Prairie State coal workers push to keep power plant alive beyond 2035

Illinois Capitol News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — State lawmakers are scheduled to return to the capital city this week to debate a clean energy deal that could shutter all coal-fired plants in the state by 2035.

The House was prepared to pass the highly anticipated energy deal before leaving town on May 31st, but the negotiations fell apart at the last minute when enough Senate Democrats balked at closing one of the state’s largest and newest coal plants that has existing contracts to supply 36 cities and towns with power.

“That would be huge for my district,” Senator Chris Belt (D-Cahokia) said at the time. “Although Prairie State sits outside my district, I have several municipalities that buy their energy directly from Prairie State. Then there’s all the skilled labor and all the employment opportunities that come along with Prairie State. So there will be a huge financial impact, negative impact on my whole district.”

The state’s largest coal-fired power plant employs 650 staff workers and 1,000 union contractors.

Belt said he and several other colleagues wanted to extend the life of the Marissa coal plant to 2050 to allow local municipalities enough time to pay off the debts they incurred to build the facility.

“They took out bonds,” he said. “So if we closed it in 2035, that still leaves all those municipalities on the hook for those payments.”

The village of Rantoul has a contract with Prairie State to purchase baseload power through 2040. Other municipalities have contracts that run through 2047.

“They would still be on the hook for a lot of those payments,” Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) said, “but then they would also have to buy new energy from renewable clean sources.

“Prairie State was formed by these rural electric cooperatives and municipalities,” the company’s Director of External Affairs Alyssa Harre explained. “So before the plant was even built, they invested in their ownership share of the facility knowing that they would need a long term source of baseload power as part of their portfolio.”

Harre compared the municipal debt dilemma to taking out a mortgage on a home.

“Well, we’d really like to live in our house after the mortgage is paid off,” she said. “And we’d really like to not be evicted from our homes before the mortgage is paid off and also have to pay rent at the same time.”

Bennett predicted “property taxes would likely go up, and certainly would see electrical bills go up for those communities” if the state didn’t adopt some sort of a “special arrangement” for the 36 municipalities that buy power from Prairie State’s super critical power plant.

The clean energy debate in Springfield, however, could impact more than just regional job losses, customer rate hikes, and property taxes. It would also represent a significant departure from years of government investment in advanced technologies to clean up the coal power generating process.

The massive Prairie State coal plant emits more carbon pollution in total than any other coal-fired plant in the state, but engineers at the plant say that’s because of the sheer volume of their operation, not due to lax controls. They generated 12.9 million megawatts in 2019, which was nearly twice as much power as the next largest plant in the state, and enough to power 2.5 million homes.

Exclusive videos taken inside the Prairie State Generating Company’s non-profit coal-fired power plant illustrate the detailed processes in place to scrub most toxic chemicals from their emissions, but the plant’s CO2 output remains a significant threat.

Mining crews at the adjacent facility send 40,000 tons of coal on conveyor belts to the power plant every day. The combustible rocks are sorted and pulverized into powder before they are burned at 1,050 degrees Fahrenheit under 3,700 pounds of pressure in massive boilers. The process converts thermal energy into steam, and transmits 345,000 volts of electricity to a switchyard for utility companies to deliver to homes across the state.

Several workers at the power plant expressed serious doubts that wind farms or solar panels could combine to generate as much power as their plant does by 2035.

“If Prairie State wasn’t here, I don’t think we’d have grid stability,” electrical maintenance technician Eric Stein said at the plant on Monday. “If we shut down, I think we’ll have blackouts. I think the cost of power will be increased dramatically. People won’t be happy.”

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows Prairie State’s plant operates at a higher level of efficiency and creates more power per ton of coal than any other plant in the state.

“Prairie State, because it’s a new power plant and it was permitted during the Obama-Biden administration, has some of the most stringent environmental standards of any power plant, not only in Illinois, but across the country,” Harre said.

The facility’s construction included more than $1 billion in upgrades to back-end environmental controls to capture and scrub toxic chemicals out of the emissions.

“We control our NOx [nitrogen oxide] emissions with a catalytic conversion process,” Prairie State’s Vice President of Generation Jon Sander said on Monday. “So we scrub the NOx out both by efficient combustion as well as through the catalytic process.”

