Illinois is poised to pass a bill providing nearly $700 million in subsidies over five years to save unprofitable nuclear plants that are slated to shut down.
The state Legislature is slated to close the deal on Monday, as Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, state legislators of both parties, environmental groups, and labor unions are motivated to preserve thousands of jobs associated with the plants and to maintain Illinois’s status as the largest producer of nuclear power — a central element of the state’s clean energy ambitions.
“The only way we can get to zero-carbon and provide good, reliable electricity to the grid in Illinois is through nuclear,” Rep. David Welter, a leader for state House Republicans, who are in the minority, told the Washington Examiner. “We don’t have the technology and capability to build wind and solar that quickly.”
Welter is one of 11 Republicans who helped the Illinois House pass an energy policy overhaul late Thursday by a wide margin, 83-33, that includes a “carbon mitigation credit program” and provides financial support to Chicago-based utility Exelon’s Byron, Dresden, and Braidwood nuclear power plants.
The state Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure Monday, and Pritzker said he will sign it “as soon as possible because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not wait any longer.”
The action in Illinois comes as the Biden administration and Congress are interested in pursuing a federal program giving nuclear plants tax credits or other subsidies to keep America’s largest zero-carbon resource viable.
The bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill creates a $6 billion four-year credit program for nuclear reactors that would provide a big boost to existing nuclear reactors, potentially including others in Illinois.
But it would come too late for the pair of plants in Illinois at greatest risk.
Exelon has said it plans to shut down its Byron nuclear plant in northern Illinois — one of the nation’s largest that has been operating for almost four decades — on Monday without state action.
The plant needs to be refueled soon, a process that commits a nuclear plant to run for another two years, but Exelon won’t proceed with that investment without assurance of state subsidies. It has already ordered fuel for the plant that could be redirected to another nuclear unit in the state if the vote fails, according to Paul Adams, an Exelon spokesman.
“With so much at stake for our employees, plant communities, consumers, and the environment, we have gone to extraordinary lengths and considerable cost to establish off-ramps that will allow us to reverse the retirement of Byron up until the last moment,” Adams said.
Dresden is not scheduled to close until November, providing a longer runway for action. The Braidwood plant is not currently scheduled to retire, but Exelon claims it is also “at risk” due to low power prices resulting from competition from natural gas and renewables — the same factors imperiling Byron and Dresden.
The nuclear aid is part of a larger clean energy bill putting Illinois on the path to a carbon emissions-free electric grid by 2045, one of the fastest timelines in the nation.
The package is expected to increase power bills for the average residential customer in Illinois by about $4.50 per month, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The bill stalled for months over the summer due to issues establishing a process for shutting down municipality-owned coal plants in the southern part of the state, including the Prairie State Generating Station, Illinois’s newest and largest coal plant.
Under the latest version of the bill, the coal plants would have to cut emissions by 45% by 2035 and entirely by 2045.
But if they miss the interim target, the plants would get an additional three years to either shut down generating units to achieve the 45% reduction or retire.
The bill would require most coal plants to close by the end of the decade and natural gas plants to shut down by 2045.
The package, one of the largest energy policy bills ever pursued in a state legislature, would also create a Green Bank to support renewable power buildout, encourage the replacement of coal facilities with solar and energy storage systems, accelerate the electrification of homes and buildings, provide funding to fossil fuel-dependent areas, and invest in building electric vehicle charging stations and transmission lines.
However, keeping the nuclear plants online is considered crucial to meeting the clean energy targets, as nuclear is the nation’s largest zero-carbon power source.
Nine nuclear reactors have prematurely retired in the United States since 2012 due to economic factors associated with the low price of natural gas and renewables, according to the Clean Air Task Force.
To stave that off, at least five states with aggressive clean energy targets have implemented credit programs to reward nuclear plants for providing zero-carbon electricity.
That includes Illinois, which passed a law in 2016 providing 10 years of zero-emissions credits to the Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants operated by Exelon.
If Exelon shuts down its other nuclear plants before renewable energy is scaled up, coal and natural gas plants will run more frequently to meet the power demand, as has happened historically when nuclear plants retire prematurely.
“Existing nuclear plants provide clean, firm electricity to the grid,” said Brent Rampal, director of nuclear innovation for Clean Air Task Force. “The intermittent variable renewables are great at supporting growth, but seasonal variation has to be made up somewhere.”
Washington Examiner Videos