inevitably we can’t meet our base-load energy demands? We will have to pay more to import dirtier energy from other states. ... This is insanity and doesn’t do a darn thing to make a significant difference for the environment, but it further destroys opportunity and our economy in Illinois.”

Harmon said the legislation sends a message that “we are serious about tackling this problem in a way that makes Illinois the epicenter of the green economy.”

In a committee meeting Tuesday before the measure reached the Senate floor, environmentalists said the bill didn’t go far enough in putting people and climate first.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing the planet will continue to warm,” Juliana Pino, the policy director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said Tuesday. “The status quo is not sufficient to address climate and the current bill in front of us is also not sufficient to comprehensively address climate we have to solve for that.”

Despite the division, the legislation passed 39-16 with two members voting present.

After the Senate vote, Harmon said he’s “worried that inaction is far worse than action even if we recognize there’s more work to be done.”

“I’m worried about the folks who are wondering whether they’re going to have a job tomorrow,” Harmon said. “I’m worried about the business investments here in the state of Illinois, and I’m worried about our climate and its impact not only on us and our children and grandchildren but the entire planet.”

State Senate President Don Harmon in 2017.
State Senate President Don Harmon in 2017.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Some groups that have been at the negotiating table applauded the legislation’s advance.

In a statement, the Path to 100 coalition, which is comprised largely of renewable energy groups, said the bill would “reverse the job losses” and “make the state the national leader in growing equitable clean energy jobs and fighting climate change.”

Climate Jobs Illinois, a coalition of labor organizations, called the Senate’s vote a “major step forward for Illinois after multiple failed efforts in previous years to reach even that milestone.”

Exelon has initiated plans to decommission its Byron and Dresden nuclear power plants because of the lack of clean energy legislation.

Adams said in a statement Exelon has “no choice but to continue preparing” for the “premature retirement” of those plants, but there have been “off-ramps” established “that will allow us to reverse that decision if lawmakers pass legislation with enough time for us to safely refuel the plants.

This 2011 photo shows steam escaping from Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill.
This 2011 photo shows steam escaping from Exelon Corp.’s nuclear plant in Byron, Ill.
Robert Ray/AP file

The Exelon spokesman said the closure of those plants would result in an immediate increase in air pollution that would be the equivalent of adding 4.4 million cars to the road “as fossil plants ramp up production to replace their carbon-free energy.”

House members will likely be tasked with reworking pieces of the legislation, including those dealing with the state’s solar industry, when they begin their negotiations.

In a statement after the Senate vote, a spokeswoman for Pritzker said the governor’s office looks forward to working with members of the House to finalize an energy package “that puts consumers and climate first.”

“The governor’s office is in discussions with stakeholders to ensure that Prairie State [coal plant in southern Illinois] and [Springfield’s City, Water, Light and Power’s] closure in 2045 includes real interim emissions reductions consistent with previous bill drafts, and is committed to working with the General Assembly to address some drafting errors in the Senate bill that the governor raised during talks today because they could have unintended legal consequences,” the spokeswoman said.