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The Value of Energy, Nuclear and Non-, in Illinois

lincoln-watertowerThey write letters:

Clinton Mayor Carolyn Peters joined the mayors of Morris, Oregon, East Moline, Braceville and Marseilles in letters sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner and top legislators like House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, stressing the importance of the plants to their cities and towns.

So this would be – the Northwest? (Oregon) France? (Marseilles). No , it’s the apparently broadly settled section of Illinois that hosts nuclear power plants, notably the Clinton station. And Clinton’s mayor isn’t mincing words:

“Illinois nuclear facilities provide thousands of good jobs; the kind of jobs you can support a family on...,” the mayors say in a letter dated Feb. 4. “Part of the upcoming debate in Springfield should focus on what these plants mean to their host communities. From our firsthand perspective, we can tell you that Illinois' nuclear facilities are essential to helping our communities thrive.”

Exelon, which runs all 12 Illinois reactors at 6 sites, has been quite frank that the economics of energy in its market have been a financial strain and could lead to plants closing:

Power-producing giant Exelon Corp. rounded out a phalanx of Illinois lawmakers and business leaders who said Thursday that three nuclear power plants could close unless consumers chip in to reward them for producing environmentally-friendly electricity.

We’ll come back to that phalanx of Illinois lawmakers, but first, let’s note that this is the coarsest possible way of saying that the Illinois legislature wants to ensure that its energy supply supports its goals, notably as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan limiting carbon dioxide emissions comes barreling down the chute. Exelon isn’t exaggerating when it says it could close plants. Kewaunee and Vermont Yankee have already shuttered because their markets failed to recognize their value.

So that phalanx has decided that nuclear energy does indeed have value –but not solely and not at the expense of other energy sources.

The bills introduced in both the state Senate and House over the past week would enact the Illinois Low Carbon Portfolio Standard, helping to reduce carbon emissions, increase renewable energy and maintain a stable and secure electricity supply in the state.

Under the proposed legislation, utilities will be required to purchase low-carbon energy credits equivalent to 70% of the utility's annual retail sales to customers within the state. Qualified sources include energy from solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, tidal, wave and clean coal.

That doesn’t sound like nuclear special pleading to me, but an extension of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy policy. Anything that can pull off the emissions reduction trick is welcome. 

The Chicago Sun-Times explains that this plan isn’t emerging from a vacuum. The state legislature has looked at what the loss of nuclear energy would mean to the state, much as Mayor Peters has done, but with a wider perspective. It’s not pretty:

Specifically, the report found that the closure of Illinois’ at-risk nuclear plants would lead to significant losses, including $1.8 billion annually in lost economic activity, nearly 8,000 jobs lost, decreased reliability, and substantial environmental costs of up to $18 billion stemming from increased carbon emissions. It also concluded that maintaining low and stable electric prices in Illinois was dependent on the continued operation of all existing nuclear generating stations.

The Sun-Times notes that the legislature recommended market-based solutions and that appears to have guided this new legislation. It doesn’t favor nuclear over its renewable or fossil cousins, but the inclusion gives it its due and recognizes that renewable energy sources alone will not get Illinois where it needs to go. After all, virtually all of Illinois’ electricity is made by nuclear (48 percent) and coal (47 percent), so finding a way to leverage them is to its benefit – and, of course, to the benefit of its citizens  as well. Plus, as Mayor Peters points out, it makes a lot of economic sense.

This is very early days for the Illinois legislation. The opening salvos in newspapers have been mixed, but early days for that, too. Including nuclear energy in an energy policy that aims to contain carbon dioxide emissions seems so obvious, yet Illinois may be the first state to codify it. This is a fascinating development and deserves close and continued attention.

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