Illinois coal plants closing even as energy bill stalls


Dulce Ortiz teared up during a virtual press conference as she recalled the family dinners and birthday celebrations she’s missed because of her dedication to the seemingly endless campaign to close the coal-fired power plant in Waukegan, Illinois. 

The surprise announcement on June 17 that the plant will close in 2022 was bittersweet for Ortiz and other members of the group Clean Power Lake County. It came the day after a sweeping state energy bill yet again failed to pass, leaving in doubt “just transition” provisions that Waukegan residents say are desperately needed to help their town economically weather the closure and begin to mitigate the environmental injustice they say the plant has caused. 

The bill was widely expected to pass last week as the legislature had reconvened for a special session to consider it. But the Senate decided not to vote on the bill, reportedly because of opposition related to the impact on a $1.3 billion natural gas-fired plant under construction in downstate Grundy County. 

The latest version of the bill was spearheaded by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and hashed out over many months by a wide range of stakeholders. It demands coal plants close by 2035 and gas plants by 2045, ratcheting down emissions on the way. It also increases funding for renewables at a level meant to achieve 100% clean energy by 2050 and 40% by 2030. 

J.C. Kibbey, senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the last-minute stalemate yet another “11th hour” roadblock put up by fossil fuel interests. The bill had previously been expected to pass during the final stretch of the state legislature’s regular session in May, but it stalled in the final stretch because of opposition from backers of the Prairie State Energy Campus, Illinois’ largest coal plant. The revised bill allows Prairie State to remain open if it can capture and sequester 90% of its carbon emissions by 2034.

“This was the first anyone heard of it,” Kibbey said of the opposition related to the gas plant. “As bill drafts were out for months or years, [fossil fuel closure plans] should not have been a surprise to anyone. Whoever was raising that concern either didn’t understand the way the bill was structured or was trying to create a disruption.” 

After the gas plant-related opposition arose, legislators clarified that the declining emissions caps would be aggregate, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency could decide to let some gas plants keep emitting more carbon while forcing others, especially in environmental justice communities, to ratchet down sooner. Kibbey and others said they are hopeful that given these measures, the legislature will reconvene again in the coming weeks and pass the bill. Kibbey said the Clean Jobs Coalition, which his organization is part of, backs the governor’s bill. However, he said he has questions about the economics and doesn’t want to see too much concession around emissions reduction plans. 

“We should have zero emissions in 2045, but not all roads to zero emissions are created equal,” he said. 

Complaints and concessions 

For much of the spring legislative session, the main opposition to the bill proposed by Pritzker came from Exelon, owner of the state’s nuclear fleet, and labor unions that represent nuclear workers. Pritzker’s bill ultimately promised $694 million over five years to the nuclear plants, a lesser amount than Exelon wanted but enough to keep the plants open, according to a high-profile study by consultants Synapse. 

“That could have been the end of it,” state Sen. Christian Mitchell said in remarks for the June 15 committee hearing that was ultimately adjourned without action.

Mitchell’s testimony went on to describe the concessions made to Prairie State and gas plants. “We’ve come a long way. We have moved substantially. The other side has not moved much. Everything we were told was necessary for an agreement — including a carbon capture exemption that gives both the Governor and environmentalists heartburn — is now present. And at some point a progressive climate bill is no longer a climate bill, and going further than this is the tipping point.”

The bill calls for a task force to explore ways to reduce the debt burden that Prairie State has created for hundreds of municipally owned utilities and cooperatives across eight states that committed to buy power from and pay for the ballooning costs of the coal plant. 

Sandy Buchanan is executive director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which has published many studies and critiques of Prairie State. Buchanan has long advocated measures to reduce the debt on municipal utilities and co-ops, and she fears a foray into carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, will only add a bigger burden with little chance of success. 

“The idea of studying CCS has now been around for decades, multi multi millions have been spent on it, and the only beneficiaries have been the people doing the studying,” Buchanan said. “For coal it has not turned out to be a practical solution. The problem with this plant is it’s locked these communities into expensive power for decades, and the only thing CCS will do is make the power more expensive.”

The only large-scale carbon capture plant that has operated in the U.S. is NRG’s Petra Nova in Texas, and that $1 billion project has been considered unsuccessful — only about 7% of carbon emissions have ultimately been captured and falling oil prices have meant selling carbon to help squeeze more oil out of reserves has stalled. Kibbey said that based on the cost of Petra Nova and another carbon capture project in Canada, experts estimate capturing 90% of carbon at Prairie State would cost between $72 million and $500 million a year just for the Illinois part of the project. 

Critics of Prairie State say that rather than keeping an unnecessary plant open, lawmakers should focus on a just transition for the employees of the plant and Lively Grove mine that supplies it, and for the municipalities already drastically impacted by the debt they’ve taken on for Prairie State. 

Demanding a just transition  

Ortiz said that while her community is celebrating the closure of the Waukegan plant, they know the fight for a just transition is far from over. 

For years they have been asking plant owner NRG to inform them about closing plans or projections and work with them on transition provisions, with little response. Hence Waukegan residents and others say legislation is necessary to protect communities where coal plants are likely to close — because of market forces regardless of governmental mandates. 

NRG also announced it would close its Romeoville plant outside Chicago, where the group Citizens Against Ruining the Environment has for years fought for environmental protection and a just transition. Both plants are part of the fleet NRG bought from Midwest Generation, including two coal plants that closed in Chicago in 2012 after extensive grassroots campaigns and declining profitability. 

The proposed legislation contains ambitious just transition and equity components, based in large part on the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which the Waukegan group and others have long supported. This includes workforce training hubs concentrated in environmental justice communities; retraining, education and support for employees and communities of closing fossil fuel plants; and programs and incentives to ensure that solar, electric vehicles and other renewable sectors specifically benefit communities and those harmed by fossil fuels. 

Ortiz noted her 20-year-old son grew up inhaling pollution from the coal plant, and the fight to close the plant characterized the family’s life during his teenage years. Ortiz also has a 3-year-old and 7-month-old, and she hopes the coal plant’s closing represents a healthier and greener future for their generation, especially in environmental justice communities like Waukegan. But before that can happen, residents want to see the site thoroughly cleaned up, including a coal ash impoundment that has been the cause of much concern in the past. They want sustainable jobs created for residents who have so long borne the brunt of the pollution, and they want the lakefront site turned into an asset rather than a liability for the community. 

“I’m hoping and praying that I will no longer have to sacrifice my children to make sure we have clean air, water and soil,” Ortiz said. “It’s time once and for all for legislators to pass a comprehensive bill that cites equity.”

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