The bill signed outside Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium was celebrated as the milestone of a political marathon. Indeed, the moment also marked the beginning of a longer and more grueling race for the implementation of the ambitious new law.
The transition to a carbon-free electricity grid by 2045 is no small task. And no state should understand better that setting energy goals and achieving them are not the same thing. In 2007, Illinois passed a law to get 25% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Last year it was 10%.
Building a carbon-free network comes with a series of dizzying technical and political challenges and unanswered questions, some of which were identified in a draft report prepared last month for the Illinois Trade Commission.
At the heart of the challenge is a question that commission staff and consultants Brattle Group and Great Lakes Engineering sought to answer in a 72-page renewable energy access plan: How much new renewable energy will be needed to deliver 100% the needs of the state?
The question seems simple and straightforward. The answer is no.
According to the report, Illinois will need between 64 and 450 terawatt hours, a wide range of estimates.
The low end would require the state to triple the amount of renewable energy used last year. The top end represents a twentyfold increase and would exponentially complicate the challenges related to project location, connecting renewable energy to the grid and transmission.
Two large wildcards explain the wide range of how much renewable energy will be needed, according to the draft plan.
One is the uncertainty about the pace of transportation and electrification of buildings, which could increase the demand for electricity. The other concerns the lifespan of the Illinois nuclear fleet, the largest in any state.
Nuclear power was about half of the state’s total electricity supply last year and 86% of its current carbon-free energy. All nuclear power plant licenses expire by 2047 unless owner Constellation Energy Corp. tries 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 boon to the state in pursuing climate goals.
“We are absolutely in the best position to do it economically,” said Kolata, who helped negotiate the Illinois climate law on behalf of a coalition made up mostly of environmental groups.
“Yes, in theory you could replace nuclear power plants with renewables. Can you do it in a practical and economical way? I don’t think so, ”she said.
“This should in no way be misinterpreted as providing a blank check to nuclear power plants,” Kolata added. “But this is a key resource and the fact that we have so much that we are building on a basis of some carbon-free electricity is a structural advantage for the state.”
Law on the reduction of inflation
There is no immediate threat to Illinois’ six nuclear power plants, which are poised to benefit from nuclear tax credits in the Federal Inflation Reduction Act signed this year by President Joe Biden. In addition, four of the plants have state-level political support as a reserve.
But both federal and state nuclear support are limited in duration. IRA nuclear provisions drop in 2032 and Illinois aid expires in 2027.
Constellation Energy Corp., the spinoff of Exelon Corp. which owns and operates the Illinois nuclear power plants, said it was encouraged by the message sent by the Illinois law provisions and the IRA and what that means for the role of the IRA. nuclear power in the future.
Federal law in particular may “pave the way for Constellation to pursue a 20-year license extension across our fleet,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.
However, Baltimore-based Constellation has stopped committing to extend the life of all Illinois factories by seeking a new 20-year operating license extension.
There is plenty of time for Constellation and other parties in Illinois to consider the need to continue operation of all nuclear power plants, the first of which – the 1,080 megawatt Clinton power plant – will reach the end of its current 40-year operating license. in 2027.
Other Constellation nuclear power plants in Illinois have operating licenses that extend 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 reach of the work at hand or the fate of the nuclear fleet. Instead, the state must focus on what it can do today, he said.
“I don’t want to see the process get stuck, ‘How big is 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 10-15 years,” he said.
That is to use renewable energy and build the transmission to connect it to the regional grid.
The draft plan clarifies something else about achieving a carbon-free power grid: Illinois can’t do it alone.
The state needs the help of the region’s network operators: 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 how to allocate costs for intrastate transmission are both complex issues subject to recent revisions proposed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
There, too, Jacobs said Illinois shouldn’t get stuck on what it can’t control.
The Illinois Trade Commission, which is required by last year’s climate law to review its renewable energy access plan and open an investigation, cannot build new regional transmission projects on its own.
But it can push the utilities it regulates, particularly Commonwealth Edison in the PJM region, to build internal lines known as “supplementary projects” to connect new renewable energies.
“No tools should be left behind”
More in-state lines to connect wind and solar projects could be particularly important as Illinois is looking at a process that Texas pioneered years ago when lone star state designated renewable energy zones, specific areas in Texas. and in the Panhandle with the best wind resources.
Illinois is looking to designate some parts of the state that have high renewable potential and will require some new transmission projects.
“It’s a much shorter route available for Illinois,” Jacobs said. “In this situation, no tools should be left behind.”
Of course, the state will still need the help of regional grid operators to help it build a carbon-free grid.
Unlike California or New York, each of which has its own grid operators, Illinois is part of two regional networks, each spanning more than a dozen states, each with their own energy policies and policies.
For all the technical and political issues that accompany an attempt to revise 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 problems to achieve them, there are also shared challenges they can work together to overcome.
The Clean Energy States Alliance, a nonprofit organization formed to help implement clean energy programs and policies, has created an initiative that brings together states with 100% clean energy goals to talk to each other and share the best practices.
“We left at the request of the states, who came to us and said: ‘Can you put together an initiative like this? Because we know we have all these goals and it makes no sense for us to operate in isolation. It makes no sense for us to reinvent the wheel. We need to exchange information with each other, ‘”Warren Leon, the alliance’s executive director, said in an interview.
While it may seem daunting to Illinois as it faces trying to wean itself completely from fossil fuels, while maintaining reliability, keeping costs as low as possible all at the same time, the prospect of achieving the goal is much better than what would have seemed possible even a decade ago, Leon said.
“It’s easier to identify the challenges, then it’s the unexpected technological and economic improvements that will come along the way in the future that we’re not necessarily anticipating at the moment,” he said.