11/30/16 - STATE JOURNAL EDITORIAL: Our View: Too many unknowns remain regarding energy legislation

By: STATE JOURNAL REGISTER EDITORIAL BOARD

Urgency has made a rare appearance this week in the Illinois Statehouse.

It apparently can’t be bothered when the lives of millions who depend on a state budget for services or payments are on the line, but shows up in a hurry when a private company beholden to shareholders says it might have to close two of its plants if lawmakers don’t act this week.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill was discussed Tuesday in a House committee and scheduled to be considered in a Senate committee on Wednesday. What version that will be remains up in the air: The third version of the bill was introduced Monday, and there were rumors Tuesday another would come Wednesday.

The measure aims to keep the Exelon nuclear power plants in Clinton and Cordova, which have lost a combined $800 million in the last seven years, open for at least another decade instead of closing in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The version introduced Monday also would provide a substantial investment for renewable energy, like new wind and solar facilities, as well as expand energy efficiency programs run by the utilities, which Exelon says would in turn create thousands of clean energy jobs.

Exelon says it would cost no more than a quarter more per month for the average ComEd customer to fund the bill — an amount disputed by opposition group Better Energy Solutions for Tomorrow, which claims there is no way that amount would annually generate the money needed for the two plants and the proposed improvements. The BEST Coalition says that rate hike is more likely to be $4.54 a month over the life of the measure for ComEd customers, and $2.01 a month for Amren customers.

Their discrepancies don’t stop there. Exelon says keeping the plants open would save 4,200 direct and indirect jobs in Clinton and Cordova, and preserve $1.2 billion annually in economic impact — all while keeping Illinois’ energy rates low, one of the few perks the state has when attempting the herculean task of trying to lure companies to a state often seen as unfriendly to business. Exelon says Dec. 1 is the deadline it has to inform the Midcontinent Independent System Operator it intends to retire the Clinton plant next year.

BEST, though, claims the measure would cost Illinois consumers $13.3 billion in rate hikes through 2040 and those increases would chase away prospective businesses. BEST estimates that would in turn cost (through 2030) about 44,000 jobs, $14.7 billion in economic activity and $429 million in state and local revenues. And BEST says while that December deadline is true, it is reversible.

It’s hard to know who to believe, as both sides have impressive support. But after nearly two years of discussions on this measure, there should be firm answers.

We also worry the precedent this would set. Private businesses depend on the market. When revenue is not what is expected, they have to cut costs (a simple concept most state lawmakers don't even have a rudimentary grasp of). If a measure to benefit Exelon is approved, what’s to stop other companies from lining up for their own assistance?

A massive energy policy overhaul that affects every resident and business should not be rushed through the handful of days dedicated to the fall Veto Session. A measure of this magnitude deserves scrutiny, like the kind provided last week by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rauner said he wanted to protect jobs (both those at the plants, as well as those elsewhere in Illinois that could be at risk if energy costs soared). He wanted to make sure low-income families wouldn’t be hit too hard by any rate hike, and said efforts to conserve energy and lower energy costs should be supported. He succeeded: The measure was changed to go from a commitment of keeping the plants open for at least a decade (instead of six years) so those communities could plan for the future. His administration slammed the proposed delivery rates, which in a former proposal would have been based on the electricity consumed at peak-demand times of the day, rather than how much was actually used total in a month. That one bit the dust in Monday’s version as well.

If another version is indeed introduced Wednesday, are we to believe lawmakers will be able to give it the close examination it deserves in just two days? The devil is in the details, and there are too many unknowns at this point for legislators to take a leap of faith that this is what is best for both the state’s citizens and industry.