Thomas Frisbie/Sun-Times

Illinois also still needs Exelon’s nuclear plants, which provide zero-carbon power, while renewable energy is ramping up.

Gov. Pritzker’s clean energy plan, introduced Thursday, has a lot to like in it. But it needs an upgrade before the Legislature’s adjournment on May 31.

The good news is Pritzker is at the negotiating table three years after the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition began working to enact a law that will move Illinois toward a smart, environment-friendly power sector. The governor has adopted many of the features in the coalition’s Clean Energy Jobs Act and a separate bill titled the Path to 100. He essentially ignored a competing bill seen by some as favorable for utility interests called Climate Jobs Illinois.

Here’s what Pritzker’s bill, called the Consumers and Climate First Act, definitely gets right:

It eliminates automatic “formula” rates that raise power bills without utilities having to justify increases before the Illinois Commerce Commission. It gets rid of surcharges that have been unnecessarily driving up home gas bills in Chicago. And according to an independent study Pritzker commissioned, Exelon would get $6 billion to $10 billion less over 10 years than it had hoped for to keep two financially threatened nuclear plants open, although old hands in Springfield expect Exelon will get more than Pritzker recommends once the Legislature gets its hands on the bill.

Boost for electric cars

Pritzker’s $4,000 rebate for electric vehicles would be one of the highest in the nation, though his goal of a million electric vehicles on the road by 2030 is fewer than some environmentalists have hoped for.

The bill also imposes a carbon fee of $8 a ton, which is expected to raise $500 million a year. But unlike CEJA’s smaller pollution tax, the carbon fee is more likely to close less profitable plants downstate than in environmental justice communities in the Chicago area, essentially making it a pay-to-pollute provision.

The ethics and accountability provisions, following the ComEd scandal in which the utility admitted hiring former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s allies in hopes that he would support electricity rate hikes, are similar to what CEJA proposed — and important. Among other provisions, Pritzker’s bill would ban ratepayers’ money from being used for charitable contributions and require an annual Exelon audit.

The bill also renews funding for solar installations on buildings around the states. Last year and early this year, as money for subsidies ran out, Illinois went over the so-called “solar cliff.” Installation companies stopped taking on new jobs and started laying off employees.

Where Pritzker plan falls short

But the governor’s bill also omits a number of important reforms.

Unlike CEJA, which is designed to speed Illinois toward a clean energy future without raising customers’ electric bills, Pritzker chose to impose the rate hikes proposed in the Path to 100 bill. Those hikes are hard to justify, and the Legislature should edit them out.

Pritzker also boasts that his bill will create jobs for people who historically haven’t had an entry into the energy field. But his measures are weaker than those outlined in CEJA, which would ensure that residents of disadvantaged areas not only get new energy efficiency and green energy jobs but also be in line to own businesses and become contractors and subcontractors. The governor’s decision to weaken CEJA’s provisions has perplexed a lot of people.

No more delays

The Legislature has a great deal to work on in the last month of its spring session. But reform of the state’s energy policies, which has been delayed from session to session for too long, can’t be put off any longer. If Exelon starts the process of shutting down nuclear plants, it will be hard to unwind that.

Illinois needs Exelon’s nuclear plants to provide zero-carbon power while renewable energy is ramped up. Trying to get to 100% clean energy without the nuclear plants would be far too expensive for ratepayers.

President Joe Biden is pushing clean energy policies in Washington, too, but the politics of that are shaky. Biden likely will need the support of every Democratic senator to prevail, but Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has made clear he would be reluctant to push through energy legislation without any Republican support.

Illinois has an opportunity to take a big step toward cleaning up its energy sector at a cost consumers can afford. It’s time to seize the moment.

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