Coal miner Matt Hamilton waits for the safety briefing to begin at the start of his shift at the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa where coal is mined to fuel the 1630 megawatt electricity plant located next to the mine on June 30. "It’s a good job, it takes care of my family," said Hamilton, a miner for 14 years.
Coal can been seen moving along a feeder through an observation window before it enters the furnace to be burned to make the steam that drives Prairie State’s two 815 megawatt coal-fired electricity generators on June 30.
MARISSA — For at least a decade, Illinois has been weaning itself off of one of its greatest natural resources: coal.
Long a provider of good jobs in central and southern Illinois, not to mention a significant contributor to the state’s overall energy portfolio, the fossil fuel’s use has declined significantly in recent years as more efficient, cleaner-burning and renewable energy sources get cheaper.
And if unseen market forces weren’t enough, Democratic state lawmakers and environmental activists are trying to finish the job.
Included in a massive clean energy proposal from Gov. J.B. Pritzker is a forced closure date of 2035 for remaining coal-fired plants and 2045 for natural gas plants. The goal is to reach 100% renewable energy by 2050.
But more broadly, the legislation coupled with market forces could have a significant impact on the state’s energy future, especially for downstate customers.
Already a net importer of energy, downstate Illinois will for better or worse be more reliant on the market to fulfill its energy needs as more sources of baseload power go offline, experts say.
“We will absolutely be a large net-importer of energy and capacity,” said Eric Hobbie, CEO of Prairie Power Inc., a wholesale electricity provider to 10 cooperatives in Central Illinois. “So we will be dependent on our neighbors.”
Unique energy portfolio
Illinois’ energy portfolio is unique.
The state generates more electricity from nuclear energy than any other state, producing one-eighth of all nuclear power in the United States, accounting for 58% of the state’s net energy generation in 2020. The next-highest was coal at 18%, natural gas at 14% and renewables at 11%.
As such, nuclear power is viewed as a key bridge on the state’s road to a carbon-free energy future. This explains why Exelon, which owns a fleet of six nuclear plants across the state, is in line to receive a subsidy of nearly $700 million in any clean energy deal. Without it, the company said it will decommission at least two of those plants.
While nuclear has remained a remarkably stable staple in the state’s portfolio, its other sources have been in flux. Coal, for example, accounted for 48% of the state’s net generation in 2008.
But competition from increasingly cheaper energy sources like natural gas and renewables such as wind and solar have been putting coal plants out of business. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 44 coal-fired generating units have shut down in the state since 2007.
Texas-based energy giant Vistra announced in 2020 that it would retire its fleet of five coal-fired power plants in downstate Illinois no later than 2027. Another Texas-based company, NRG Energy, announced last month that it would retire its coal-fired plants in Romeoville and Waukegan by 2022.
This would leave the state with just a handful of coal-fired plants with no retirement date set. These include two not-for-profit coal plants — Springfield’s municipally-owned Dallman 4 and the Prairie State Energy Campus, a Metro East cooperative that serves more than 2.3 million customers across Illinois and the Midwest.
“If you take energy off, you have to put other energy on,” said Alexandra Klass, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in energy policy. “Right now, it’s in everyone’s financial interest — utilities, co-ops, customers — to retire coal plants, which are expensive and have all sorts of other environmental externalities, and replace them with what is cheapest now, which is wind and solar.”
But another factor that makes Illinois unique is that the state lays within two different energy markets. Northern Illinois — the area serviced by Commonwealth Edison — is within the PJM Interconnection and downstate Illinois — Ameren service territory — is within the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.
Basically, these regional transmission organizations act like air traffic controllers, coordinating, controlling and monitoring multi-state electric grids, directing power where it is needed within the region and ensuring reliability during peak use times.
But there is a vast divide between the Illinois’ two regions as five of Exelon’s six nuke plants are in PJM territory, giving Northern Illinois a vast source of carbon-free baseload power, a luxury coal- and natural gas-heavy central and southern Illinois do not have.
