Sauk Valley: In Bryon, Illinois House energy vote means job’s half finished
Byron Mayor Jim Rickard is grabbing a late breakfast at the Sunrise II Family Restaurant.
It’s Friday, the morning after the state House passed an energy bill with the provisions needed to keep the Byron Nuclear Generating Station operating.
But the mood around town — and the uncertainty that comes with all that is at stake — hasn’t changed.
“Until the Senate and the governor act, it really hasn’t changed a lot for us,” Rickard said.
The Senate is supposed to take up the latest version of the energy bill on Monday. Gov. JB Pritzker says he’ll sign it.
“Points of disagreement have narrowed,” said Rickard, who has been following the legislative process. He was one of several community leaders who took part in a roundtable discussion with U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger on the topic.
“We all shared the same urgency,” Rickard said. “The importance of the nuclear plant to Illinois, to our community and to clean energy.”
Rickard said Kinzinger, a Channahon Republican, was on board. “It was a meeting of like minds,” he said.
Exelon announced it would retire the Byron plant and the Dresden facility in Morris, even though they have years of operational life left, because nuclear power is at an economic disadvantage compared to traditional means of power generation under current regulations and market rules. The state legislation is written to alleviate the discrepancy.
On Thursday, state Rep. Tom Demmer voted for the House version. “I chose to support this bill for our regional economy and for Illinois’ energy future,” Demmer, R-Dixon, said in a news release.
However, Rickard said that state Sen. Brian Stewart, R-Freeport, whose 45th district encompasses Byron, voted against the previous version of the energy bill on Sept. 1. At the time, Stewart told constituents the bill left lawmakers with a “terrible option” of approving huge financial subsidies to wind and solar companies or beginning to dismantle the state’s fleet of nuclear power plants. Stewart said he would have supported provisions to protect the Byron plant had it been a standalone bill, but the version contained “poison pills that will ultimately hurt Illinois ratepayers, businesses and consumers by significantly increasing utility rates.”
Even so, that previous version passed the Senate, 39-16-2. Few in Byron are taking that as an indicator.
At the Sunrise, owner and operator Muje Luma says the fate of the Byron plant is often the topic of conversation in the restaurant.
“Everybody talks about it,” he says. “Everybody worries about it. Everybody is concerned. They live here and they want what is best for our town.”
It’s a point of pride that Byron Community School District 226, supported in large part by the taxes generated by the nuclear plant, is exceptional, Luma says. “We have families move into Byron because we have one of the best schools in the state.”
The Illinois State Board of Education report card shows Byron CSD 226 with a 93% graduation rate and per pupil spending at $16,070 (the state average is $13,764). In science, math and English, district students score above the state average.
Luma says his own restaurant does good business because of the presence of the nuclear plant.
“We get a lot of orders to go,” he says. His customers not only include plant workers who live in town, but those who commute in.
Rickard says the plant employs about 700, and 100 of them reside in Byron.
The nuclear plant contributes nearly $35 million annually to the region’s tax base.
Entities in Byron receive well over $25 million. Rickard lists the biggest ones: schools, fire protection district, library and forest preserve.
The school district gets $19.1 million. The Byron Fire Protection District sees $2.5 million. The issue is of such concern the school website maintains a facts and figures page devoted to nuclear power while the fire protection district has included the issue on its monthly agenda as a talking point since October.
“I would say we are cautiously optimistic,” said Buster Barton, superintendent of schools and a member of the Bryon Station Response Committee that has worked to gain community and legislative support for the Byron and Dresden plants. “We’re told it has a good chance of moving forward. We’re eager. We’re excited.”
By necessity, the school has done some contingency planning, should the measure fail. “We’ve been saving for a rainy day,” Barton said. “But when something like this happens, it can be overwhelming.”
Barton said the work of the committee was to generate support locally and with members of the General Assembly. But it also tried to explain “what the absence of nuclear power would mean for grid stability, the environment and jobs. We tried to communicate all those things.”
Christine Lynde is president of the Byron CSD 226 board of education and also a BSRC member. She sent an encouraging message to supporters to the group’s Facebook page, Save IL Nuclear Power, after the House voted. “We are inches away from the finish line!!” she posted.
Todd Tucker is the director of the Byron Forest Preserve, which also depends on taxes from the nuclear plant. He’s tried to remain positive about the process.
Tucker said he understood that the process to decommission a nuclear plant takes time. “It could take them 10 years,” he said, noting for safety reasons the draw down would be gradual. “It wasn’t going to be all or nothing. We were going to have a little bit of time.”
Even if Monday’s vote allows the plant to continue, Rickard says the experience has been instructive. The business community understands it cannot solely rely on the power plant, he said.
Rickard said the town knows it needs to look at diversifying its economic base. “We’ve been more serious about that over the last year,” he said.
Byron is a bedroom community for Rockford. “In that sense, we’re kind of a suburb,” he said. The town’s restaurants and bars make it a destination. So does the Byron Dragway and the Byron Motorsports Park.
“We have another identity,” he said.