“We have a dry and a wet scrubber,” Stein said. “We monitor it constantly. 24/7, we’re monitoring what’s leaving that stack, what’s going in, what’s going out. And we stay in compliance.”

“Back in the day, people would burn coal to heat their homes,” Sander said. “It’s a nasty, thick, bluish type smoke and we don’t we don’t want that in the atmosphere.”

He pointed to the single towering stack where a billowing stream of steam vapors pours into the sky.

“And as you can see, we’re very white,” he said. “We’re mostly water vapor and CO-2. And that’s because we are removing those NOx, SOx [sulfur dioxide] and ash emissions [PM, or particulate matter] from the combustion products.”

Inside the 14-story facility, several staff members monitor measurements and diagnostic readings on dozens of screens in a central control room that read out the precise rate of air pollution emissions.

“I guess the politicians don’t realize that we have stuff in place to prevent it or to capture it,” said Andrew Peradotto, a union contractor for Hayes Mechanical. “You go to the plants from 50 years ago, they don’t have anything like the scrubbers like out here. This place has gone above and beyond and they’re still trying to [shut us down].”

However, it’s the high volume of total carbon dioxide pollution that has lawmakers concerned.

As the Senate prepares to return on Tuesday, a pair of competing draft bills are circulating in Springfield. The proposal from Governor Pritzker’s office would implement declining carbon emission caps on coal fired plants, which would shutter all the coal plants in the state by 2035. A separate Senate draft would delay the closure of Prairie State and create a task force to study the potential for sequestration and carbon capture technology.

Sequestration is the process of storing carbon gases thousands of feet below ground under impermeable geological formations.

Prairie State has already spent $15 million to fund a joint study with the Department of Energy and the University of Illinois that explores ways they might someday capture and reduce up to 95% of their overall carbon emissions. They’re asking lawmakers for more time to install that technology, but could not commit to a concrete timetable.

However, providing extra time for Prairie State to reduce carbon emissions could risk tanking the entire proposal in the House, where the legislation is tentatively scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.

“It’s not a “clean energy” bill if we exempt Illinois’s dirtiest coal plant,” Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) said in a tweet. “I won’t vote for a bill with a Prairie State carveout, period.”

Progressive lawmakers like Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) drew a red line on clean energy negotiations, vowing to oppose any measure that extends the life of Prairie State beyond 2035.

“I wish they would just come and take a tour of our facility and just see what we do,” Stein said. “I mean, it’s the cleanest coal-fired plant in the country.”

What would happen if the General Assembly adopts Pritzker’s plan?

“I would be out of a job,” Stein said. “In my mind, this is my career, not just a job. I’ve been here for 11 years, and I hope I’m here for another 30 years.”

The energy proposal does include a ‘coal-to-solar’ program and several other new pools of state funding to aid in the transition.

One draft would spend $21 million in annual funding on a “Clean Jobs Workforce Network Program,” another $21 million on a “Clean Energy Contractor Incubator Program,” and $9 million for “costs related to the Clean Energy Primes Contractor Accelerator Program,” all of which would be administered by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. It would also spend $10 million on “costs related to the Displaced Energy Worker Bill of Rights,” and $1.1 million on a scholarship program for children of power plant workers who lose their jobs in the transition.

The ‘Displaced Energy Worker Bill of Rights’ would offer career counseling, financial planning services, and state-run health insurance plans to workers who lose their jobs at a fossil fuel or nuclear plant. It would also require state agencies to consider hiring them for government jobs.

Some of the plant workers acknowledged wind and solar power is catching up to coal, and could one day generate enough power to replace the coal industry entirely.

“I’m sure it’s probably coming, but I think it’s a little premature to think that this place can be shut down by 2035 and have the ability with renewables to completely replace this amount of power supply,” Peradotto said.

“As far as the industry declining, I have no issue with that. I have no issue with going green,” control room operator Adrian Ellington said. “I think it’s actually a good idea if we can get there feasibly. But I think what happens is a lot of people hear ‘green,’ and they just automatically think you can snap your fingers and it’s going to happen. That’s not the case. It’s going take a lot of work and a lot of investment into it.”

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