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Exelon Won’t Shut Down Two Plants After Ill. Senate Passes Last-Minute Energy Deal

JuanPablo Ramirez Franco/WNIJ

Nuclear giant Exelon will spare its power plant in Byron from slated closure Monday after the Illinois Senate passed massive energy and climate legislation that includes nearly $700 million in ratepayer subsidies to keep three of Exelon’s unprofitable nukes afloat.

The subsidies had actually been agreed to for months, but a fight over how to reduce Illinois’ reliance on fossil fuel-derived energy held up a final deal all summer as the deadline to Byron’s scheduled shut-down date drew nearer. Finally last week, negotiators settled on a deal to put Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050, which creates more ratepayer subsidies for wind and solar projects in addition to mandating carbon emission reduction and eventual closure of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants.

Read more: Days Before Critical Deadline, Ill. House Approves Measure To Overhaul State’s Energy Future

Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), who had been at loggerheads all summer with Gov. JB Pritzker and environmental groups over the best way to deal with fossil fuel shutdowns, said Monday that he was irritated with pundits framing the issue as any sort of zero sum sport.

“This isn’t a game. What we do here affects people’s lives and livelihood,” Harmon said in closing debate on the bill. “The people in Byron don’t think this is a game. Their schools, their tax base, their economic existence hinges on what we do here. My 17-year-old daughter Maggie doesn’t think that this is a game. She’s been wondering for far too long if the grown-ups are going to do anything to leave her a habitable world.”

Though Democratic leaders in the Senate and Gov. JB Pritzker indicated they’d OK the bill after it passed the House late Thursday night, the company waited until the deal was through the Senate Monday afternoon to announce it would move ahead on refueling both the Byron plant and the Dresden Generating station in Morris, which was scheduled for permanent closure in November.

The five-year subsidy will also prevent Exelon from closing its plant in Braidwood, but will also mean that of Illinois’ six nuclear plants — all run by Exelon — five will officially be propped up by ratepayer subsidies approved by the General Assembly. A 2016 law saved nukes in Clinton and the Quad Cities by allowing Exelon to collect $235 million in annual ratepayer subsidies until 2027.

But the pressure from organized labor to save thousands of jobs at those plants, in addition to the acknowledgement by environmental groups that preserving Illinois’ nuclear fleet is the only way to bridge the gap to an Illinois far more reliant on renewable energy.

The aging nuclear power plant in Byron is the community’s anchor, and with its planned disappearance, locals warned there would be no community left.

“We have an opportunity here today to vote on a bill that literally will save tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of thousands of ancillary vote and billions and billions of dollars of economic impact in our state,” State Sen. Mike Hastings (D-Tinley Park) said Monday.

State Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) was one of two Republicans to vote in favor of the legislation Monday, compared with nearly a quarter of GOP members in the Illinois House last week.

Rezin, whose exurban district contains half of Illinois’ nuclear fleet, guessed the bill was the largest job-related legislation she’d voted on since taking office in 2010.

“While I don’t agree with everything that’s included in this legislation, this bill will preserve thousands of jobs and keep our vitality and keep our important nuclear fleet online,” Rezin said. “Without this bill, any hope of bringing a carbon-free energy future to Illinois by 2050 will be all but impossible.”

But most of her Republican colleagues urged votes against the bill, warning of more expensive energy and reliability issues down the line if renewable energy does not live up to its stated goals.

Illinois’ major business associations opposed the bill, citing the state’s low energy costs and notable reliability as bright spots in what those trade organizations consider a largely unfriendly business climate.

Despite serving as chief sponsor of the 2016 bill that bailed out two Exelon plants and set up a renewable energy subsidy program, State Sen. Chapin Rose railed against the legislation passed by the Senate Monday. Rose asserted Democrats’ motivation in passing an energy and climate plan he considers half-baked lay in “issu[ing] press releases that you’re getting rid of carbon.”

“Hoozah!,” Rose mocked. “Look at us, yay! We’re clean! We’re clean and green! What’s going to come back from Indiana and Kentucky, folks? It’s carbon! But we’re going to pay more for it.”

Democrats countered that mechanisms in the legislation will force regular reliability studies and would stop energy sources from going offline if they were truly needed.

Democrats acknowledge the total cost of the legislation will mean more for ratepayers’ bills, though the exact sum is not settled and estimates vary widely. But State Sen. Celina Villanueva (D-Chicago) defended the monetary cost by comparing it with the environmental costs and poorer health outcomes for people in her district, which includes Little Village, where a developer last spring demolished a long-decommissioned coal plant smokestack sending dust for blocks.

“I have a lot of folks that are wanting and really asking for renewable sources of energy — the same community that also pushed very very hard to decommission this power plant,” Villanueva said.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.