“They produce lots of energy, which causes that region to be heavy exporters,” Hobbie said. “Then you move to downstate and most of the units there can move up and down with the market. But we’re already a net-importer downstate. About half of the Vistra fleet has already closed and the balance of it is already planned to be closed by 2028.”
Hobbie, whose cooperative has wind and solar within its portfolio in addition to its baseload source, the coal-fired Prairie State Energy Campus, acknowledges that the future lies with renewables as “that’s the direction we need to go. Society expects us to go there.”
But, he said that intermittent sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, had yet to achieve the capacity needed to meet the peak demands of the grid.
If Illinois were to go completely renewable, he said it would risk the load shedding seen in California last year, where many customers temporarily lost power due to excess demand on the grid and not enough power was available to be imported from surrounding states.
“We cannot let policy get ahead of technology,” Hobbie said. “… What happened last August in California was the neighbors said ‘we don’t have any extra today.’ And is that position Illinois wants to be in?”
Such worries have caused downstate lawmakers in both parties to balk at various clean energy proposals backed by environmental groups.
Ameren, the electric utility that serves more than 1.3 million customers in central and southern Illinois, has also opposed legislation that it says would leave downstate short of the energy it needs.
“What that would do is it would leave downstate short of the minimum amount of capacity that MISO requires us to produce within the zone,” said Tucker Kennedy, a spokesman for Ameren, in April. “So once we’re not able to meet that minimum requirement for producing it locally, then it puts in a whole new cost structure for us to go out to purchase that on the open market in other states.”
The utility has fought for the ability to build larger-scale solar facilities located near its existing infrastructure, which could help replace some of the energy generation that could come offline in the coming decades.
The fate of Pritzker’s bill remains uncertain as it has divided two key Democratic constituencies, environmentalists and organized labor. Lawmakers have been reluctant to step in on a family feud.
Klass, however, has more optimistic about the reliability of wind and solar.
Not only do renewables make up 11% of the state’s energy portfolio — nearly triple what it was in 2010 — but the connection to MISO, which includes wind-heavy states like Iowa and Minnesota, means that energy can be imported from other places if the wind isn’t blowing or the Sun isn’t shining here.
"So it’s not like you’re saying, ‘Okay, well, we’re going to take an 800-megawatt coal plant offline, so where’s the 800-megawatt wind plant in Illinois that we need to replace it with?’ You’re not going to do that," Klass said. "You’re going to build wind across the whole system and have that be available, you’re also going to build solar across the system and have that be available."
Illinois is fifth in the country in utility-scale wind capacity, with 6,300 megawatts online and more than 1,100 megawatts in development or under construction.
"So you need to expand the transmission grid some, you don’t need any fancy new technologies to do that you just build more, a lot more lines than you have right now," Klass said. "But, frankly, you take the coal off, which is uneconomic and you replace it with things that are much less costly."
MISO, for what it’s worth, is planning for this future. In February, the transmission organization, which covers 15 Midwestern states and the Canadian province of Manitoba, concluded that 50% market share for renewable energy sources was attainable with coordinated action and proper planning.
Renewables currently make up about 13% of the energy across the system.
“We believe it will take transformational change, including redefined markets and planning processes, to enable efficient and reliable operations in the future,” said MISO executive vice president of market and grid strategies Richard Doying. “Coordinated action amongst all stakeholders will be necessary to facilitate participants’ decarbonization goals and plans for higher levels of renewable generation.”
But not all are convinced downstate will be better off as a result.
"You’re importing energy," Hobbie said. You’re exporting cash, jobs, tax base and reliability."
And, there is no guarantee that the power being imported will be renewable if Illinois’ remaining coal and natural gas plants go offline.
“This issue is personal to me. I helped build Prairie State, so I know how important it is not just to our power grid but also our state and regional economy,” said Chad Goldschmidt, vice president of the Southwestern Illinois Building Trades Council. “If these plants are prematurely shuttered, Illinois will need to import power from other states, likely from less efficient coal plants. Working Illinois families should not be asked to pay more for less reliable power.”
Contact Brenden Moore at (217) 421-7984. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13
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July 9, 2021 at 04:56PM