Exelon to shut down Byron and Dresden nuclear plants


    BYRON — The Byron Generating Station will close next year, a move that will put hundreds of people out of work, strip millions of dollars in tax revenue from the community and potentially disrupt the state’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

    Exelon, the power company that owns the Byron station, said Thursday that it will retire the plant in September 2021 and the Dresden Generating Station in Morris in November 2021.

    Dresden was licensed to operate for a decade longer and Byron for 20 more years. The two plants employ more than 1,500 people full time, including roughly 730 in Byron.

    The two plants, along with Braidwood Generating Station in northeast Illinois, have long been considered at risk of early closure because of persistently low power prices. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year, the company said early retirement of all three plants was possible if they’re not adequately compensated for « their ability to produce large amounts of energy without carbon and air pollution. »

    Altogether, the two stations produce enough carbon-free emissions to power more than 4 million homes, according to the company. They account for roughly 30% of the state’s carbon-free energy.

    « Although we know in our heads that shutting down the uneconomic Illinois plants is necessary to preserve even more jobs elsewhere, our hearts ache today for the thousands of talented women and men that have served Illinois families for more than a generation and will lose their jobs because of poorly conceived energy policies, » Christopher Crane, president and CEO of Exelon, said in a news release. « But we are only about a year away from shutdown and we need to give our people, the host communities, and regulators time to prepare. »

    The two stations also generate millions of dollars in taxes and provide hundreds of thousands in charitable contributions to the two communities. Exelon pays $38 million a year in property taxes on the Byron facility, Ogle County tax records show, and the station contributes more than $300,000 to local charities each year, the company said.

    « We recognize this comes as many of our communities are still recovering from the economic and public health impacts of the pandemic, and we will continue our dialogue with policymakers on ways to prevent these closures, » Crane said. « To that end, we have opened our books to policymakers and will continue to do so for any lawmaker who wishes to judge the plants’ profitability. »

    Nuclear power stations have been unable to compete with the cheap power being produced from shale gas, often extracted through hydraulic fracking. Exelon has prematurely shut down other plants in recent years, including its Oyster Creek station in New Jersey in 2018 and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 2019, as shale gas extraction has increased in the U.S.

    Exelon has pushed for lawmakers to take over a critical part of establishing power prices in order to allow carbon-free sources of energy like nuclear plants to be paid more than natural gas and coal plants. But there’s been little movement on any legislation, and the company’s hopes for action in Springfield may have been upended by the bribery scandal embroiling its ComEd subsidiary.

    ComEd’s admission in a deferred-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors that it orchestrated a « yearslong bribery scheme » involving jobs and other payments to allies of House Speaker Michael Madigan has created trust issues for all Exelon entities, Crane told Crain’s Chicago Business earlier this month. Lawmakers are wary of taking any action that could be perceived as helping ComEd and Exelon, he acknowledged.

    Before COVID-19 upended the world, Gov. JB Pritzker had made passing energy legislation one of his top priorities. The goal is to put Illinois on track for a carbon-free power industry by 2050. He revived that clean-energy push late last week, although he’s skeptical of Exelon’s proposal, Crain’s reported.

    Instead, Pritzker supports a plan that sets a price on carbon emissions from power plants and lets the market determine which plants survive.

    « We agree with Governor Pritzker that policy reform is urgently needed to address the climate crisis and advance Illinois’ clean energy economy, and we support the objectives of the Governor’s recent energy principles, » Crane said. « That’s separate from today’s announcement to retire these two zero-carbon nuclear plants, which was not a decision made lightly and is one that has been in the works for some time. »

    The state last propped up nuclear plants with the 2016 passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act, an energy bill that included more than $200 million annually in zero-emission credit payments to Exelon plants.

    The Byron station has been online for 35 years. Construction of the facility began in 1975 and the Unit 1 reactor came online in 1985. The second reactor followed in 1987.

    The plant generates enough electricity to power more than 2.3 million homes while preventing the release of nearly 12 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, according to Exelon.

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    Exelon, Nuclear power plant, Exelon – Byron Generating Station, Commonwealth Edison Co

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