'Clean energy' bills take back seat to Illinois budget

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Measures advertised as promoting "clean energy" in Illinois - including a plan pushed by power-producing giant Exelon Corp. (NYSE: EXC) - have stalled in the General Assembly, consumed, supporters say, by bickering over the state budget and an unsettled energy outlook.

Two pieces of legislation unveiled with great fanfare early in the session never received public hearings, including a contentious proposal that Exelon says would save three nuclear plants from closure and thousands of jobs, but which critics deride as a bailout for an otherwise profitable company. The legislative session is scheduled to end Sunday.

Another initiative, touted as a "clean jobs" measure because it would provide incentives for developing alternative power sources, such as solar- and wind-generated electricity, met the same fate. Democratic sponsor Rep. Elaine Nekritz said negotiations will continue and the proposal might need to be adjusted when President Barack Obama's climate-change initiative rules are finalized this summer.

"We haven't had any comprehensive energy legislation in a long time," Nekritz said, "and I think we need to be thinking about what we want our energy mix to look like in the next 10 or 15 years and that is the discussion we'll be having."

The attention to energy efforts drew the interest of southern Illinois lawmakers, who sought input late this spring and suggested that a plan to make it easier for coal-burning plants to get pollution controls necessary to burn Illinois-sourced coal, which is more damaging to the atmosphere because of its high sulfur content.

Nuclear energy has taken a hit in recent years as new technology has made natural gas easier, and cheaper, to obtain.

Under legislation backed by Exelon and sponsored by Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., an Elwood Democrat, would allow Exelon to compete with other low-carbon power generators by requiring distributors buying its power to purchase "credits" for producing renewable energy.

"We are continuing to educate policymakers and others about the benefits of the (legislation) and the continued operation of the state's nuclear energy facilities," Exelon said in a prepared statement this week, adding it'd consider its next move after lawmakers adjourn. "We remain open to participating in any and all discussions designed to enact a legislative package."

One group of critics paid for a study that found the Exelon plan would cost $1.6 billion over five years, presenting a particular burden to financially strapped businesses and municipalities. And a sale of the Clinton plant's capacity to distributors this spring yielded a much higher price than expected, prompting a company pledge to keep the central Illinois facility open through June 2016.

The Nekritz plan, which has a Senate counterpart sponsored by Democrat Don Harmon of Oak Park, aims to reduce electricity demand 20 percent by 2025 and increase the amount of renewable energy produced. Nekritz said it would create 32,000 jobs every year because of the expansion in renewable-generating capacity.

Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat, and Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, led the southern Illinois contingent that's promoting a change in rules to prevent power companies from shifting the cost of importing Western coal - which has lower sulfur content than Illinois coal - onto to ratepayers. That would make Illinois coal cheaper, but many generators would need pricey equipment to keep dangerous emissions from getting into the air.

"If we can move away from that, which was established many years ago under a different set of circumstances," Manar said, "we can employ coal miners here in Illinois, not in places like Wyoming, and be competitive and address environmental issues all at the same time."

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The bills are HB32393 and HB2607.

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