Agreement on ‘broader energy package’ proving difficult for legislators, stakeholders
By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – A package of bills aimed at transforming the state’s energy landscape appears unlikely to move during the upcoming fall veto session after Gov. J.B. Pritzker was less than optimistic on the subject this week at an unrelated Chicago news conference.
“It’s certainly something that’s being considered as part of a broader energy package,” Pritzker said of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, one of the main bills backed by green energy advocates. “I don’t know that we’ll be able to get to it during the veto session.”
The Clean Energy Jobs Act, or CEJA, and a series of other bills faltered at the end of the regular legislative session in May after several committee hearings. Legislators and stakeholders at the time said their goal was to revive the bills for fall veto session, which begins Oct. 28.
While it looks like the reforms are once again on the back burner until at least January, Pritzker spoke in support of CEJA at Monday’s news conference and said Illinois is already falling short of goals that require the state to hit 16 percent renewable energy generation by 2020.
“We only have about 7 percent of our power being generated by wind and less than 1 percent by solar. We can do so much better, and we need to continue that drive toward renewables and toward clean energy policies,” he said at the news conference Monday.
In August, Vistra Energy, one of the leading energy producers in downstate Illinois, closed four of its eight coal-fired power plants in the state, accelerating calls for energy reforms from various industry players.
Despite those calls, uncertainty has surrounded the energy conversation as Exelon, the parent company of northern Illinois energy supplier ComEd and one of the main advocates for capacity market reforms, has been under federal investigation for its lobbying activities, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Capacity market reforms are also a key piece of CEJA, currently contained in House Bill 3624, sponsored by Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago.
That 365-page bill gives the state greater authority to purchase energy capacity for northern Illinois, allowing it to set its own standards for how much of that capacity comes from renewable energy generators. It also creates programs incentivizing electrification of the transportation sector among several other provisions.
State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said discussions of a comprehensive energy package have progressed during summer meetings between stakeholders, but the sheer size of the task of bringing together various industries has proved difficult.
At the center of the discussion, he said, is how to move the state toward 100 percent renewable energy usage while limiting its carbon footprint and producing the required energy to power the state throughout a decades-long transition.
Cunningham said while clean energy advocates have embraced nuclear generation’s ability to produce energy without emitting carbon dioxide, there is still a need for fossil fuels in the immediate future.
“So, you know, the whole question, and it's really, the essence of what we're working on, is how do we make that transition? What will the transition look like? How do we do it in a way that reverses the effects of global warming, but also doesn't jeopardize our power grid?” he said.
Cunningham is the sponsor of the Path to 100 Act, currently contained in Senate Bill 1781, which aims to transition the state toward 100 percent renewable energy usage by expanding on Illinois’ 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, or FEJA.
Proponents of his bill say FEJA created 1,300 renewable energy jobs in 2018 on projects funded from money generated by a fee of about 2 percent on residential ratepayer bills. Advocates claim more than 800 solar projects have been waitlisted as that money has dried up, however.
The Path to 100 legislation would increase that rate cap to about 4 percent to create more renewable energy credits and drive further investment in renewable projects.
A pair of Illinois coal providers – NRG Energy and Vistra – are touting their own legislation, which they say will ease the state into a cost-effective transition toward renewable energy.
Vistra favors a “coal-to-solar” bill, which it says would restore property values at closed coal-fired power plants as they transition to renewable providers.
Brad Watson, senior director of community affairs for Vistra, said in a September phone interview that former coal sites already have access to the electric grid, so transitioning them to solar or wind power eliminates the need for costly infrastructure investment.
That legislation would also create about $140 million in subsidies to keep downstate coal plants running through at least 2024, Watson said, although they would be allowed to operate until only 2030 before transitioning to cleaner generation or closing.
Watson said the Vistra-backed bill, contained in Amendment 4 to Senate Bill 2080, would also spur “a total investment of up to $450 million” in utility-scale battery storage – something all parties agree is necessary to complete the clean energy transition.
“Battery storage is the next big thing in that it will not only capture and hold renewable generation, but it will extend essentially what is their capacity,” he said. “We know that the wind doesn't blow all the time, and solar is only going to generate during the day. But what batteries do, is that when some of that energy is being generated in excess or isn't being sold on the market, it can be stored.”
NRG is backing a measure, currently contained in House Bill 125, that would phase out the renewable energy credits and zero emissions credits which promote the procurement of renewable and nuclear energy in capacity markets, respectively. Their bill would create a single attribute which would be applicable to any energy generator which reduces their carbon emissions.
This would provide a level playing field, representatives of the company said, by allowing coal providers to bid for the attributes by producing renewable energy or taking coal plants off the grid and reducing their carbon footprint.