Doug Scott has an assignment from Gov. JB Pritzker: Help Illinois craft legislation this spring that will help the state switch to 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Scott, a former legislator, Rockford mayor and director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, has the political and technical experience needed to push Pritzker’s energy agenda, although the deadline for reform may be pushed back as lawmakers focus on more pressing matters amid the coronavirus pandemic. The General Assembly pulled the plug on its spring session in early March and it’s unknown when lawmakers will return to Springfield.
Still, reform advocates say it’s important that lawmakers approve the Clean Energy and Jobs Act by June 1. The legislation would remove Illinois from a 13-state power grid that is expected to alter its pricing structure to favor electricity generated by fossil fuels. If Illinois lawmakers don’t approve the bill by June 1, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will raise the price that Illinois and the 12 other states pay for nuclear power, among other energy sources, so that the price for electricity produced from gas and coal remains competitive.
That would mean higher electric bills for millions of northern Illinois consumers because roughly half of the electricity generated in the state comes from a carbon-free source – nuclear plants – said David Kolata, director of the Citizens Utility Board.
“This is an important time in this debate because we’ve made a ton of progress in Illinois,” Kolata said. “We could go backward if we don’t make continued progress.
If the legislation passes, utility customers will see a small increase on their electric bills in the form of a monthly renewable energy charge – a few dollars a month for a typical household.
The legislation would offset that increase with savings from changes to how the state secures long-term power supplies. Additionally, the bill would establish significant opportunities for clean energy job training and small business incubation through a proposed charge on carbon-emitting power plants.
Passage of the bill would be challenging even in ordinary times, given its complexity and the various business and consumer interests involved, said Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, a co-sponsor of the measure. Illinois’ budget – and the outlook for the next fiscal year – is vastly different today than when Pritzker unveiled his ambitious clean energy agenda in January.
“Let’s say somehow we get back to Springfield next month,” Stadelman said. “Can we put together a complicated piece of legislation like this quickly? It’s very hard. We have to somehow pass a state budget by May 31. Our first concern needs to be legislation concerning COVID-19 and steps the Legislature needs to take with respect to this pandemic.
Power and equity
Scott’s background could help Pritzker achieve his goal of putting Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy. Scott served a number of years in Springfield as a state representative from Rockford and, after serving four years as Rockford mayor, returned to state government to lead the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Today, Scott lives in South Beloit and serves as a vice president of the Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based environmental consulting firm. He looks forward to helping Pritzker make Illinois greener than it already is, he said.
“Illinois has taken a lot of steps toward clean energy and renewables,” Scott said. “There’s a large nuclear contingent here, so that’s zero carbon, and there’s been a lot of steps to add wind and solar power throughout the state.
“But if you’re going to get to 100% renewable energy by mid-century, you have to look at a whole multitude of things – the transportation sector, the building sector, there are lots of initiatives that are in play. Our goal this spring is to look at all of it and put together a legislative package that protects reliability and affordability of the state’s power.”
While much focus has been on the clean energy bill, Scott said, “there’s lots of bills that are in play and lots of ideas on top of those bills about how to create the best energy policy overall. …There are really important equity issues regarding how all of these policies impact different people.”
Among those equity questions, Scott said: How do electric rates affect consumers across Illinois, given the different electricity generation and distribution systems in different parts of the state? What jobs are there in the energy sector now and what is the prospect of new jobs tied to clean energy? And how can lawmakers ensure that jobs and economic development opportunities are accessible to all if a switch to renewable energy means that, for example, gas or coal production declines in one part of the state and wind and solar opportunities pop up elsewhere?
Competing priorities, interests
Kolata said the rate increase contained in the clean energy bill would be offset by savings to be achieved by allowing Illinois to manage its own power needs rather than turning the job over to the grid operator. The legislation includes a provision for a “consumer protection adjustment” that would lock in a 5% reduction in northern Illinois electric bills for the next five years.
Stadelman said he supports the measure because clean energy “is our future” and the legislation sets forth lots of opportunities for jobs and small business growth. Lawmakers will be pressed to weigh lots of competing business and consumer interests, though the political influence of ComEd and its parent, Chicago-based Exelon, which operates the Byron nuclear power plant, may be less significant than it was last year. That’s because ComEd is under scrutiny for its lobbying tactics and charges of improper hiring and favor trading in Springfield and with local governments as part of a federal corruption probe.
Legislation that relieves the public health and economic pain that the novel coronavirus has brought to Illinois will surely consume much of lawmakers’ attention whenever they return to Springfield, Stadelman said.
The Legislature could accomplish much of the governor’s clean energy goals by approving the most important elements of the clean energy bill now and taking up the rest later, Kolata said.
“Capacity market reform is needed by June 1,” Kolata said. “We also need to keep renewable energy funding going. … And we need economic relief and support for consumers, many of whom will get their May, June and July electric bills and can’t pay them because they’re not working and not allowed to work because of the governor’s stay-at-home order. We hope lawmakers can pass all of CEJA. If they can’t, those pieces are the most time dependent.”
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