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Prairie State Energy Campus a piece in solving Illinois' clean-energy legislation puzzle
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Prairie State Energy Campus a piece in solving Illinois' clean-energy legislation puzzle

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Recent legislature in Illinois puts Prairie State's coal power plant at risk of being shut down decades before previously planned. Employees of the company feel not enough is being done to protect them from unemployment and say coal is not dead yet. Production by Michael J. Collins, additional footage by David Carson

As Molly Brayfield prepared to begin her shift underground at a southern Illinois coal mine, she wondered out loud whether lawmakers in Springfield and other policy-makers "see the big picture" on the risks of replacing fossil fuels too quickly for the generation of electricity.

"You can't fill this whole place with solar panels and windmills," Brayfield said. "It would be impossible. There aren't enough of them. I think people take for granted every time they either go and flip on that switch or plug in their cellphone or their hair dryer."

The 36-year-old former Marine, who supervises other coal miners on the Prairie State Energy Campus 115 miles south of Springfield, told The State Journal-Register during a recent visit to the campus that she would like to work there until she retires.

But her career at the 3,150-acre campus — which includes a 1,600 megawatt power plant, a coal mine, a water-retention pond supplied by the Kaskaskia River and a landfill — could be cut short by clean-energy legislation being debated in the Illinois General Assembly.

The legislation could close all coal-fired power plants in the state by 2035.

The employment and economic impact of Prairie State, which opened in 2012, extends beyond the rural Washington County corn and soybean fields surrounding the campus. It reaches into central Illinois and the Chicago area.

So Prairie State, which shares many concerns with City Water, Light and Power in Springfield over how the legislation could prematurely close coal-fired plants, remains a key player in a public discussion often focused on preserving jobs and clean energy at Commonwealth Edison's nuclear plants in northern Illinois.

Constituencies prized by Democrats who control the Illinois House, Senate and governor's office — labor unions representing workers and environmental groups calling for action to stem climate change — disagree over how aggressively the state should pursue requirements and programs to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions influencing climate.

Prairie State Energy Campus, 1630 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Marissa

A bulldozer pushes around piles of freshly mined coal that will be used to fuel the 1630 megawatt coal-fired Prairie State electricity generation plant in Marissa, Ill. on Wednesday. The plant which opened in 2012 was built next to a coal mine that supplies the fuel to burn in the furnace that makes the steam to turn the turbines that generate electricity. 

The situation is further complicated by the worries of almost 40 municipalities — from Chatham and Riverton to Princeton, Naperville and Winnetka — and rural electric cooperatives throughout the state. They are part-owners of Prairie State and don't want to see coal-fired plants closed prematurely.

Democratic and Republican legislators who represent those areas, communities and voters take their worries into account despite widespread support for a cleaner environment, according to Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

But when the local economic and political concerns are combined with the reluctance of lawmakers to been seen as helping out ComEd, the subject of a federal investigation for attempting to influence former House Speaker Michael Madigan, D- Chicago, Redfield said it's no surprise there has been slow progress toward an energy-bill compromise.

"Everything that makes Illinois politics complicated seems to be tied up in this issue," he said. "It's kind of a 'conflicting coalitions' sort of thing. ... It has been a very tough thing to get a deal that everybody can live with."

The absence of Madigan, a politician with a long track record of supporting labor unions and crafting legislative deals, also may be contributing to the stalemate, Redfield said.

Miners watch the legislature

Coal miners and workers at the power plant at Prairie State, about 45 miles southeast of St. Louis, discuss the issues swirling around the legislation, according to Brayfield and Shawn Sears, 45, a miner who owned and operated his own restaurant before joining Prairie State 10 years ago.

"It does bother some people," Sears said. "It's kind of hurt the morale here a little bit."

Brayfield and Sears said they support clean energy. But they, like their employer, don't see the need for a hard deadline for closing coal-fired plants.

"I think coal and 'green' can coexist," Sears said. "You've got to have your baseload power, you know what I mean? I drive an electric car to work everyday, so I believe in it — that it can coexist, but you've got to have it."

He and Brayfield said they see the economic benefits of coal for themselves and their coworkers everyday in an area where most other jobs don't pay nearly as much.

The average salary at the non-union campus is $85,000 per year, and for every $1 workers put into the 401(k) retirement plan, the employer matches it with $2, up to 5% of salary.

