11/26/16 - CRAIN'S EDITORIAL: Energy bill improved, but again—why the bailout for money-losing nukes?

By: CRAIN'S EDITORIAL BOARD

Here's the best thing that can be said about the slimmed-down version of energy legislation being hammered out by Springfield leaders: It's less bad than the previous draft.

To explain: Chicago's Exelon has been making the rounds in the capital seeking a ratepayer bailout for its money-losing Clinton and Quad Cities nuclear power plants. And legislators have been willing to oblige. The only question has been how many other goodies could be jammed into this legislative grab bag.

For a while, it looked as if Exelon would be able to sweet-talk lawmakers into including language that would jack up bills for downstate folks to keep open financially ailing coal-fired power plants. That gift was Exelon's way of buying support for its nuke bailout from coal-plant operator Dynegy, the largest power generator downstate. But propping up coal was a bridge too far for consumer and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens Utility Board, and thus, Dynergy lost its subsidy.

That's progress.

The compromise language being worked out before Thanksgiving also shielded large industrial power users from a big hike in their electricity costs. That's a win for Illinois' overall economic health, since relatively low power rates make the Land of Lincoln more competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining big employers.

Also jettisoned from the original bill is a controversial proposal to overhaul how Commonwealth Edison's electricity delivery rates are set. ComEd wanted to begin charging households and small businesses based on how much power they consume at peak demand times of the day rather than how much they consume overall during the course of the month. The Rauner administration termed that a nonstarter—another win for consumers.

So, you might wonder, what's the problem? Well, even though the revised legislation provides a cheaper set of ratepayer-funded subsidies—and those subsidies sunset after 10 years—one troubling fact remains: Exelon is getting a bailout. Through that bailout, the company would keep open two nuclear plants that Exelon itself has declared are not economically viable. In any other business, owners themselves would have to deal with a money-losing operation. Exelon thinks it's exceptional, however. Why should Illinoisans absorb the cost of keeping these unneeded plants open? We're still waiting for a sensible answer.