Fossil fuels will win big if Illinois can't pass an energy bill including nuclear power this year
Last Monday, Gov. Pritzker announced he would be seeking re-election. The video posted to social media highlighted his efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. "In Washington, science took a back seat to politics. But in Illinois, we knew the stakes were too high," it states.
However, Illinois politics, with the governor in the middle of it, threatens to derail a crucial clean energy bill with devastating consequences for the state and its carbon emissions.
With the legislative deadline of May 31 in the rearview mirror, environmentalists and organized labor still haven't reached agreement on a bill to put in front of legislators. As a result, two nuclear plants representing more than 30% of Illinois' carbon-free electricity are marching toward premature, and permanent, closure this fall. That's twice as much power due to close as all the wind turbines in the state generated last year.
In 2019, Pritzker signed an executive order committing Illinois to the Paris Climate Agreement.
"We know that climate change is real. We know it's a threat. And we know we must act," he said.
Yet, emissions from electricity in Illinois are up 36% through May 31 from last year. This means Pritzker is overseeing the largest post-pandemic bounceback in emissions in the nation, a number which will get substantially worse if the nuclear plants are lost in just a few short months.
Given the governor's commitment to growing clean energy and combating climate change, one has to wonder why he's setting himself up to have a worse record than his one-term, climate-quiet Republican predecessor.
Under legislation signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois' electricity sector saw a massive drop in carbon emissions from 89 million tons of CO2 in 2014 before he took office down to 63 million tons in 2019. Then, with no further changes to Illinois energy law, and with all of the state's nuclear plants running full-out during the pandemic, emissions plunged to about 40 million tons.
How did Rauner do this? The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) awarded Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs) to the Quad Cities and Clinton nuclear plants in order to properly value them for their round-the-clock, carbon-free electricity. This protected them from being pushed off the grid by cheap natural gas and subsidized, out-of-state renewables. Economists from Carnegie Mellon found that by signing this bill, Rauner actually ended up lowering the cost of electricity to consumers while protecting thousands of clean energy jobs.
If the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants close in September and November, respectively, they will be replaced by fossil fuels from surrounding states, along with the very same Illinois coal plants Gov. Pritzker says he wants to close. This will result in an emissions spike of at least 20 million tons in carbon above the current spike, as well as the substantial elimination of clean energy jobs and tax revenue.
Given the stakes, what is holding up the deal? Ironically, it's the fate of a handful of fossil power plants, as all sides have agreed to support nuclear.
Just a few coal and gas plants remain the sticking point with the governor and environmental groups. They've stated that continued operation of these plants past future closure deadlines is unacceptable.
Rather than demanding compromise legislation now from Democratic Senate President Dan Harmon to vote on and sign into law, and afterward using the next 14 years to replace the final remaining coal and gas plants, Pritzker and senators backed by the big environmental nonprofits are risking losing massive amounts of clean energy from nuclear that needs help today.
Gov. Pritzker, Senate President Harmon, and environmental groups are playing a dangerous game of chicken with carbon emissions. In order to get a total coal and natural gas phaseout locked into the calendar, they're risking a massive, potentially permanent, emissions jump if we lose nuclear this year.
There is a fearful asymmetry in this game of chicken: if an energy bill isn't passed, the fossil fuel industry wins by default.
With the nuclear plants gone, fossil fuels take charge. Worse, there will be no retirement deadline for any coal or gas plants. Rather than ensuring almost all coal closes, Illinois will be more reliant on fossil fuels than ever.
Without action now, Byron and Dresden will close. We need leadership now from the governor and Senate President Don Harmon, or Republicans will be able to run on the wretched record of Democrats on emissions -- and unlike Rauner, Pritzker won't even have cheaper bills to show for it.
If the Pritzker administration really prioritizes science over politics, he must do what it takes to protect Illinois' largest source of reliable, carbon-free electricity. Otherwise Illinois needs a new governor who will put real carbon reduction in the front seat, because, as the governor says, the stakes are too high.
• Madison Czerwinski, of Chicago, is the Executive Director of Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal and a Women Leaders in Energy Fellow at the Atlantic Council