Sears said his job has sustained an "excellent" quality of life for himself, his homemaker wife and their two children: a kindergartener and a soon-to-be college freshman.

"I own my own house," he said. "I just put in an in-ground pool. My retirement's good."

They said their jobs are potentially dangerous if they don't remain aware of their surroundings, but there are numerous safety measures and precautions to prevent lung problems and other workplace hazards.

Most of the actual digging of coal is done by machines, and the areas where miners work at Prairie State allow workers to stand up straight, which makes it an even more desirable place to work, Sears said.

The walls of the mine are white with the limestone dust applied everywhere to prevent explosions. "You can almost compare it to a warehouse environment," Sears said.

Prairie State Energy Campus, 1630 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Marissa

One of two 815 megawatt coal-fired electricity generators at the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa as seen on June 30. The plant produces enough energy to power 2.5 million homes.

Both workers, and others interviewed, frequently mentioned a family-like camaraderie among employees. And Brayfield, who lives in DuQuoin and received an associate degree in coal-mining technology from a John A. Logan College, said the public is unaware of the technology involved in coal mining and the hard-working people at Prairie State.

"They think that we're just like these dirty people," she said. "That's not us. We have families. If we closed, there are a lot of people who would be affected here, and a lot of them have a lot of kids, and they're the only support system."

Brayfield said she didn't think coal miners were a "dying breed" when she went into the industry a decade ago.

"Everybody needs electricity," she said. "I don't know how you could change everything to solar."

Prairie State uses latest technology

When Prairie State opened, it featured and continues to use the latest technology for reducing emissions and disposing of waste produced by coal mining and power production, according to Alyssa Harre, spokeswoman for Prairie State.

The company is 100% owned by not-for-profit electrical cooperatives and municipalities across Illinois and Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia.

Those part-owners also get power from a variety of resources, including wind and solar, Harre said.

The owners don't purchase power from Prairie State; they get it based on their ownership, which is supported through the payments they make to support ongoing costs and pay off the $5 billion in bonds used to construct the campus, she said.

"The attraction to Prairie State was a long-term, stable supply of power at a consistent costs, so they weren't having to ride the ups and downs of the energy market because they already own the fuel source here, they own the coal, they own the coal mine," Harre said.

The power plant includes two 800 megawatt generators that use a single smokestack that is 72 feet in diameter and 700 feet high — 70 feet higher than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The generators produce eight times the power as CWLP's Dallman 4 unit, which opened in 2009

Prairie State is the largest coal-fired plant in the state but has $1 billion in emissions equipment that removes almost all pollutants from the mine's high-sulfur coal except for CO2, said Derek Birch, Prairie State's manager of engineering.

The campus' owners are required to make bond payments that end between 2035 and 2047, Harre said. If the plant closes in 2035, the owners will have to keep making bond payments and pay to replace the power they no longer receive from Prairie State.

In addition, the more than 650 employees and the more than 1,000 union tradesmen and women who work at Prairie State would be forced to find jobs elsewhere, Harre said.

She said the campus has a direct economic impact on the region of $785 million per year in salaries, taxes and equipment purchases.

The facility also uses more than 1,000 union tradesmen and women to help maintain and do repairs at the site each, Prairie State officials said.

Downstate taxing bodies have benefited from an additional $47 million since the campus' inception, officials said.

Prairie State Energy Campus, 1630 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Marissa

Water vapor and exhaust gasses rise into the sky from the 1630 megawatt coal fired Prairie State electricity generation plant in Marissa, Ill. on Wednesday.

Critics have said the site is the largest emitter of CO2 in the state and one of the largest in the country, but Prairie State officials said that comparison is unfair because the plant efficiently produces more than double the electricity of the next-largest fossil-fuel plant in Illinois. Prairie State provides electricity to 2.5 million families in multiple states.

Similar to action being taken by CWLP, Prairie State is working with the University of Illinois on a pilot project to remove almost all CO2 from emissions.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat who has a goal of making Illinois free of carbon emissions by 2050, has said he would like the energy legislation to allow coal-fired plants to extend their lives to 2045 if they can remove at least 90% of carbon by 2034.

The governor said the coal industry has assured him the goal is achievable by that time, but he hasn't said who specifically made the assurances. And Harre said such a timeline probably wouldn't be workable at Prairie State and would jeopardize reliable power supplies throughout the region.

