Illinois Has No Time to Waste in Building Its Carbon-Free Electricity Future

April 3, 2023 | 11:46 am
photo of a series of wind turbines against a blue sky, with a green farm field belowUS Department of Energy
James Gignac
Midwest Senior Policy Manager

Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) sets a bold goal for the state—no carbon pollution from electricity generation by 2045, which means zero global warming emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants. Along with interim goals and priorities for pollution reduction in environmental justice areas, the law provides authorization and resources for state agencies to enable the transition to clean, renewable energy.

With respect to the electricity grid, CEJA directs the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) to prepare a Renewable Energy Access Plan (REAP) to help ensure that clean energy resources can connect to the grid and be ready to replace coal and gas plants. CEJA also sets out procurement requirements for clean energy by the Illinois Power Agency and funding for communities to build solar installations and make repairs and efficiency improvements in homes and buildings. By combining these supportive policies with studies of where they can be most effective in supporting the power grid, Illinois can see where to best focus its clean energy development efforts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists commissioned power flow modeling to study the effects of retiring Illinois fossil fuel plants connected to PJM, the regional grid operator serving the northern part of the state. PowerGEM, an independent consulting firm, conducted the analysis for us, using the same data and process PJM uses.

What is power flow modeling and what is it telling us?

Power flow modeling uses datasets from grid operators to examine the effects that removing or adding generation has on the transmission system. It seeks to identify places where solutions are needed, but does not select what those solutions should be, which can include reducing local electricity demand through energy efficiency or installing new renewable generation nearby (in addition to upgrading power lines or substations).

The analysis clearly indicates that coal plant retirements are not limited by the needs of the transmission grid: PowerGEM found that every PJM-connected coal plant in Illinois can be retired with no issues for the transmission system. Importantly, the analysis also shows that increasing the amount of renewable generation in Illinois directly reduces the need for coal and gas plants.

For example, below are two screen shots of maps provided by PowerGEM. The first shows various places on the grid where solutions are needed to allow the system to continue functioning normally if all Illinois PJM-connected coal plants are retired, and thousands of megawatts of existing gas plants also cease operation. The second shows what happens when substantial amounts of new wind and solar resources are added in place of the fossil fuel plants: the amount of solutions needed is dramatically reduced.

This “heat map” displays the results of power flow modeling with Illinois PJM-connected coal and gas plants removed from the system. Dots represent transformer overloads and colored lines represent circuit overloads. Warmer colors represent more significant overloads. (Source: PowerGEM)
When substantial amounts of new wind and solar resources are added to the power flow model, there are still grid solutions needed but their number and significance is dramatically reduced. (Source: PowerGEM)

The modeling exercise shows that the investments in new renewable generation required by CEJA address most grid issues presented by removing coal and gas plants from the system. While some other grid improvements—such as transmission, substations, and other non-wire alternatives like energy efficiency, distributed generation, microgrids, and demand response—would certainly still be needed, our analysis illustrates that CEJA’s emissions reduction goals will work with the right planning and preparation in place.

Illinois Commerce Commission’s Renewable Energy Access Plan (REAP)

CEJA directs the ICC to create and update a plan every two years for the transmission capacity necessary to bring renewable energy to Illinois residents. The ICC is currently considering a draft for the first of these REAP plans and is expected to finish this summer. My colleague Mike Jacobs, UCS senior energy analyst, prepared and submitted comments to the ICC urging several improvements to the plan, as well as describing results from our power flow analysis. In a nutshell, the ICC, PJM, and Illinois’ other grid operator—the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO)—all have critical roles to play and need to get moving with urgency and purpose now. Along with Illinois utilities ComEd and Ameren, these entities all need to take a systems-wide approach to designing and building a grid that is ready to meet the requirements of CEJA. What does that mean exactly?

Illinois legislators and clean energy advocates celebrate CEJA’s signing in September 2021. (Photo: Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition)

Multi-beneficial solutions are available, but action is needed

We know that CEJA’s decarbonization goals won’t just happen on their own; action is needed to meet them, with respect to both the transmission system and new clean energy resources.

CEJA provides $380 million a year in new funding to ramp up solar and wind power to 40 percent of Illinois’ power mix by 2030 and 50 percent by 2040. CEJA also extends the state’s successful energy efficiency programs and expands the savings goals utilities must meet. These renewable resources and efficiency upgrades will replace the reduced operations of fossil fuel plants as the state moves toward its goal of zero carbon pollution from the power sector.

The Illinois Power Agency is responsible for implementing the renewable energy portions of CEJA, and the ICC reviews and approves utility energy efficiency plans. Additionally, as described above, the ICC’s REAP plan must take the initiative and play a leading role in convening utilities, clean energy developers, and grid operators to design and build the grid solutions needed for Illinois’ clean energy development.

Here are other examples of the solutions and actions the ICC and other state decisionmakers can, and should, pursue:

  • Ensure all cost-effective energy efficiency and flexible-demand programs are implemented by utilities
  • Increase renewable energy production and battery storage deployment, and ensure transmission upgrades are planned and installed
  • Focus on investments in buildings, environmental justice communities, and rural areas
  • Create a transmission plan that emphasizes replacement of fossil fuel plants with Illinois-based clean energy

Illinois’ grid operators PJM and MISO should:

  • Modify their interconnection queue processes so new renewable projects can receive approval faster, which will also help encourage more clean energy generators to submit proposed projects
  • PJM in particular needs to do a better job of planning for transmission improvements now because of the lead time for approvals and construction; MISO should continue and accelerate its Long Range Transmission Planning process

Some grid solutions, such as transmission projects, often have a long lead time—so the time to start planning them is now. And strengthening the draft REAP to better reflect the steps Illinois needs will keep the state moving toward its goal of power sector decarbonization.

Let’s not delay cleaner air and healthier communities

If we don’t prepare for the phaseout of coal and gas plants in Illinois, grid operators are allowed under state law to issue waivers that would allow plants to continue polluting our air and worsening the climate crisis.

Rather than waiting and reacting when individual fossil fuel plants request to reduce or cease operations, PJM and MISO need to plan more proactively and holistically. Not doing so will likely result in delays and missed opportunities for new clean energy in Illinois—and possibly encourage more carbon-intensive power plants in neighboring states to increase production. Illinois has a bold goal, and the tools and solutions to meet it are readily available. With careful planning and attention to urgency, the opportunity is before us. Let’s seize it.