Illinois clean energy backers split over how to expand renewables

Source: Jeffrey Tomich, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Two years after Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Act, a sweeping bill that authorized nuclear subsidies and spurred new investments in wind and solar energy, the energy policy debate is brewing again.

Environmental groups and renewable energy developers have the same goal — one shared by Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker — of advancing toward a 100 percent clean energy future. But at least for now, the two camps have different ideas of how to get there.

Those differences became clear Wednesday with the announcement of a bill backed by the wind and solar industries to boost Illinois’ renewable portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030. The current RPS requires that 25 percent of the energy supplied by investor-owned utilities come from renewable resources by 2025.

The “Path to 100 Act” has sponsors in the House and Senate and the backing of national trade associations such as the Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association, and it would spur an estimated 20,000 megawatts of renewable development in Illinois over the next decade.

But the campaign, announced at a news conference at the Capitol, was also notable for who wasn’t there: environmental groups.

Groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and Citizens Utility Board (CUB) are core members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, a group organized three years ago to advocate for policy to advance clean energy in Illinois.

But the coalition was silent on the “Path to 100 Act.” It didn’t participate in Wednesday’s announcement, didn’t mention the bill on Facebook or Twitter feeds, and otherwise ignored the news.

Some coalition members declined to discuss the bill. Others said they weren’t taking a position because it has yet to be introduced and they haven’t seen bill language.

So why would groups that want to spur more renewable energy in Illinois be unwilling to support a bill that would do just that?

The reason is that the coalition is in negotiations with Chicago-based Exelon Corp. on a separate legislative proposal expected to be filed ahead of a Friday deadline for the introduction of new bills.

While any bill would include some provision to help expand renewable energy in Illinois, it’s not yet clear what Exelon will ask for from the Legislature.

It is believed that Commonwealth Edison, Exelon’s Chicago-area utility, will ask the General Assembly to reauthorize formula ratemaking in Illinois, which has been in place since the 2011 Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act.

ComEd could also seek a provision that would allow it to develop battery storage or permission to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure.

And Exelon’s generation unit could pursue additional subsidies for its Illinois nuclear fleet.

While FEJA authorized $235 million a year in so-called zero-emission credits (ZECs) to support the Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear plants, two of Exelon’s other four Illinois nuclear plants failed to clear the most recent PJM Interconnection capacity auction last spring, meaning they won’t earn millions of dollars in payments to stand ready to run at times of peak demand.

Exelon CEO Chris Crane told analysts and investors on Friday during the company’s quarterly conference call that the company was in discussions with other parties on potential legislation, but he declined to speculate on what would be achieved this session.

“They’re at the beginning of the sausage-making right now,” Crane said.

Whatever the outcome of the coalition’s negotiations with Exelon, the divide among clean energy supporters in Illinois is a sharp contrast with four years ago, when a unified coalition began its push for an expansion of wind, solar and energy efficiency.

At the time, more than 60 environmental, renewable, consumer and labor organizations and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel teamed up with the support of three dozen legislators from both parties in support of the “Illinois Clean Jobs Bill.”

Backers of the “Path to 100 Act” said they saw an urgency to start discussions in the Legislature around expansion of the Illinois RPS and ways to increase funding for wind and solar development.

The Future Energy Jobs Act has been so successful that funding for renewable energy credit procurement under the 2016 law will run out in the first quarter of 2020, supporters said. Meanwhile, though the current RPS mandates that the state get a quarter of its energy from renewables by 2025, Illinois is on track to reach a small fraction of that — 7 percent — next year.

The bill aims to fix that by requiring an expansion of the RPS and by providing a funding mechanism and eliminating technical barriers to enable more than 13,000 MW of new solar development and 6,500 MW of additional wind capacity.

“This is not pie in the sky or an experiment,” said the bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Will Davis (D). “Reaching 40 percent renewable energy by 2030 is achievable.”