"I think long-term there is potential to get there," she said. "We understand coal's not going to be around indefinitely. That's not our 'ask.' But we are asking to get through our debt service as currently permitted and have the opportunity to continue to look at carbon capture and see how we could make that work for our campus.

"It can be perplexing as to why it has to be an 'either/or,'" she said. "Certainly keep developing solar and wind, keep nuclear online. All of the above energy strategies are important, but why ... can't we coexist?"

She said energy diversity is important at this point in history "because the sun isn't always shining, the wind's not always blowing, and large-scale battery storage doesn't exist right now. The transmission system needed to support a 100% renewable grid doesn't exist right now, and it's going to take time to make that transition. So why do we have to have a legislative need to kill one industry in order to allow another to be successful?"

Prairie State and CWLP officials said closing coal-fired plants will result in Illinois having to import power from other states producing the power with dirtier, less-efficient technology.

The Sierra Club said its patience has run out with coal-fired power producers such as CWLP and Prairie State who want closure mandated removed from negotiations on an energy bill.

"Climate change is happening now, we're seeing wildfires break out across the globe in places that haven't burned before, and we must act now to stop climate change," said Elizabeth Scrafford, a Sierra Club organizing manager based in Springfield.

She said the prospect of importing power from elsewhere is "not a concern. ... If we act now and ramp up energy efficiency, which will reduce demand, and build out clean energy, we will be able to meet the needs."

Redfield said the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have increased expectations for a clean-energy bill after Democrats in the General Assembly, more liberal than in years past, approved a series of bills in 2021 that the Legislative Black Caucus initiated to reduce institutional racism. Pritzker signed the bills into law.

The governor said he is confident the energy legislation will "preserve jobs while also making sure that we're preserving the environment. Fighting climate change, making sure that we're doing what's good for our environment, is good for everybody."

He added: "I think it's very important that we keep our nuclear fleet going. That's preserving an awful lot of clean energy in our state, so preserving those jobs, keeping those plants open, is another vital feature of this energy bill."

Chatham Mayor Dave Kimsey said Chatham's bonds for Prairie State construction won't be paid off until 2035. Riverton's bonds won't be paid off until the same year, Mayor Tom Rader said.

Officials from both communities were looking forward to giving their electric ratepayers potential cuts in rates after the bonds are paid off.

Now the owners of the municipalities could have to charge higher rates if Prairie State closes and if a future energy bill creates surcharges on bills throughout the state to pay for almost $700 million in financial support for ComEd's Byron, Dresden, Braidwood and LaSalle nuclear power plants and preserve 2,000 direct jobs at the plants and thousands of indirect jobs.

"Then you will see the residents get really upset," Rader said. "Sometimes, I'm not sure the legislators from up north understand what kind of impact that could have on middle- to lower-income families."

Prairie State Energy Campus, 1630 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Marissa

Zach Ingles monitors the emissions data coming from Prairie State's two 815 megawatt coal-fired electricity generators in the control room of the power plant on June 30. The plant produces enough energy to power 2.5 million homes.

Eric Hobbie, chief executive officer of Prairie Power, a member-owned electric cooperative based in Springfield that serves rural cooperatives from Adams County on the west to Iroquois County on the east, said all the cooperatives are "trying to make our voices heard" on the energy bill to avoid premature elimination of coal-fired plants and avoid the blackouts experienced in some parts of the country.

"We're letting policy get ahead of technology," he said.

Exelon, ComEd's parent company, said on Wednesday that it soon will file documents outlining plans to shut down the unprofitable Dresden and Braidwood plants this fall "due to low energy prices and market policies that give fossil-fuel plants an unfair competitive advantage."

Exelon's generation chief nuclear officer, Dave Rhoades, said in an Exelon news release, "With no signs of a breakthrough on clean-energy legislation in Springfield, we have no choice but to take these final steps in preparation for shutting down the plants."

Pressure on lawmakers and Pritzker to get an energy bill passed before 2022, an election year for all 177 members of the General Assembly and Pritzker, could put pressure on all sides to resolve the issue this year, Redfield said.

The legislature is scheduled to return to Springfield for the fall veto session in October. Lawmakers also could be called back for a special session on energy legislation.

"Everybody has to give something," Redfield said. "There just isn't a magic solution."

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