Union coalition enters state energy debate with utility-friendly agenda

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A coalition of unions formed to make labor’s voice heard in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s effort to decarbonize Illinois’ power industry is out today with a proposal that looks a lot like something big utilities like Exelon and Ameren would favor.

Climate Jobs Illinois, as the coalition is called, is backing ratepayer subsidies for all of Chicago-based Exelon’s Illinois nuclear plants and requirements for new utility-scale wind and solar facilities manned by union workers at “prevailing wages.” For union workers who lose their jobs as coal-fired power plants close, the group wants a fund that would offer three to five years of transition support equaling their wages and benefits, as well as relocation compensation for those who move for new jobs.

The umbrella group, formed last month, comprises 13 unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents workers at most of the state’s power plants, as well as employees of Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois. The governing board is made up of leaders of the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council.

The executive director is Nikki Budzinkski, a close ally of Pritzker’s who left his administration in February.

On its website the group describes itself this way: “Climate Jobs Illinois—which is independent of energy developers and utilities—is a coalition of labor organizations advocating for a pro-worker, pro-climate agenda in Illinois.”

With Exelon and subsidiary ComEd politically hobbled thanks to ComEd’s admissions of bribery and influence peddling in Springfield to win past legislative favors, the union group could be seen as a more politically potent lobbyist for priorities that just happen to mirror Exelon‘s. Pritzker has pledged repeatedly that utilities won’t be allowed to write the big energy bill to come, as they have in the past when the industry has come calling for favors.

He also allowed himself to be quoted in the union coalition’s September press release announcing its formation. “Union jobs have built Illinois for decades and opened the door to the middle class for many families,” he said in that release. “We will need thousands more to tackle climate change and combat inequality—so I welcome Climate Jobs Illinois to the effort to create a cleaner future for our state.”

In an interview, Budzinski said the union coalition was independent of utilities and energy producers. The group includes unions whose members aren’t directly affected, like the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the United Auto Workers.

Utilities won’t necessarily like parts of the union plan, she said, such as new disclosure requirements on the collection and use of ratepayer subsidies and creating a division within the Illinois Commerce Commission to track such things.

Of course, the price tag would be enormous for ambitions including hundreds of millions annually to support Exelon’s four unsubsidized Illinois nuclear plants, two of which the company already has announced it will close without such aid, as well as the construction of up to 23,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind and solar power over the next decade.

To put that amount of new renewable energy in context, Exelon’s entire industry-leading fleet of nukes—not just in Illinois, but in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland as well—generates a little over 18,000 megawatts. The Illinois nuclear plants together generate 11,370 megawatts, less than half the renewable development the union coalition wants financed in Illinois.

Asked whether Climate Jobs Illinois has estimated a cost for its initiative, Budzinski said, “Today would be premature to talk about costs.” She added, “These are a collection of aspirational goals."

Past wide-ranging energy initiatives like the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act have been financed strictly by ratepayers. Surcharges on electric bills statewide pay to subsidize two Exelon nukes—Clinton and Quad Cities—that the company threatened to close four years ago. Other surcharges finance the development of new renewable facilities and energy-efficiency programs administered by ComEd and Ameren Illinois at a profit to them.

“We do acknowledge we’re a state that’s not flush with revenue,” Budzinski said.

She expressed some hope that if Joe Biden wins the presidential election in two weeks, his administration might make federal investment available for state clean-energy goals.

As for the proposed aid to displaced workers, Budzinski pointed to the recent announcement by Irving, Texas-based Vistra that it would shutter all its coal-fired power plants in downstate Illinois within six years. The unions are calling for a fund to aid not just the workers but also the small towns that typically rely almost exclusively on taxes from those plants to fund their schools and municipal needs.

“In some of these smaller communities, it really does take a significant amount of time for a worker to find something else or relocate,” she said.

A working group established by Pritzker is sorting through a variety of clean-energy proposals. The governor is expected eventually to release his own draft, with action likely next spring if this complicated array of interests can coalesce.

via Crain’s Chicago Business https://ift.tt/1mywUHL

October 19, 2020 at 05:41PM

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