Greising: A Strong Clean-Energy Bill Will Be Good for Pritzker—And Good for the State

And just such a bill—including true measures of reform and finally shutting down carbon-polluting coal-fired power plants—is now within the governor’s grasp.

Steam billows from the cooling towers at Exelon's nuclear power generating station February 17, 2006 in Byron, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Ethics reform flopped. Redistricting turned out at least as bad—no, worse—than even Republicans and gerrymandering critics had feared.

And the so-called clean-energy bill, the third piece of unfinished business state lawmakers addressed when they returned to Springfield for a planned one-day session Aug. 31, might actually deliver, of all things, a chance at cleaner energy.

The benefits might not stop there. Along with the closure of coal and natural gas plants, the bill could yet deliver good jobs and a small measure of accountability for Commonwealth Edison. And if that does happen, it will be thanks in part to some stubborn but effective leadership from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

To get there, Pritzker and the proponents of clean energy have needed to accept aspects they likely wouldn’t have endorsed when negotiations heated up in the spring. For example, Pritzker originally wanted to close all the state’s coal plants by 2030. As we stand today, the target is now 2045.

Few people outside of Exelon and its Commonwealth Edison subsidiary wanted to be stuck in a position where the utility sets the timetable for negotiations. But here we are: By making a plausible threat to shut down the Byron nuclear plant beginning Sept. 13—with the Dresden plant slated to follow—Exelon indeed has dictated the timeline.

The deadline was an exercise of power, and not the kind that lights homes and factories.

Yet as it happens, that Sept. 13 target date might just work to the benefit of Pritzker, environmentalists and good-government advocates. The nearly two weeks remaining provide ample time to reach a deal, with the deadline providing all parties motivation to get to yes.

Exelon has plenty to like. In a version of the bill that passed the Senate on Aug. 31, it secured a commitment for ratepayer subsidies totaling $700 million over five years that would go toward four Exelon nuclear plants: Byron and Dresden, as well as the Braidwood and LaSalle County plants.

Business interests and customers disapprove of the subsidies. Many are disappointed that meaningful “accountability measures” for the utility seem to be wanting. And there is a fair question about whether the $700 million in subsidies to keep the plants running is excessive. But negotiators trying to reach a deal seem willing to pay those prices. 

As regards the rest of the package, Pritzker clearly feels he has a strong negotiating position. He has cast his lot with the environmentalists, which will be good for his re-election campaign. And so far, he is backing his rhetoric with action.

The Legislature seemed to be moving toward a deal during the marathon Aug. 31 talks. But then Pritzker’s office issued a statement saying the bill needs to “lead with ethics and transparency.”

Contrast that firm stand with the way Pritzker handled ethics-reform proposals during the spring session. When a push from the governor would have mattered, Pritzker steadfastly refused to push an ethics agenda, stating it was the Legislature’s job to conduct its business.

This time, in the early days of a re-election campaign, the governor is deploying the language of leadership. And the measure of his commitment will come in the final language of the bill.

Whatever ethics and accountability provisions survive should be gauged against the checklist Pritzker’s office distributed as negotiations were heating up last April: prohibiting utilities from converting ratepayer funds into charitable contributions meant to curry favor with politicians, for example. And requiring the Illinois Commerce Commission to investigate whether ratepayer funds went toward the $200 million penalty in ComEd’s deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors.

In the end, the controversial Prairie State coal-fired plant in the Metro East region of southern Illinois will be the litmus test of Pritzker’s commitment to clean energy.

From the start, the Pritzker administration has pushed for a phaseout of coal-fired power during the years leading up to the closure. But Prairie State’s backers pushed back. They wanted to keep burning, full bore, until the plant’s official shutdown nearly a quarter century from now.

And besides the usual crowd of industry cohorts and labor interests backing the plant’s position, Prairie State also was buttressed by dozens of municipalities that are financial backers, and also customers, of the huge coal plant. If Pritzker does stand his ground, there may be political costs in those communities.

Bottom line, though, a strong clean-energy bill would be good for Pritzker and good for the state. And just such a bill—including true measures of reform and finally shuttering Prairie State, a major coal plant in Springfield and other sources of carbon pollution—is within the governor’s grasp.

With Exelon’s Sept. 13 deadline looming, Pritzker might just get the job done.