11/29/16 - CHICAGO TRIBUNE EDITORIAL: Rescue 2 Illinois nukes? Why Springfield shouldn't pick winners and losers

By: TRIBUNE EDITORIAL BOARD

You get an electric bill every month. Springfield lawmakers seem to be handed a different kind of electricity bill nearly as often. We refer to ongoing efforts by ComEd and its parent, Exelon, to win support for sweeping and expensive energy legislation.

The power delivery utility and its parent, which operates six nuclear power stations in Illinois, say they need financial help in the form of rate increases to save nuke plants in downstate Clinton and the Quad Cities. The plants are efficient and provide lots of jobs, but they are money-losers. The reason: a combination of low natural gas prices and government subsidies for wind and solar power.

For the last two years or so, Exelon and ComEd have been trying to fix the problem with Springfield's help. There have been different bills, with different iterations, to grant ComEd and Exelon ratepayer help to save the plants. With the clock running on Springfield's veto session, a semifinal version of the current legislation toppled over last week like a Christmas tree hung with too many ornaments. There were lots of goodies, lots of promises, lots of complex parts. The top-line cost — that is, what businesses and other consumers would pay — would run into the billions. We can't imagine members of the General Assembly figuring out on deadline what it all would mean to the companies and citizens of this state.

As of Monday afternoon, with just three scheduled days to go in the veto session, the bill appeared to be pared back to a more reasonable size. But that still doesn't make it, in our eyes, a great piece of lawmaking. We have concerns about throwing more financial incentives at the energy industry, especially when national energy policy is about to be scrutinized, and probably overhauled, by a new president. Why rush to sign off on a deal that's been evolving for so long when President-elect Donald Trump could dramatically change the energy landscape beginning Jan. 20?

ComEd and Exelon executives who met with the Tribune Editorial Board on Monday made a cogent argument in favor of the current bill. Then again, they stood just as solidly behind previous versions that were junked up with help for downstate coal plants and a proposed new billing formula for customers that looked like a rate hike in disguise. In recent days, some of that stuff disappeared. We were told that this latest version of the bill — which wasn't filed until, yes, Monday — is the one to back.

As sold by supporters, the Future Energy Jobs Bill would save the two plants and their jobs, and would keep Illinois' air cleaner because nuclear plants, unlike fossil-fueled plants, don't emit carbons. Opponents counter that if the bill becomes law, higher electricity costs would discourage employers, especially manufacturers, from locating, expanding or staying in Illinois.

Another component of the bill calls for a heavy investment in energy efficiency programs, which would save customers money over the long run. In fact, while the bill will cost billions of dollars over a decadelong period, ComEd claims the overall cost to residential customers will be about 25 cents per month.

David Kolata, the state's consumer watchdog on utility issues, backs the bill. He says it would end up revenue-neutral. He also points out that if the two nuke plants close, electricity bills will climb as coal-fired plants pick up the slack, and so will carbon emissions. No one suggests that closing the plants would crimp the availability of electricity: Exelon says Illinois is a net exporter, with some 40 percent of the power generated here being shipped to consumers in other states.

As we said, the proponents made a cogent argument. But that doesn't make this bill the right one.

Exelon and ComEd say it's only fair to give them ratepayer help to allow them to better compete with solar and wind, which get hefty taxpayer subsidies. Our view is that repeatedly putting the thumb of government on the scale to determine which energy industries win and lose is no way to run an economy. It distorts the marketplace, creates safe spaces where rivals should wrestle and tramples urgency. The best way to encourage innovation and efficiencies is to permit — to encourage — competition.

Trump appears to embrace this notion, taking special note of the energy industry as a target for encouraging market forces. And he's about to take office, creating who-knows-what impact on energy generation in Illinois and elsewhere. Given the changes afoot in Washington, and the fact that the details of this bill have been in flux, Springfield should try again this winter when there is more time for vetting and a clear view of the future of federal energy policies.

Friendly advice to the proponents: The next time you approach the people of Illinois with a package this elaborate, skip the hurry-up routine. Negotiate with your friends and foes before you get to Springfield and then settle on your bill's components. Stick to them. Give the rest of us a couple of weeks to absorb them.

Rushing to pass this very complex legislation, with its additional government distortion of the robust energy supply market, is the wrong way for Springfield to expend energy.