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Last-minute bill advances that would prevent Illinois nuclear plant closures, cut emissions


Byron plant scheduled to close Sept. 13

Senate passage, governor's signature needed

After heated debate in the Illinois House of Representatives, a bill was passed late Sept. 9 that would provide support to three nuclear power plants, phase down greenhouse gas emissions from two coal-fired plants and move the state toward 100% clean energy by 2050.

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Senate Bill 2408 passed the Illinois House in an 83-33 vote. The Senate passed an earlier version of the bill Sept. 1.

"The shared goal among the Senate, House, and Governor [JB] Pritzker has been to position Illinois as a national leader on reliable, renewable, and affordable energy policies," Senate President Don Harmon said in a Sept. 9 statement. "[A] Senate session will be scheduled for [Sept. 13] to advance this vital proposal to the governor's desk so it can become law."

The legislation's passage is bumping up against a deadline for Exelon to retire its 2,346-MW Byron nuclear power plant. While Exelon does not typically comment on its outage schedules for commercial reasons, it has said Byron-1 will definitely shut Sept. 13, either for a refueling outage or permanently, depending on the outcome of the legislation.

Exelon declined Sept. 10 to provide new comment on the pending legislation, but the company said last month that, with so much at stake for "our employees, plant communities, consumers and the environment, we have gone to extraordinary lengths and considerable cost to establish offramps that will allow us to reverse the retirement of Byron up until the last moment," according to company spokesperson Paul Adams. Sept. 13 is the day Exelon will need to either commence work on refueling or start the process of permanently defueling the plant and removing it from service, and there is no option for extending that deadline, Adams added.

The governor has signaled his support for the proposal, which includes nearly $700 million in annual subsidies for Exelon's Byron, 1,805-MW Dresden, and 2,384-MW Braidwood nuclear plants. The Dresden nuclear plant is scheduled to shut in November unless the legislation passes.

"I look forward to SB 2408's swift passage in the Senate, and signing it into law as soon as possible because our planet and the people of Illinois ought not [to] wait any longer," Pritzker, a Democrat, tweeted shortly after the bill's passage.

But with the tight timing, uncertainty remains around specific details pertaining to Byron's potential refueling schedule.

"With state support seemingly imminent, it now seems likely the permanent retirement of Byron and Dresden will be deferred," Kieran Kemmerer, power market analyst with S&P Global Platts Analytics, said in a Sept. 10 email. "With that in mind, Byron-1 will still come offline on or around Sept. 13, with the key question being when it returns to service after being refueled.

"Exelon has publicly cited the availability of fuel and contractors, but it seems likely the refueling outage will go beyond the typical time frame," Kemmerer said.

Adding further ambiguity to the plant's return to service is verbiage in the draft legislation setting the procurement execution date for the proposed carbon mitigation credits at Dec. 3, 2021, Kemmerer said.

"It is possible that the unit is not brought back online in an expedited fashion if there remains lingering uncertainty around the subsidy despite the provision for carbon mitigation credits," he said.

Emissions reduction

One sticking point in negotiations has been the closure of the 1,630-MW coal-fired Prairie State Energy Campus and the retirement of City Water, Light and Power coal assets. CWLP is the municipal utility for Springfield, Illinois.

Lawmakers have been seeking to find a compromise on that issue. Under the compromise, which several Republican lawmakers opposed because of reliability and job-loss concerns, Prairie State and all "public" greenhouse gas-emitting units must reduce their carbon emissions 45% no later than Jan. 1, 2035, and "permanently reduce" carbon emissions to zero no later than Dec. 31, 2045.

A late amendment states that if the emissions reduction requirement is not met by the 2035 deadline, "the plant shall retire one or more units or otherwise reduce its [carbon] emissions by 45% from existing emissions by June 30, 2038."

During the Sept. 9 House negotiations, Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, said "CWLP is opposed to this ... and I'm worried about the health and economic health of central Illinoisans, including the jobs that are going to be lost."

The bill puts "the non-profit municipally owned utilities at risk," Butler added.

Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, said "we are putting a huge goal on the board here that's going to affect millions of people in this state and if we don't guess right [on emissions reduction] we are going to buy a ton of fossil-based power from our neighboring states because we won't have the capacity to do it ourselves."