Michael Shellenberger, left, and Eric Meyer at a pro-nuclear protest in Chicago. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News

Correction appended. 

“Power, power for the people,” sang a crowd of about 40 mostly young people holding protest signs and marching outside a high-rise office building in downtown Chicago on Monday.

Their signs denounced fossil fuels, and their rally was billed as inspired by the Civil Rights March on Washington, the Stonewall gay rights uprising and Gandhi’s Salt March.

But the forces targeted by this would-be social movement were a major environmental organization and renewable energy developer, which protesters say are standing in the way of legislation that would aid Illinois’ nuclear power plants.

The march was the latest effort by Environmental Progress, a national group founded by prominent Bay Area environmentalist and nuclear advocate Michael Shellenberger with the support of philanthropist Rachel Pritzker. Shellenberger was in Illinois earlier this year, along with Pritzker and climate scientist James Hansen, to tout nuclear energy and demand Illinois’ plants be kept open.

Shellenberger and his supporters describe their group as a nascent environmental movement that takes no industry money. The group’s website says it was founded to address the twin issues of climate change and curbing the burning of wood and dung for power, with the site featuring photos of women and children in developing countries, as well as various primates.

But preventing the closing of nuclear plants, specifically in Illinois, California and New York, appears to be the group’s primary focus so far. “The ocean’s getting sicker, hear the bird and mammal cries; the environment’s at risk from anti-nukes who spew their lies,” goes the final verse of their protest song.

A number of Chicago clean energy and environmental advocates view Shellenberger’s quest as quixotic or disingenuous, and say he is sowing confusion about Illinois’ energy economy at a time when state lawmakers are considering controversial legislation that would guarantee revenue to Exelon Corporation’s nuclear plants. Exelon, which owns six nuclear plants in Illinois, has said it will close two facilities, Clinton and Quad Cities, if it does not get the guarantees.

Dave Lundy is executive director of the BEST coalition, a 501(c)4 organization of consumer groups and companies that oppose the supports for nuclear in the proposed bill.

“Gandhi was marching against the British in an attempt to break a monopoly, and these guys are marching for the monopolists,” Lundy said. “I’m sure most of these marchers are very well-meaning people. Unfortunately they know absolutely nothing about the Illinois energy market. Illinois currently generates 40 percent more electricity than we need.”

Lundy cited 2015 Energy Information Administration statistics showing 193.5 million MWh of electricity generation and 137.5 million MWh of consumption in the state.  “Demand is declining, and we already have more power than we need,” he added.

Ideology or influence

Shellenberger’s protest was billed as calling out the Environmental Law & Policy Center for taking money from what he characterizes as fossil fuel interests, namely Invenergy, a developer of solar, wind and natural gas power that donated $10,000 for a table at ELPC’s annual fundraising dinner in April featuring U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Invenergy’s website says its developments include 7,654 MW of wind, 5,833 MW of natural gas and 179 MW of solar power.

ELPC declined to comment but provided a statement about the march, citing organizers’ references to civil rights and Gandhi:

“That’s tone-deaf to the people who have fought for civil rights for millions of people. This group is instead apparently demanding that Illinois consumers pay a billion dollar rate hike for Exelon’s benefit while our schools, kids’ programs, public transit districts and mental health programs are suffering harsh funding cuts. Let’s show some common sense here.”

The ELPC is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

When asked whether he thinks ELPC’s or other environmental groups’ policy positions are influenced by the natural gas industry, Shellenberger said “they have the ideology and then the money comes later.

“Their outmoded 1970s tin-foil-hat ideologies are being locked in by these contributions,” he said.

ELPC’S statement listed some of their efforts to reduce pollution from fossil fuels: “ELPC worked with community partners to challenge the highly-polluting Fisk and Crawford coal plants, we are in court to make sure that Peabody Energy doesn’t shift coal mine reclamation costs onto the public, and we are in court to protect clean air and reduce pollution from the Edwards coal plant in Peoria. Just as importantly, ELPC is advancing sensible energy efficiency programs that avoid pollution, create jobs and save families and businesses money on utility bills.”

Shellenberger said he blames ELPC for being a roadblock to the passage of proposed state legislation that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed revenue for Exelon’s nuclear plants. The bill includes numerous other contentious provisions backed by Exelon’s subsidiary utility ComEd, including policies that critics say are hostile to solar development.

Intense negotiations over energy legislation are ongoing between ComEd, Exelon and members of the Clean Jobs Coalition — renewable companies and environmental groups, including ELPC, that have introduced their own bill. 

The Oct. 23-24 agenda advertised by Shellenberger’s group noted a meeting with Clean Jobs Coalition members preceding the march. He said he has contacted all the members of the coalition but only one agreed to meet with his group, and that meeting had to be rescheduled.

