SPRINGFIELD – After months of declining to endorse any specific plan to both get Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy and crack down on public utilities’ power in Springfield, Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday entered the already raucous fight with his own legislation that will compete with at least three other proposals that have already been introduced.
Pritzker’s plan incorporates some elements of the other already-proposed measures, including ending an energy rate formula lawmakers approved in 2011, championed by utility giants Commonwealth Edison and Ameren. The proposal would also phase out coal by 2030, and end natural gas use by 2045 by reducing caps on greenhouse gas emissions year over year, and implementing an $8 per ton carbon price on emissions from fossil fuel-fired electric plants.
Atop a fact sheet distributed to stakeholders Wednesday and obtained by NPR Illinois, Pritzker’s office said the governor “believes it is past time to combat climate change, hold utility companies accountable to the ratepayers they serve, and rapidly begin the transition to renewable energy.”
While “clean” energy legislation has been atop Pritzker’s wish list since entering office, the issue has taken on new urgency in the last year after ComEd signed off on a $200 million fine and admitted in a deferred prosecution agreement that the company engaged in a years-long bribery scheme attempting to curry favor with longtime former House Speaker Mike Madigan.
“A clean energy future must be an equitable future built by a diverse workforce and good-paying jobs, a future with clean air and water, a future where utility bills no longer burden Illinoisans, and a future where utility companies deliver electricity without corrupt practices,” Pritzker’s fact sheet said. “Illinois can and must lead on clean energy, and it must lead in the light of day — ethically, honestly, and toward the collective goal of empowering Illinoisans to lead the United States in transitioning to a clean energy economy.”
Pritzker’s energy proposal would prohibit utility companies from using ratepayer funds for charitable contributions, noting those are “often used to bolster their political power” as ComEd has been noted to donate to politicians’ preferred charities or churches. The plan also would require the Illinois Commerce Commission — the state’s utility regulator — to investigate whether ComEd used ratepayer funds in connection with its deferred prosecution agreement.
Madigan, who has not been charged, was identified as “Public Official A” in that July 17 filing, and was ousted as speaker by members of his own party after 36 years controlling the House in January.
In the fall, high-level lobbyists and consultants for ComEd and company officials with ComEd and Exelon were also indicted, including some of Madigan’s closest allies, like former state representative and longtime lobbyist Mike McClain and lobbyist John Hooker. Pritzker distanced himself from Madigan, and eventually said the speaker either needed to explain his involvement in the scheme or resign.
Ethics and Exelon
The political landscape has changed dramatically since lawmakers geared up the energy fight more than two years ago, with the introduction of progressives’ Clean Energy Jobs Act in early 2019 — just weeks after Pritzker was inaugurated.
With a crowded agenda during the governor’s first legislative session, negotiations on how Illinois could boost its renewable energy portfolio were spiked. But in the months that followed, Chicago news outlets began publishing a steady drip of stories hinting at federal investigators looking into connections between Madigan’s inner circle and ComEd/Exelon.
By September of that year, federal agents staged very public raids at the offices of politicians on the state and local level, and wide-ranging subpoenas revealed that, among other items, they were looking for information related to ComEd and Exelon.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw yet another wrench in plans to negotiate an energy bill, and after Madigan was identified as the nucleus of the ComEd bribery scheme, the former speaker was loathe to give lawmakers a forum to meet and consider his future, let alone legislation.
Though the feds made Exelon a target of its investigation, the company has not shied away from asking Springfield for subsidies to keep two nuclear plants — Byron Generating Station in north central Illinois and Dresden Generating Station in Chicago’s furthest southwest suburbs — open and operating. The request is similar to one Exelon made several years ago when it threatened to shutter its nuclear plants in Clinton and the Quad Cities, which prompted the General Assembly and then-Gov. Bruce Rauner to agree to the Future Energy Jobs Act in late 2016.
Nuclear power is central to a massive energy plan a group of moderate Democrats and a few Republicans introduced last month, dubbed “Climate Jobs Illinois,” which has the backing of organized trade labor. But Pritzker earlier this month released a study his office commissioned to determine the level of state support nuclear plants would actually need, which ended up being much smaller than Exelon’s ask. Lawmakers behind the labor-backed plan balked at that finding.
Pritzker’s newly released energy plan would provide “measured, short-term state support” for the Byron and Dresden plants but also require Exelon undergo an annual audit “to ensure any state support for the nuclear fleet is right-sized and offered only when necessary,” according to briefing documents.
If Exelon were to accept state subsidies under Pritzker’s plan, the company would be on the hook for returning that money if it shuttered a nuclear plant “without making a good faith effort to sell the plant first.”
State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), the lead sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, says ethics reforms for powerful utility companies must be central to whatever lawmakers end up passing, and maintains that only her legislation has stringent enough language to root out corruption stemming from the companies’ relationships with Springfield.
But ComEd this week disagreed with Williams and her allies’ proposals that would include a measure of restitution for ratepayers and an outside monitor. The company’s senior vice president of regulatory and energy policy, Veronica Gomez, told a House panel Tuesday that it was “not appropriate to make a conclusion here that some additional punishment is due” to ComEd beyond the feds’ fine.
The union-backed Climate Jobs Illinois also introduced ethics language last week after several news outlets published stories on that issue getting pushed to the back burner.
This post will be updated.