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Dozens of Illinois communities urged to double down on coal

Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

As President Joe Biden pushes to accelerate the nation’s transition to clean energy, three Chicago suburbs and more than two dozen other Illinois communities are mulling plans to double down on lung-damaging, climate-changing coal.

Chicago suburbs Naperville, St. Charles, Winnetka and 29 downstate municipalities are investors in the Prairie State Generating Station, a massive coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois that last year spewed 12.4 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — more than only six other electricity providers in the United States.

The Illinois cities, towns and villages are under contract until 2035 to purchase a share of Prairie State’s electricity and help pay off $5 billion in construction debt. But instead of preparing to quickly shift away from the fossil fuel, like scores of other utilities across the country are doing, the Illinois communities could end up relying on Prairie State and another coal plant in Kentucky for most of their electricity until at least 2050.

Doing so would run counter to Biden’s goal of decarbonizing the nation’s electric sector by the middle of the next decade. Naperville and the other Illinois communities would also miss an opportunity to reduce their energy costs in an era when prices for renewable energy — paired with battery storage for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun isn’t shining — are steadily declining.

Costs to operate Prairie State already just break even with what it would take to replace the plant’s output with new wind farms, according to a 2023 analysis by Energy Innovation, a nonprofit think tank.

“I would be nervous as a consumer about the fact I’m locked in until 2035,” said Eric Gimon, a physicist and senior fellow who co-authored the analysis. “Extending your reliance on coal to 2050 is an entirely different story. That is crazy.”

 

In their sales pitch to Naperville and the other communities, officials at the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency vow to balance heat-trapping emissions with carbon-removal technologies by 2050 — a concept known as “net zero.”

Meeting that target would hinge upon a 45% reduction in CO2 emissions from Prairie State by 2038, shutting down the plant and a unit at the Trimble County coal plant in Kentucky by 2045 and full retirement of Trimble County in 2050, according to an IMEA slide presentation.

Staci Wilson, the agency’s director of government affairs, said if member communities extend their contracts they will ease the shift to cleaner sources of electricity — something scores of utilities across the nation are doing by abandoning coal now.

Left unaddressed by the IMEA are the health and climate costs of relying on coal for at least another 15 years after the current contracts expire.

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