Don’t Go Backwards on Clean Energy, Hansen & Shellenberger Urge Environmentalists and Illinois Lawmakers


Time is running out for Illinois policymakers to protect Illinois’ largest source of clean, low-carbon electricity. Four weeks ago over 60 climate scientists and conservationists wrote an open letter to Illinois lawmakers, urging swift and fair action.

If Illinois legislators fail to act quickly to pass legislation, the state will lose 23 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources, and carbon emissions will skyrocket the equivalent of nearly 2 million cars, over the next two years, due to the loss of two nuclear plants, Clinton and Quad Cities.

After weeks of negotiations with consumer advocates and environmentalists, Illinois utilities Exelon and Commonwealth Edison have introduced new legislation, SB 1585, “The Next Generation Energy Plan,” that responds to concerns over Exelon’s prior Low-Carbon Portfolio Standard legislation, which would have mandated 70 percent low-carbon electricity and included nuclear. The new legislation replaces the LCPS with a Zero Emission Standard that will only apply to two economically distressed plants, Quad Cities and Clinton, not all of Exelon’s nuclear fleet.

The new proposal is good for consumers and good for the environment and we encourage Governor Rauner, Speaker Madigan, President Cullerton, other Illinois lawmakers, and other environmental groups, both inside and outside of Illinois, to support it. And we encourage Illinois utilities to be open to modest demands by environmental groups to achieve the necessary compromise.

All of the remaining sticking points between Exelon and most environmentalists are surmountable. Environmental groups would like to see a more rapid transition of a key market mechanism to allow greater renewable energy deployment where Exelon would like a slower one. But the gap is not wide — the sides indicate they may be just three years apart from each other — and should be bridgeable.

A much smaller sticking point is that environmental groups want to increase the Renewable Portfolio Standard from 25 percent by 2025 to 30 percent by 2030 — something Exelon does not have in SB 1585. But since environmental groups accept the limits on how much electricity rates can increase, here too a compromise solution should be easy.

Nuclear plants are in trouble around the U.S. because of federal and state policies that discriminate against them. Solar and wind receive 140 times and 17 times more in federal subsidies than nuclear. Nuclear plants are excluded from State-based Renewable Portfolio Standards, which exist in 30 states, including Illinois. If Illinois nuclear plants received a fraction of the subsidies solar and wind receive, or were included in the Illinois portfolio standard, there would be no need for this legislation. 

Environmental Progress would prefer to see a 100 percent zero emission standard by 2030, one that treats all sources of zero-carbon electricity — from solar and wind to nuclear and coal with carbon capture and sequestration — equally. But that is not going to happen this legislative session and so we encourage the Illinois legislature, Governor Rauner, environmental groups, labor unions, and others to put pressure on all sides to get a deal and pass a version of SB 1585 into law. 

In recent days and weeks, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) has made clear it wants to see the replacement of Illinois nuclear plants with natural gas and renewables. Reasonable environmental groups should reject any move away from zero emissions nuclear to carbon and methane-emitting natural gas. ELPC has a long history of blocking legislation by stalling, and should not be allowed to do that again now. 

It is also clear that the transition from nuclear to natural gas comes as a net jobs loss to Illinois. This is because Illinois does not produce natural gas, and the vast majority of the jobs in natural gas are on the production side not the generation side. As such, Illinois faces the net loss of about 1,500 jobs — not enough perhaps to matter to the state as a whole but devastating for the towns and regions that are home to the plants.

Thus a long-term commitment to natural gas, likely to increase demand for fracking, would be locked in, to the detriment of our climate and the future for young people. 

Solar and wind companies are taking a harder line against the legislation, and environmentalists and Illinois lawmakers should be skeptical of many of their demands. Net metering has proven extremely expensive and economically regressive in California and other states, transferring wealth from the poorest to the richest ratepayers — something Illinois, in its fragile economic situation, should not allow.

Wind and solar developers will benefit greatly from the legislation — which reforms the deployment incentives and provides an additional $140 million in subsidies; they should be sensitive to the economic challenges Illinois faces.

Illinois could be a leader or laggard when it comes to confronting this urgent threat to America’s response to air pollution and climate change. We urge Governor Rauner and legislators to pressure all sides to reach a compromise and prevent Illinois from going backwards on jobs and the environment.

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger is an award-winning author and environmental policy expert. For a quarter-century he has advocated solutions to lift all people out of poverty while lessening humankind's environmental impact.