Illinois’ New Energy Bill: Winds of Change in Springfield
In the 11th hour, after arduous negotiations, and with so much at stake, the Illinois state legislature passed a sweeping Energy Bill earlier this month and Governor Pritzker signed it into law on September 15th. As the fanfare, celebrations, and critiques of the transformative bill ebb into the background, we now have some perspective to look back on the crafting and passage of this momentous legislation and a framework to ponder: what does it mean for the future?
For starters, it will serve as a blueprint for legislation that is more legislator-driven. “You could say the process for this legislation looked a lot different than others,” remarked Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago). “We’ve been considering energy policy and reviewing the issues for the past two years -- engaging working groups and subject matter experts.” Williams noted this was different from previous energy legislation, which was largely crafted in a conference room at one of the big energy providers. This time around, the legislators worked hard to fortify their knowledge, get up-to-speed and debate the issues, and put together something that would have real and lasting benefit to their communities.
“The Pandemic added even more challenges, but we kept negotiating, often in small teams to hammer out fine details,” recalled Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Peru), underscoring the effort. “Towards the very end, I was concerned it might all break down, but Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) kept it going.” The vote was closer in the Senate (37-17) than in the House (83-33), but the passage prompted Exelon to halt its announced shutdowns for two of its power plants and those residents collectively sighed in relief!
“It was a unique approach,” remarked Rep. Dave Vella (D-Rockford). “But with all those good jobs at stake, and the greener future we all need, we had to get this done for our communities.” Vella added that going forward, this bill can continue to be a touchstone for local job opportunities. “This paves the way for other things, like fan blades for a wind farm as just an example. It would be good if local Illinois factories could provide materials or manufacturing for some of these clean energy projects.”
And if you thought the one about the labor leader discussing policy with an environmental proponent is the start of a joke, think again. That happened consistently in the crafting of the energy bill, according to Terry McGoldrick IBEW Local 15 President and Business Manager, who said he was down in Springfield often this summer, speaking with climate groups and others in an effort to build a consensus.
McGoldrick pointed to another notable feature of this bill - the amount of community involvement. “The amount of grassroots effort in this was amazing,” the union leader, who represents 1500 electrical workers across the state and advocates for other skilled workers like plumbers, pipe-fitters and carpenters. “I heard from fire personnel, police, teachers, parents, local city council members -- you name it. Their input was definitely significant.”
This bill affected such a wide swath of people that climate activists, labor advocates, and communities facing power plant closures, all rallied like never before, developing websites and social media platforms to share information, create awareness, and issue calls for action to their supporters. The Friends of Dresden Nuclear Station Facebook page, as just one example, totals over 4000 followers. In this way, groups were able to build up followers on these platforms and then quickly notify them about updates, the need to submit witness slips, or to take other action with messages that were quickly viewed and shared by thousands of everyday people.
“This was truly an effort of regular people from all across Illinois. They were sending letters, emails, making phone calls; it was a total effort,” McGoldrick marveled. “To me this bill is all about our communities, not political parties, and it’s great to see so many people in our communities get involved.”
The buzzword associated with this bill all summer long -- the one thing that kept coming up as a sticking point -- was decarbonization. In simplest terms, reducing carbon emissions is a goal to combat climate change and it’s an issue in energy legislation because generating coal and natural gas power emit carbon into the atmosphere. Climate activists pursued plans to rapidly eliminate these carbon emissions, while labor groups and others favored a longer timeline. Renewable energy generation (wind, solar and water), along with nuclear-generated power are carbon-free. So, a big focus of the legislation was on the combination of building up renewable power generation (because the nascent renewable sector alone cannot produce nearly enough energy to power the state) and sustaining nuclear power.
“We need to recognize that it has solid decarbonization provisions in it,” Rep. Williams, chair of the Illinois Green Caucus, noted. “It was a non-starter for us to consider passing a bill without these standards in it -- and, as a result, what we have with this legislation is a climate bill, not an energy bill.” Williams pointed out that neighboring states were making strides in this direction, but with this bill, Illinois will become a leader: “It’s good to be back, leading the pack.”
To meet decarbonization goals and still provide a reliable energy source, Sen. Rezin said, “We need to preserve nuclear power, because if that generation goes offline, what do we have to replace it?” More than half the power generated in Illinois today is from nuclear sources. The provision to subsidize nuclear power in Illinois will also preserve thousands of good-paying jobs, something Rezin and labor leader McGoldrick are particularly pleased to point out.
Ratepayers will face an increase in their monthly energy bills, but estimates about how much vary. Still, the bill found support from many who believed its costs would be offset by its benefits, including a utility watchdog group that advocates for consumers.
“When all is said and done, we think that this is going to make Illinois a leader on cost-effective clean-energy policy, and we thoroughly expect that electric bills will be lower than they would be otherwise than if no bill had passed,” Citizens Utility Board Executive Director David Kolata told The State Journal-Register.
Benefits of Wind Farms
For a quick glimpse of what a shift to green energy production might look like, check out Lee County, outside the town of Dixon, Ill., where the boyhood home of former President Ronald Regan is located. There, the very first wind farm in the state of Illinois -- Mendota Hills -- was built over 17 years ago, according to Wendy Ryerson, Lee County Administrator.
“You could say we are very pro-renewable energy,” Ryerson said. The county is in varying stages (concept, plans, approval, building, completed) of nearly a dozen wind farms and solar initiatives. “These projects often create building jobs in construction and are also a source to help sustain local taxing districts.”
For each megawatt the wind farms produce, Lee County generates about $13,000 in tax dollars. Ryerson was previously the county assessor and it was her work on the state’s first wind farm in 2004 that developed the valuation methodology the legislature later adopted. So, the recent project proposed by JP Morgan Chase for a 22 turbine, 108 megawatt wind farm in Lee County, in addition to the more than 650 megawatts from other wind projects (when completed), will result in a tidy amount of revenue for municipal coffers.
A Work In Progress
The legislators interviewed for this article all agreed that the energy bill, totaling just under 1,000 pages, will also be revisited. “We will continually evaluate and assess how it’s working,” said Rep. Williams. “For example, we’re not just going to say it’s providing opportunities for underserved populations, we will check to make sure it is.”
This sentiment was echoed by Sen. Rezin, who added “This is a large bill, and parts of it might be imperfect, so we need to make sure it mirrors the intent of our talks.”
And finally, the state bill may be augmented by federal legislation to encourage carbon-free energy policies, which the current administration has talked about doing. If this comes to pass, it would likely bolster these state initiatives. After the twists and turns Illinois has gone through with its own energy bill, nobody is betting if, or when, the federal government could accomplish something similar; and meantime, there is still plenty of work to do right here at the state level.
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