Nuclear Energy is the Foundation for a Clean Energy Future in Illinois

A thriving economy is dependent upon affordable, low-carbon energy.  As nuclear energy currently serves as a pillar of electricity production in Illinois and is emission-free, it should be looked upon to serve as the foundation of future clean energy.  A Policy Brief [PDF] by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute explores nuclear energy’s role in Illinois’ energy future.  State policymakers should carefully consider the path to reaching future emissions standards and the ramifications of nuclear plant retirements. 

In 2014, over 49 percent of Illinois’ electricity was generated by nuclear energy, making it the state’s most significant electricity contributor.  The only other source of energy that comes close to generating as much electricity is coal at 43 percent, followed by renewable sources at 5 percent.

Despite being the leading source of electricity in Illinois, nuclear energy cannot be guaranteed in the future.  Exelon, the owner of all nuclear power stations in the state, recently announced plans to close the Clinton and Quad Cities generating plants in the next two years, due to reduced demand for electricity and the sudden influx of cheap natural gas driving down electricity prices, thus resulting in inadequate nuclear plant earnings.

Exelon and its subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), the state’s largest electric utility, proposed Senate Bill 1585 as a means to promote a successful energy future for Illinois in May 2016.  While the bill did not progress, it is a measure that could have improved the state’s nuclear energy woes.  The bill incorporated a variety of energy provisions, one of which – the zero-emission standard (ZES) – would compensate the two economically-challenged plants in danger of closing to guarantee continued production of carbon-free energy.  Regardless of the perception of a “bailout” for Exelon, it is important to understand the economic and environmental implications of potential nuclear retirements, which are summarized below.

Most basically, a nuclear energy plant serves as a significant employer that provides long-term, middle-class jobs.  The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity analyzed the impact of three nuclear plant retirements and found that while the construction of renewable energy sources would support new jobs, a net job loss will result when construction for wind and solar is complete.  By 2020, Illinois would lose over 5,500 jobs in energy production.

Furthermore, nuclear energy generates almost 50 percent of Illinois’ electricity, and most significantly, does so without emitting any carbon dioxide (CO2).  In the short-term, following nuclear plant retirements, it is likely that the electricity deficit will be replaced by some combination of existing sources.  If nuclear energy was entirely removed from electricity generation, considering 2014 rates, the remaining energy sources can be expected to take over that shortage at their existing rates of 84 percent coal, 10 percent renewables, and 5 percent natural gas.  Therefore, the fossil-fuel fired sources, which emit the highest levels of CO2, would make-up a significantly larger portion of replacement electricity generation than renewable sources, resulting in an increase in CO2 emissions.

Specifically, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found that the retirement of two nuclear power plants would produce an additional 21.5 million metric tons of CO2 per year, resulting in over $10 billion in costs to society.  Compared to 2013 electricity generation emissions, this added CO2 results in a 24 percent increase in CO2 due to the alternate energy sources being used to make-up the deficit.

As Illinois and the nation move towards a clean energy future, nuclear energy can provide a foundation to aid in reaching lower levels of emissions.  Nuclear and coal account for over 91 percent of the state’s electricity production, yet increased federal regulations related to coal-fired emissions will likely negatively impact the future of the energy source.  Furthermore, nuclear plant retirements will lead to higher emissions and significant social costs, as well as a loss of quality, middle-class jobs.  Preemptive actions to ensure that Illinois is prepared for a future with lower energy emissions will support the state’s economy and provide a competitive advantage.  Illinois policymakers should promote nuclear energy to guarantee clean and dependable future electricity generation.

Cover Photo Credit: Ben Jacobson (2007), “Byron Nuclear Generating Station.”

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