Closing Illinois’ Prairie State coal plant would cut pollution but hit some
After more than a decade of controversy, a move to force the closing of a Southern Illinois coal plant owned by municipal utilities in Winnetka, Naperville, Batavia and dozens of other towns across the state is one of the final sticking points in Springfield over a major energy bill.
If the Prairie State plant is forced to shut down by 2035, as Illinois legislators have proposed, it would begin the final chapter of a saga that led to the construction of one of the country’s last new coal plants, one that became a major source of air pollution.
“Prairie State, by itself, makes up a significant portion of the power-sector emissions in our state,” says J.C. Kibbey, a clean energy advocate for Natural Resources Defense Council in Illinois.
Beside being dirty, the plant left the operators of some locally owned electric utilities in the Chicago area furious over unfulfilled promises of competitive prices. In exchange for the guarantee of reliable power with predictable pricing, the utilities took ownership in the massive plant, signing up for decades of debt.
If the plant is forced to close, they, as owners, will have to continue repaying the debt even as they have to find and pay for replacement sources of electricity that could lead to much higher electricity bills.
Over the past week, the plant emerged as an obstacle to passage of key energy legislation in Springfield, a bill that would include an expansion of subsidies for nuclear plants, more funding for renewable energy projects and a ramping-up of climate targets that would include a phaseout of coal power.
Going beyond a May 31 deadline to finish their work, lawmakers are trying to find a way to respond to concerns about the financial ramifications of closing Prairie State.
Environmental advocates say the state can’t afford to let the plant continue to operate if Illinois is to meet climate goals. Lawmakers backed by environmental groups are considering a state bailout of more than $600 million of three Exelon nuclear plants.
Tensions are high because many participants see past clean energy legislation as having fallen short of promises.
Prairie State has been the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in Illinois, 12.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019, the most recent year for which federal data are available. The plant ranks ninth in the country for carbon dioxide releases.
No other power plant in the state comes close to Prairie State’s emissions. And most of the other coal-fired plants already are scheduled to close, including all five plants owned by Vistra Corp, which has said it will shut them down by 2027.
“It’s not particularly a surprise that this plant wasn’t going to live out a typical lifespan,” says Emily Grubert, an energy systems researcher at Georgia Tech.
The plant’s combination of high emissions and high costs means it’s difficult to justify keeping it open, Grubert says.
It cost about $5 billion for construction, including about $1 billion in cost overruns.
Prairie State, which began operating in 2012, was one one of the last large, coal-fired power plants built in the United States before market forces shifted against coal because other sources of electricity — like natural gas, wind and solar energy — were becoming less expensive and because of the rising likelihood that the state or federal government would pass stricter emissions limits.
Among this last generation of coal-fired electric plants, Prairie State is in a category of its own because it initially was developed by a coal company, Peabody Energy. The idea was to buy coal from an adjacent mine, with Peabody selling the electricity through long-term contracts with municipalities and rural electric cooperatives that might have been less well equipped to assess the risks than large energy companies would be.
The plant’s customers and co-owners include about 200 communities in a footprint that stretches from Missouri to…