What’s in a clean energy bill?

Environment Illinois's take on the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act

Clean energy

If you’ve been on twitter in the last week, or read a news headline, you’ve probably seen that Illinois just passed a big energy bill. As an environmental advocate, half of my email inbox and 90% of my twitter feed has been some iteration of “we won!” or “congratulations!” And each celebratory message has caused a slight pang, because Environment Illinois stood apart from our coalition partners this time — we did not support the bill. 

Our organization and the rest of our national network have been calling for a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy for years, and we’ve been at the forefront of campaigns winning such commitments in five states. So why wouldn’t we support a bill that sets a timeline for Illinois to reach 100 percent clean energy? 

It comes down to the fact that this bill, at its core, is as much a bailout as an environmental boon.

In fairness, the bill does accomplish some big things, and contains important policies that support renewable energy. It sets a target for Illinois to achieve 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050, and sets shorter-term emissions reduction targets for some of the most polluting coal plants in the state. It supports energy efficiency programs that would save energy and money for consumers simultaneously. And it sets a goal of putting one million electric vehicles on the roads in Illinois by 2030. We’re excited Illinois is taking these important steps forward.

But with all this good, the single biggest investment the bill makes is in profits for Commonwealth Edison, the northern Illinois utility which last year entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors after admitting to what prosecutors describe as a corrupt bribery scheme to pass utility-friendly policies through the state legislature. 

Consumers are paying more for ComEd profits than for a clean energy future.

An analysis by AARP found that the bill would result in up to a $15 monthly increase for ComEd customers’ utility bills in ten years, and that “the largest single cost driver …  is not the increase in renewable energy funding or the equitable and jobs training, but it is the increase to ComEd’s profits.” Every dollar spent on ComEd’s profits is a dollar not going towards renewable energy or other investments necessary to deal with the climate crisis. Unnecessary rate hikes will make it harder in the future to put additional ratepayer dollars towards renewable energy – so the problem isn’t just a lack of accountability for ComEd, it’s the detrimental effect this could have on future funding for renewables. 

ComEd has been a perennial bad actor regarding renewable energy development in Illinois, because the growth of renewable energy directly threatens the profits of its parent company Exelon, as an owner of expensive nuclear power plants. For years, ComEd refused to approve community solar projects until state law changed to end “net metering,” which provides customers with solar panels fair compensation for the excess electricity they provide back to the grid. And after the state’s primary funding mechanism for renewable development broke down as an inadvertent consequence of another policy change, ComEd and Exelon used their political power to stop a fix until they could leverage it to pass the $2.3 billion Exelon bailout in 2016. Illinois needs to transition to renewable energy as quickly as possible to meet the demands of the changing climate, and we simply can’t afford to continue to pour money into the pockets of a utility that has leveraged political power to block clean energy time and again. 

And there’s more. 

Exelon’s nuclear plants are receiving at least double the needed subsidies.

Another $694 million is allocated to funding for nuclear plants owned by Exelon, parent company of ComEd. While nuclear energy is less safe and more expensive than renewables, there is a case to be made for keeping some nuclear plants open in the short term, because that would help us avoid new gas power plant construction. But, especially in light of the generous bailouts given to Exelon’s nuclear plants in the past, the general assembly should provide subsidies only as necessary to keep those plants open. Last April, Governor Pritzker’s office released an independent study that recommended $185-350 million over five years to subsidize nuclear plants. We endorsed the governor’s energy bill that was introduced in May, which included that level of subsidization. But the current bill includes twice that much funding, without justification. 

Of course, any bill will entail compromise. As an organization, we have to weigh the good against the bad and decide if it’s worth it. Given Illinois politics, we expected that ComEd and Exelon would take home some goodies in any climate bill. But in this year of all years, after a utility bribery scandal that garnered national media attention and the end of Mike Madigan’s 38-year speakership, the general assembly had a chance to pass a better deal. They failed to do so.

I’m proud that Illinois now has a commitment to 100% clean energy, and a timeline to reach that goal. It’s just deeply unfortunate that in the same legislation, we’re investing so much in actors who have repeatedly stood in the way of a clean energy future. 


Paloma Paez-Coombe

Associate, Environment Illinois

Paloma lives in Chicago, where she loves to cook, garden, and explore nearby forest preserves.

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