Shellenberger and many of the marchers said that natural gas and coal power will proliferate, with new plants opened and existing ones kept running, if the bill isn’t passed to support Illinois’ nuclear plants. But critics of the bill have long pointed out that Illinois is an energy exporter, and the regional grid operator PJM announced this year that there would be no reliability impacts if Quad Cities closed. MISO will do a similar analysis for the Clinton plant.

The idea that closing the two Illinois nuclear plants will mean more greenhouse gas emissions, Lundy said, “is an assertion in direct conflict with the facts. If you shut down Quad Cities and Clinton, we’re not going to be starting up a bunch of new coal plants. Illinois is in a good position with or without Clinton and Quad Cities — those are just the numbers.”

The power of money

Shellenberger made his name as a renewable energy advocate, including co-founding the Apollo Alliance in 2003. The Breakthrough Institute, which he also co-founded, advocates for new energy solutions driven by technology and innovation, including in nuclear and renewables. But Shellenberger said that funding from both fossil fuels and clean energy companies unfairly influences the political debate.

“You can’t take money from renewable companies and be an honest broker,” he said. “We don’t take money from any energy companies. Frankly that’s unethical.”

Shellenberger said the Pritzker Innovation Fund provided the seed money necessary for Environmental Progress, founded this year, to attract 11 other funders, mostly small foundations or individuals.

The Pritzker Innovation Fund’s 990 forms for 2014 filed with the IRS show a $600,000 contribution to the Breakthrough Institute, along with $100,000 to the Clean Air Task Force and several other major donations. The fund also contributed $94,433 to the Third Way Institute related to Pandora’s Promise, a film featuring Shellenberger and touting the benefits of the nuclear industry and its safety, including the idea that the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown caused far less harm than commonly believed.

Shellenberger has on at least one occasion been on the receiving end of criticism about alleged fossil fuel ties.

Among his varied past public relations work, Shellenberger once represented the administration of then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. His firm Lumina Strategies reportedly helped try to revamp the socialist leader’s image in the U.S. in 2004.

Journalist and Chavez critic Aleksander Boyd was sharply critical of Shellenberger accepting the work.

“What is the source of Shellenberger’s salary if not oil money that could have been used to benefit ordinary people?” he wrote at the time.

Faith in nuclear

In Chicago, protester Heather Matteson said she has worked at the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California for more than a decade. In June the company PG&E announced it will not seek license renewal, and Diablo — California’s last nuclear plant — will close in 2025 contingent upon several regulatory approvals. The company made an agreement to invest in renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency to replace the power from the plant.

Alarmed by the news, Matteson began doing research and “found Michael.” With his help, she said, she founded the group Mothers for Nuclear, which now has representatives in several states.

Matteson said she first got her job at the plant thinking that “I’d be a little bit of a spy,” since she was part of the group Mothers for Peace*, where members opposed nuclear power. But seeing the industry firsthand she quickly became convinced of its safety and value, she said. She is from a tiny copper mining town in Arizona, where she saw the need to preserve water and land, and she feels like nuclear energy produces less waste and environmental harm than fossil fuels or renewable energy.

[*UPDATE October 31, 2016: Mothers for Peace member Molly Johnson said that board members say and the group’s records show that Matteson has never been a member of the anti-nuclear group. Matteson said she is on the group’s mailing list, and thought that constituted membership.]

“The market’s not accurate and doesn’t reward nuclear for being carbon-free,” Matteson said at the Chicago march. “It’s unfair because of subsidies for renewables.”

Emma Redfoot heads the Idaho chapter of Mothers for Nuclear, though she doesn’t have children. She’s a graduate student in nuclear engineering with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies. Her research focuses on nuclear hybrid energy systems, wherein nuclear reactors can ramp up or down quickly to complement variable output from solar and wind power. In the U.S., natural gas plants typically fill this role. Redfoot thinks environmental groups would look more kindly on nuclear energy if they saw it in this capacity.

“They absolutely believe in renewables, and that means you have to support natural gas,” she said.

The march included many nuclear engineering students, including from the University of Illinois and Berkeley. “I’ve always been interested in clean power,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison student McKinleigh McCabe. “And as I got more into my major I realized that nuclear is really cool.”

Members of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, an anti-nuclear group, protested against Shellenberger’s group outside the ELPC offices. NEIS executive director Dave Kraft described Shellenberger’s campaign as among “astro-turf, pseudo-environmental efforts to bail out the failing nuclear power industry.” In response to the anti-nuclear protestors, nuclear advocates, mostly a generation or two younger, chanted “No tin foil hats!”

Shellenberger said he was proud of the two-day event, especially the student turnout. “We’re still small,” he said, “but all great things start small.”

CORRECTION: A $600,000 contribution from the Pritzker Innovation Fund to the Breakthrough Institute in 2014 was not made for the group Environmental Progress, as reported in a previous version of this story. Environmental Progress was founded in 2016.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.