Illinois as clean as California at half the cost, but only if we keep nuclear
Illinois’s clean energy future has been a focal point of this Spring’s legislative session. Key proposals, including the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) and the Path to 100, advocate the state transition away from its nuclear plants to pursue 100 percent renewables. Many of the environmental organizations and NGOs supporting these plans are advocating that Illinois copy California in creating this 100% renewable grid. But as a new study from environmental researchers and advocates shows there are serious downsides to this approach to our state.
California is massively expanding wind and solar capacity while preparing to shut down its last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon. Several nuclear plants have already been forced to shut down in the state, which is now facing power shortages again this summer after experiencing blackouts last year.
The new study of California’s electricity system sponsored by Clean Air Task Force and Environmental Defense Fund found that “this strategy [100 percent renewables] ends up being much more expensive and much more demanding of land and infrastructure than other possible pathways.” The team of energy experts estimates that wholesale electricity rates would rise by 65% if demand were met by renewables and storage alone, but even that wouldn’t guarantee enough land, people, and supplies to build all the turbines and panels needed.
California has already started to see the effects of dependence on variable renewables despite generating just over 30 percent of its electricity from wind and solar in 2020. Retail electricity prices in the state rose eight times faster than in the rest of the country over the last 10 years despite California benefiting from historically-cheap natural gas, which provides by far the largest contribution to the state’s electricity supply. Public lands in the pristine Mojave Desert and the state’s joshua tree forests are being scraped and developed for industrial solar and wind projects. And last fall, in the middle of a global pandemic, California experienced rolling blackouts when there was not enough reliable power left to meet the demand of a hot day.
Many see California as a climate leader because of its aggressive, early pursuit of solar despite the fact that it has seen stagnant emissions and still heavily relies on fossil fuels.
Instead, the nation should be looking to Illinois for clean energy leadership: in 2020, Illinois electricity was just as clean as California’s, and for just 53 percent of the cost. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Illinois managed to cut the electricity coming from coal in half from 2018 to 2020. None of this would be possible without our nuclear plants, reliably providing clean electricity around the clock.
Legislators should not seek to put Illinois on the same destructive pathway as California. Nuclear provides over half of the state’s electricity and about 90 percent of our carbon-free electricity. During the polar vortex that created a major crisis in Texas, all six of Illinois’ nuclear plants were operating at nearly 100 percent capacity to power to keep our schools, hospitals, businesses, and homes running. And the small land footprint of nuclear power protects Illinois’s landscapes, which provide some of the most productive agriculture in the world.
But Illinois is in serious danger of losing two of its six nuclear plants this year, and two more in the near future. These plants are being forced to compete against historically-cheap natural gas in an electricity market that ignores the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. If action from the state isn’t taken by the Legislature’s adjournment on May 31, the clean electricity from Byron and Dresden will be replaced by fossil fuels, largely from outside the state.
Governor Pritzker has acknowledged the importance of nuclear to the state and stated his intention to keep Byron and Dresden operating. Unfortunately, the subsidies offered by his Consumer and Climate First Act are inadequate for doing so. The bill offers a fraction of the nuclear subsidy unanimously passed by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities just last month, another state in the same electricity market with similarly at-risk nuclear plants.
Illinois has already demonstrated that protecting state nuclear plants is beneficial for consumers. A new study on the Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs) implemented in Illinois shows the nuclear subsidies afforded to the Quad Cities and Clinton nuclear plants actually lowered the cost of electricity to consumers. It would be tragic if the state sacrificed its irreplaceable nuclear plants by offering insufficient support in an attempt to “send a message” to Exelon.
California’s energy plan has been disastrous for consumers, for its world-renowned landscapes, and for the climate. And the issues will become more severe if Diablo Canyon goes offline in 2025. By maintaining inexpensive, clean, in-state nuclear power, Illinois will protect its key competitive advantage in a carbon-constrained future and demonstrate what bold clean energy leadership looks like.