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Watchdog Group Raises 'Serious Concerns' About Plan To Help ComEd

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Illinois lawmakers have introduced legislation that would allow ComEd to charge customers about $2 more per month to cover the costs of its nuclear power plants, drawing criticism from a utility watchdog group that says ComEd's parent company already makes plenty of profit.

Legislation introduced in Springfield would provide financial incentives for companies that produce "clean" energy that does not produce harmful greenhouse gases.

ComEd's parent company, Exelon, backs the legislation, because it would help them pay for three nuclear power plants it says are unprofitable – in Byron, Clinton, and the Quad Cities.

The Citizens Utility Board said it would take a look at the proposal, but it has concerns.

"Exelon has made more than $20 billion in profits over the past decade. Its nuclear fleet, overall, is profitable. And ComEd customers have already paid for those plants several times over," CUB spokesman Jim Chilsen said.


With the $2 surcharge Exelon is seeking, Chilsen said "that would increase our electric bills by an estimated $300 million a year."

Exelon warned of layoffs if it is forced to close the three plants, but is not saying how long it would keep those plants open if the legislation does pass.

CUB said it is looking for a more comprehensive energy plan for Illinois, but is willing to take a close look at the Exelon proposal.

"We still have to look at the bill. We'll always listen to any proposal. We'll always work with anybody to make sure that we can have a future with more energy efficiency, and more renewable energy, but right now we do have serious concerns," Chilsen said.

The proposed legislation comes a week after another clean-energy proposal was proposed in the General Assembly that supporters say is more comprehensive and works to reduce consumption, something they say the latest version lacks. What will likely follow is a gladiator-style showdown among business, labor, and energy forces during a spring legislative session that has largely been consumed by focus on the state's financial crisis. The Exelon-backed plan was quickly derided as a "bailout" Thursday by a consumer group.

"The nuclear industry alone employs thousands of highly skilled laborers in our state and 8,000 of those jobs could be lost if three of our nuclear plants close," Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., an Elwood Democrat whose district includes many nuclear-plant employees, told a state Capitol news conference on Thursday.

Backed by lawmakers of both parties and key labor leaders trumpeting jobs, Exelon senior vice president Joseph Dominguez said the initiative would let the company compete with other low-carbon power generators for the financial incentive, including wind, solar, water, and clean coal.

If Exelon's the low bidder in the process, it could use money to keep open nuclear plants in the Quad Cities, Byron and Clinton -- and the $1.8 billion in annual economic activity they produce for those communities -- Dominguez said. The stations are unprofitable in the face of competition from cheaper natural gas and wind energy.

"What it will help us do is not make profits, but avoid losses that otherwise would be treated by retiring plants," Dominguez told a state Capitol news conference. "The right way to look at this is the consequence of losing the plants. ... The consequences are 10 times greater than the few dollars we're talking about on a monthly bill."

Other consumer groups weren't having it.

"Exelon made more than $2 billion last year, and here they are begging for a bailout on the backs of working Illinoisans," AARP Illinois director Bob Gallo said in a statement. "This bill would increase rates for older adults living on fixed incomes, working families and small businesses in order to pad Exelon's profits."

Through an annual Illinois power-agency lowest-cost auction, energy distributors ComEd and Ameren, would have to buy low-carbon energy "credits" equal to 70 percent of the energy they distributed in the past year. A low-carbon generator earns a credit for each unit of clean energy it produces. Purchased credits are financial rewards for generating power without hurting the environment.

The program would end in 2021 or when the state adopts an energy plan required by the federal government.

Dominguez says the plan merely allows Exelon's nuclear generators to compete with renewable energy sources which already benefit from another Illinois credit system. But it puts restrictions on who can compete so it wasn't immediately clear how many generators would be cut out.

A group called Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which supports the legislation introduced last week, said in a statement that proposal is the only "comprehensive energy bill that costs less to consumers, promotes a cleaner environment and will create tens of thousands of new jobs" while establishing a long-term energy policy and aiming to reduce power consumption by 20 percent in the next decade. But the statement said it looked forward to further discussions.

A spokesman declined to say whether Gov. Bruce Rauner has taken a position on the issue.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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