With ComEd sidelined, a strong clean energy bill stands its best chance in years

By CST Editorial Board

There could be no more perfect time to push harder for more environmentally friendly renewable energy in Illinois. The Legislature should seize the day

Why isn’t Illinois charging ahead in reforming state policies with respect to all forms of energy — from fossil fuels to nuclear to solar to wind?

There could be no more perfect time.

With last month’s slap-down of ComEd by the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago, the Illinois Legislature and Gov. J.B. Pritzker have been presented with the state’s best chance in decades to produce a comprehensive clean energy policy that has not been unduly shaped by the politically powerful utility companies.

The Legislature and Pritzker should enact new rules that move the state toward 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030 and 100% renewable energy by 2050, which could create jobs without spending taxpayer money and attract billions of dollars of private investment. Those targets and possibilities are included in a draft Clean Energy Jobs Act bill, a promising framework for a good new law.

In short, instead of allowing utility companies to drive energy policy in Illinois, the discussion in Springfield can and should be led by a clear goal, set to an ambitious timetable, of providing far more climate-friendly, efficient and cost-effective energy to Illinois ratepayers.

Instead, we are told by legislators and environmental advocates, the Pritzker administration last month quietly and without explanation indefinitely “paused” the efforts of legislative working groups that were hammering out final details of the bill. As it happens, Gov. Pritzker has long supported clean energy and we urge him to come around now.

At stake are the growing use of renewable energy, greater protections for ratepayers, new jobs, assistance to displaced fossil-fuel-plant workers and environmental conservation.

Illinois lawmakers had a chance to pass energy legislation last summer, but put off a vote until spring, likely because they couldn’t predict in what direction the federal investigation into ComEd might go. Nobody wanted to sign on to a bill that might later be tainted by a scandal involving high-powered lobbyists.

Then this spring, COVID-19 swept in, forcing the Legislature to shorten its usual session, leaving little time for consideration of a complex energy bill.

And now, just as working groups of legislators were having what we’re told were “fruitful conversations,” we fear the bill is being put on the back burner again. This, at a time when Illinois, like the whole country, should be making an all-out effort to combat climate change.

Last month, ComEd admitted to steering jobs, contracts and payments to friends and allies of House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, D-Chicago, in an effort to gain more favorable treatment. Madigan himself has not been charged with wrongdoing, and the U.S. attorney’s office has presented no evidence that the speaker pulled any strings.

But the scandal has pushed ComEd’s vaunted Springfield lobbying operation to the sidelines, meaning lawmakers won’t be feeling the usual intense pressure tactics as they attempt to draw up and vote on a progressive new energy bill.

So what’s the hold-up?

The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is expected to announce Wednesday that the draft Clean Energy Jobs Act has been revised to include “utility accountability rules,” such as ending formula rates, which have allowed companies like ComEd to raise prices without going before the Illinois Commerce Commission. Such rules would seem essential given that many of the reforms to which ComEd has agreed as part of the deferred prosecution agreement involve self-policing.

Some lawmakers might still be reluctant to take action on the proposed energy bill because, in the end, it still will carve out a healthy role for Exelon, the owner of ComEd. Exelon operates all the nuclear power plants in Illinois, and it will be necessary for those plants to continue generating electricity until the state can ramp up its use of renewable energy from 8% to 100%.

As part of the last major Illinois energy bill, the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, Exelon secured valuable tax credits in exchange for not closing nuclear power plants, and Exelon has said it might need that help again.

Nuclear energy is environmentally objectionable in its own obvious way, but its continued use during a period of transition is no argument for voting against the Clean Energy Jobs Act. Home electricity bills are poised to shoot up, and Illinois is at risk of falling behind other states in attracting billions of dollars in renewable energy investment.

The Illinois Legislature should get on this during its November veto session, pandemic or no pandemic.

Read the entire piece at the Chicago Sun-Times.