A lot of pieces will have to fall in place, but there’s still hope the Clinton nuclear power plant can stay open. The reality, however, is the plant is only part of the puzzle.
To recap: Two days after the Illinois General Assembly adjourned last spring without passing the “Next Generation Power Plan,” Exelon announced it will shut down the plant next June. With it would go about 700 good-paying jobs and a major part of DeWitt County’s property tax base.
Exelon says the facility has lost $450 million over the past seven years and that it needed assurances that losses would end as it competes on a power grid where demand has slackened, other renewable energy sources have grown and natural gas prices are low (though they’ve rebounded 38 percent this year).
Exelon also says it will shutter another money-loser, its twin-reactor plant near the Quad Cities, in June of ’18. (It’s worth noting Exelon is in the process of buying a nuclear plant 12 years older than Clinton north of Syracuse, N.Y., after regulators approved subsidies to keep it open.)
Some people think it’s all a high-powered bluff. If it is, Exelon is playing out its hand at Clinton.
In June, it notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its “permanent cessation” plans. It has accelerated its depreciation for accounting purposes. A couple dozen Clinton staffers have taken jobs at other Exelon facilities. There’s an 18-person team planning the plant’s complex decommissioning. No fuel has been ordered to keep the plant running past June. The next shoe to drop would be Exelon formally notifying the Midcontinent Independent System Operator about plans to retire the plant.
MISO is the bulk power transmission system Clinton is connected to. It’s also the source of a study that found power supply reserves in a multi-state area could fall short beginning in 2018 if all plant shutdowns, including some coal-fired plants in southern Illinois, proceed.
Can you say “brownout?”
The glimmer of hope is from quiet negotiations underway involving revised legislation that could be presented at the General Assembly’s November veto session, or at an expected “lame duck” session in January. It would contain three broad elements: a guarantee that the red ink will stop at the two plants; incentives for developing wind and solar power; and a new rate plan for Commonwealth Edison, an Exelon subsidiary.
Power companies, consumer groups, environmentalists and renewable energy firms have inched forward toward a compromise, but the ComEd rate plan is groundbreaking, controversial and attracting new resistance.
It would replace the pay-for-what-you-use system in place since the late 1800s with “demand charges” — in essence basing residential bills largely on how much electricity is used during peak-demand parts of the day. This week, a group made up of Chicago aldermen and a Cook County commissioner told legislative leaders the plan would “make it impossible for consumers to control their electricity bills.”
The possible revised legislation has many moving parts and potential stumbling blocks, among them energy efficiency targets, maybe even a subsidy for some coal-fired plants. Safeguards designed to ease consumer concerns about the new ComEd rate structure, we’re told, are winning some support.
Meanwhile Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, is piecing together an alternative plan that would initially address only the Clinton issues, hoping that if all else fails, a narrowly-focused proposal could still have a heartbeat in Springfield.
A lot is at stake. Sen. Chapin Rose, the Mahomet Republican whose district includes DeWitt County, calls it “a 50-year decision.”
A large geographic area is “going to have to live with this for the next five decades,” he says. But with the Clinton plant hanging in the balance, he adds, “we’re the ones with a ticking time bomb over our heads.”