Years of lobbying and debate over Illinois’ energy future culminated a year ago when Gov. JB Pritzker (D) signed the Climate and Equal Employment Opportunity Act, making the first state in the Midwest to enact a 100% carbon-free electricity goal. .
The signing of the bill outside the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago was celebrated as the end of a political marathon. In truth, the moment also marked the start of a longer and more grueling race – the implementation of the ambitious new law.
Transitioning to a carbon-free electricity grid by 2045 is no small task. And no state should better understand that setting energy goals and meeting them are not the same thing. In 2007, Illinois passed a law to get 25% of its electricity from renewables by 2025. Last year it was 10%.
Building a carbon-free grid comes with a dizzying array of technical and political challenges and unanswered questions – some of which were identified in a draft report prepared last month for the Illinois Commerce Commission. .
At the heart of the challenge is a question that commission staff and consultants Brattle Group and Great Lakes Engineering have attempted to answer in a 72-page renewable energy access plan: how much new renewable energy will be needed? to meet 100% of the State’s needs?
The question seems simple and straightforward. The answer is no.
According The reportIllinois will need 64 to 450 terawatt hours – a huge range of estimates.
The low end would require the state to triple the amount of renewable energy used last year. The upper end represents a twenty-fold increase and would exponentially complicate the challenges of project siting, connecting renewables to the grid, and transmission.
Two big wildcards explain the gaping range in how much renewable energy will be needed, depending on the draft plan.
One is uncertainty about the pace of transportation and electrification of buildings, which could lead to much higher demand for electricity. The other involves the life of Illinois’ nuclear fleet – the largest of any state.
Nuclear power accounted for about half of the state’s total electricity supply last year and 86% of its existing carbon-free power. All nuclear plant licenses expire by 2047, unless owner Constellation Energy Corp. seeks to renew them for another 20 years, which the company has expressed interest in.
David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a Chicago-based consumer group, sees the nuclear fleet not as an uncertainty but as a benefit to the state in pursuit of climate goals.
“We’re absolutely in the best position to do this on the cheap,” said Kolata, who helped negotiate Illinois’ climate law on behalf of a coalition made up mostly of environmental groups.
“Yes, you could theoretically replace nuclear power plants with renewables. Can you do it in a practical and profitable way? I don’t think so,” he said.
“In no way should this be taken to mean that we should give nuclear power plants a blank check,” Kolata added. “But that’s a key asset and the fact that we have so many things that we’re building on a baseline of just a bit of carbon-free electricity, that’s a structural advantage for the state.”
Inflation Reduction Act
There is no immediate threat to Illinois’ six nuclear power plants, which are set to receive nuclear tax credits in the federal Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden this year. In addition, four of the factories have state-level political support as backup.
But federal and state nuclear support is limited in duration. IRA nuclear provisions expire in 2032 and Illinois aid expires in 2027.
Constellation Energy Corp., the spin-off company of Exelon Corp. which owns and operates Illinois’ nuclear power plants, said it was encouraged by the message sent by the provisions of the Illinois law and the IRA – and what it means for the role of nuclear energy in the future.
Federal law in particular may “clear the way for Constellation to pursue 20-year license extensions across our entire fleet,” the company said in an emailed statement.
However, Baltimore-based Constellation has withdrawn from committing to pursuing the life extension of one of the Illinois plants by requesting a new 20-year operating license extension.
Constellation and other parts of Illinois have ample time to assess the need for continued operation of all nuclear plants, the first of which – the 1,080 megawatt Clinton plant – will reach the end of its license. current operation of 40 years in 2027.
Other Constellation nuclear plants in Illinois have operating licenses extending from 2029 to 2047.
Mike Jacobs, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said Illinois can’t get too bogged down in the scope of the job at hand or the fate of the nuclear fleet. Instead, the state should focus on what it can do today, he said.
“I don’t want to see the process stop at, ‘What’s the number?’,” Jacobs said in an interview.
Ultimately, the number of megawatts of renewable energy needed “doesn’t really change what needs to be done in the first 10 to 15 years,” he said.
That is, deploying renewable energy and building a transmission to connect it to the regional grid.
The draft plan spells out something else about achieving a carbon-free power grid: Illinois cannot do it alone.
The state needs help from network operators in the region – PJM Interconnection LLC and Midcontinent Independent System Operator. They must approve the connection of new generators, such as wind and solar projects, to the grid and oversee the planning of new transmission lines.
Interconnecting generators and planning and determining cost allocation for intrastate transmission are two complex issues subject to recently proposed revisions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
There, too, Jacobs said Illinois shouldn’t cling to what it can’t control.
The Illinois Commerce Commission, which is required by last year’s climate law to review the renewable energy access plan and launch an investigation, cannot on its own get new buildings built. new regional transmission projects.
But it can push the utilities it regulates, particularly Commonwealth Edison in the PJM area, to build lines in the state called “additional projects” in an effort to connect new renewables.
“No tool should be left out”
More lines in the state to connect wind and solar projects could be particularly important as Illinois considers a process that Texas started years ago when the Lone Star State designated renewable energy zones – specific areas in West Texas and the Panhandle with the best wind resources.
Illinois is seeking to designate certain parts of the state that have high renewable potential and will require new transmission projects.
“It’s a much shorter path available to Illinois,” Jacobs said. “In this situation, no tool should be left out.”
Of course, the state will always need the help of regional grid managers to help it achieve a carbon-free grid.
Unlike California or New York, which each have their own network operators, Illinois is part of two regional networks, each of which spans more than a dozen states, each with their own policies and policies. energy.
For all the technical and political issues related to overhauling a state’s electricity mix, Illinois is not alone.
More than a dozen states have targets for 100% renewable or carbon-free power grids. And while everyone faces unique challenges in achieving them, there are also common challenges they can overcome together.
The Clean Energy States Alliance, a nonprofit organization created to help implement clean energy programs and policies, has created an initiative that brings states with 100% clean energy goals together to talk to each other and share best practices.
“We started at the request of states, who came to us and said, ‘Can you put together an initiative like this? Because we know we have all of these goals, and it doesn’t make sense for us to operate in isolation. It makes no sense for us to reinvent the wheel. We need to share information with each other,” Warren Leon, executive director of the alliance, said in an interview.
While it may seem daunting for Illinois as it tries to completely wean itself off fossil fuels, maintain reliability, keep costs as low as possible all at the same time, the prospect of hitting the target is good. better than would have seemed possible even a decade ago, Leon said.
“It’s easier to identify the challenges, and then it’s the unexpected technological and economic improvements that will happen in the future that we don’t necessarily anticipate right now,” he said.