In response to growing concerns about climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, over the past decade three-fourths of the American states have adopted renewable portfolio standards or goals (RPS) for electric power generation.  Also referred to as renewable electricity standards (RES), these policies require or encourage power providers to supply a designated minimum share of their electricity from resources such as wind, solar, geothermal or biomass.

At 25 percent by 2025, the state of Illinois has adopted one of the most ambitious renewable energy mandates in the country.  Most of the renewable electricity currently generated in Illinois comes from wind turbines.  In fact, with 3.5 gigawatts of installed capacity, the state ranks fourth in the nation.  But nearly all of Illinois’ wind capacity was developed to serve out-of-state markets.  Further complicating the prospects for reaching its 25 percent goal is the reality that Illinois is a fully deregulated state, meaning households and businesses can purchase power from more than 80 different retail providers.  In short, the complexities of Illinois’ competitive wholesale and retail markets could make the RPS goal unattainable.

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The likely impact of forthcoming federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations mandating lower carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants will be another obstacle to achieving the state’s 25 percent RPS goal.  Because Illinois is the fourth largest coal producing state, not surprisingly it’s one of the largest consumers of coal for power generation.  About 7.6 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity, representing 44 percent of the state’s generating capacity, will be at risk if the EPA carbon regulations are adopted as proposed.

An alternative approach for Illinois would be to shift from a “renewable portfolio” standard to a “low carbon portfolio standard” (LCPS) that would capitalize on the state’s number one ranking in nuclear power generation.  Currently, Illinois’  11 nuclear power plants account for 8.2 gigawatts, or 47 percent, of the state’s electricity generation.   But power from these plants has not been valued for the carbon free electricity it provides.  Should Illinois move toward an LCPS, the operating life of the state’s nuclear fleet would be extended which, in turn, would facilitate the state’s compliance with EPA rules, in particular the 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

The value proposition for nuclear energy is stronger than ever.  Nuclear plants operate around the clock safely and reliably, thereby providing stability to the power grid.  They’re also not subject to the price volatility of fossil fuels.  Nuclear operations support large numbers of high-paying jobs and add mightily to the tax base of host communities.  Most importantly, nuclear power is environmentally benign:  no particulates, no sulfur dioxide, and no greenhouse gas emissions.  Just steam.             

Legislation has been introduced in both the Illinois House and Senate to establish the nation’s first low-carbon portfolio standard.  If adopted, it will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encourage investment in renewable energy sources, hold down electricity costs for consumers and businesses, and keep the state’s clean, efficient and cost-effective nuclear power plants on line for decades to come, thereby ensuring long-term diversity and reliability of the state’s power grid.  What’s more, if the Illinois example is emulated by other states, America’s quest for a low-carbon future can become a reality.

Weinstein is associate director of the Maguire Energy Institute and an adjunct professor of business economics in the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.