By Michael Hawthorne Chicago Tribune
Two more coal-fired power plants are shutting down in Illinois, a publicly traded corporation announced Thursday amid a fierce debate about Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plans to wean the state from lung-damaging, climate-changing fossil fuels.
NRG Energy said it decided to close its coal plants in Romeoville and Waukegan by June 2022 after it secured lower-than-expected prices during a recent auction for supplying electricity to a region that stretches from Illinois to the East Coast.
The Houston-based company’s move to shutter two of its three Illinois coal plants, and another in Delaware, is the latest example of a shareholder-owned firm scaling back its reliance on the fossil fuel in favor of cheaper, cleaner gas-fired electricity and pollution-free renewable energy.
NRG’s announcement surprised and elated local watchdogs. Organizers waged long, sometimes lonely battles to close the coal plants, standing by in quiet frustration as colleagues in other cities notched victory after victory during campaigns to shut down major sources of air and water pollution.
“Hundreds of volunteers, thousands of hours, helped make this day a reality,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-founder of the Clean Power Lake County community group. “I am hoping I don’t have to continue sacrificing time away from my children to fight for basic human rights, for clean water and clean air and clean soil in our community.”
Just three years ago, NRG settled a federal lawsuit that improved the state’s air quality without affecting residential electric bills or the stability of the regional power grid. The deal came despite the Trump administration’s rollbacks of environmental regulations in an attempt to resurrect the coal industry, and reflected economic, legal and political forces that had begun shifting the country away from the fossil fuel well before the former president took office.
“Closing (Romeoville and Waukegan) was a difficult, but necessary decision in light of the low market prices,” the company said in a statement.
Built by Commonwealth Edison in the 1960s, the Romeoville and Waukegan coal plants are among dozens nationwide that started generating electricity before Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act. For years the plants were exempted from the toughest provisions of the law because utilities vowed they wouldn’t be running much longer.
A company called Midwest Generation bought the ComEd plants in 1999 and kept them running as a growing number of scientific studies found that coal plant pollution triggers asthma attacks, causes heart disease and shaves years off of lives. Unlike newer power plants, the ComEd/Midwest Generation facilities are not equipped with advanced pollution controls that sharply reduce lung-damaging soot and other harmful air pollution.
In 2010, a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Midwest Generation, the National Research Council, the federal government’s main scientific advisory body, estimated that pollution from the Romeoville coal plant had cost surrounding areas $187 million a year in hidden health costs.
NRG acquired the Midwest Generation fleet four years later, converted a coal plant in Joliet to burn gas and scrapped the dirtiest units at Romeoville and Waukegan. The company also installed pollution controls at the Powerton plant near downstate Pekin and the remaining coal-fired generators at Romeoville and Waukegan.
“We welcome the news that the largest source of uncontrolled air pollution in our backyards will be retiring,” said Ellen Meeks Rendulich, one of the organizers of a grassroots group in Will County dubbed Citizens Against Ruining the Environment.
Only four Illinois coal plants will remain without announced closure dates after the NRG plants are shut down for good, a dramatic change in a state that once relied on the fossil fuel for more than half of its electricity.
One of the outliers is owned in part by Batavia, Geneva, Naperville, St. Charles and Winnetka, five suburbs locked into contracts to help pay off more than $5 billion in debt to build the Prairie State Generating Station, a massive coal burner southeast of St. Louis that is among the nation’s top industrial sources of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Backers of Prairie State and a municipally owned coal plant in Springfield are blocking legislation drafted by the Pritzker administration that would phase out coal-fired electricity by 2035 and gas-fired power plants a decade later.
Pritzker’s bill would double the state’s commitment to renewable energy, with a goal of raising the amount of wind and solar power to 40% of the state’s electric generation by the end of the decade, up from 8% in 2019. The legislation also provides nearly $700 million in subsidies to keep three Exelon-owned nuclear plants open for at least the next five years.
Even with the impending closure of the Romeoville and Waukegan coal plants, Illinois will continue to generate far more electricity than it uses.
Exelon’s seven nuclear plants provided 60% of the electricity generated within the state during 2019, according to federal records. Prairie State accounted for just 6.5% of the total, while Romeoville and Waukegan combined provided 1% of the state’s generation.
Original article: chicagotribune.com