MARISSA — When it was commissioned in 2012, the Prairie State Energy Campus instantly became a reliable source of baseload power for more than 2.5 million customers in Illinois and across the Midwest — not to mention a steady source of good-paying jobs in a region where they can be hard to come by.
But the 1,600-megawatt, coal-fired power plant, located about 50 miles southeast of St. Louis, is also the state’s largest carbon polluter and one the 10 largest industrial sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. In 2019, this was enough to equal the emissions of 2.7 million cars.
This has made the power plant the target over the past few months of a coalition of environmental groups and state lawmakers in Springfield, who are seeking to wean what has historically been one of the nation’s top coal-producing states off fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future.
"I will not sign a bill that does not match the gravity of this moment," said Gov. J.B. Pritzker in mid-June. "That means that a bill claiming to contain meaningful decarbonization measures but does not pass muster on the details and does not move us toward a clean energy economy is not a real climate bill."
The most recent proposal from Pritzker would force all coal-fired plants in the state to close by 2035 unless they can achieve 90% carbon capture and sequestration of emissions. That would make the runway slightly longer, to 2045. Such technology does not yet exist.
And even if that were possible, the relatively new plant would still be shuttered well-short of the typical 60- to 70-year life cycle of a coal-fired power plant.
The state legislature adjourned a special session in June without taking action on legislation as divides over the future of Prairie Energy, which is owned by a series of municipal power agencies and rural electric cooperatives; Dallman Unit 4, the coal-fired plant operated by Springfield’s municipally-owned utility City Water, Light and Power; and several natural gas plants have divided two key Democratic constituencies in this blue state: environmentalists and organized labor.
But the clock is ticking. Utility giant Exelon has threatened to shutter parts of its fleet of nuclear power plants in northern Illinois if it does not receive a subsidy as part of a larger clean energy bill. With that being a catalyst for action, Prairie State’s fate is caught in the balance and could be sealed if and when lawmakers return to vote on a package this summer.
The coal-fired plant’s premature closure would leave nearly 300 cities and rural cooperatives across eight states holding the bag, paying off bonds that funded the power plant’s $5 billion construction cost while simultaneously looking for reliable replacement power on the open market.
“The best way I can describe this for anyone to understand is that the municipalities and rural electric cooperatives have a mortgage on this facility,” said Alyssa Harre, director of external affairs for Prairie State. “If the state of Illinois forces them to move out of their house before the mortgage is paid off, they have to continue to pay the mortgage and pay rent ... in the form of replacement power cost.”
'Who pays that?'
Plant stakeholders, which range from highly-populated cities like Naperville in suburban Chicago to the small towns and rural co-ops that dot central and southern Illinois, are on the hook for bonds with expiration dates between 2035 and 2047, with most somewhere in the 2040s.
Breese, a city of just over 4,000 people in Clinton County, is among the entities that will be paying off bonds up until when the plant could be forced to close. The impact? “Devastating,” according to Kevin Timmerman, the city’s mayor.
“We would not have the reliable power that we do today,” Timmerman said. “And also we would have to restructure our rates. The bonds have to be paid off. Who pays that? The consumer does.”
Still, not all believe it would be doom and gloom for ratepayers if the plant goes offline.
A February analysis conducted by non-profit energy research firm RMI, Inc. concluded that ratepayers would not be negatively impacted by the plant’s closure. They could actually save money in the long run, in fact, as alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar continue to decline in price.
Plant employees, speaking on the site with Lee Enterprises reporters earlier this week, expressed serious doubts that renewable energy would be able to replace the baseload energy generated at the massive site.
“We're physically located in MISO Zone 4, and there's already a shortage of power in this region, and if you take off a baseload resource like Prairie State, there has to be something to replace it and that something doesn't exist right now,” Harre said.
Even the RMI analysis conceded that the 2,400-acre Prairie State site would only be large enough for a solar farm of 300 to 400 megawatts, less than a quarter of the coal-fired plant’s generating capacity.
“There's nothing wrong with solar and other cleaner ways to produce energy, but we're just not there yet,” said Deana Hill, a coal hauler for Prairie State. “We need coal — right now, anyway. In 2050, if there's enough solar and wind turbines that produce all that, by all means, that'd be great.”
Hill, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, has worked for the mine for the on-site coal mine more than four years. It’s a job she likes due to the camaraderie with her coworkers, the company’s commitment to safety and the decent wages and benefits it provides. She “would hate to lose it.”
“There's just a bunch of little towns around here,” Hill, who lives in Steeleville, said. “So, it would be a big deal if this place closed down.”
Between the power plant and the coal mine, Prairie State directly employs more than 650 people and indirectly employs more than 1,000 union contractors. It’s average salary, according to Harre, is about $85,000, far higher than the median household income in many counties surrounding the facility.
Some travel as far as two hours to get to work everyday, underscoring the plant’s role as a regional provider of good-paying jobs.
“I live an hour away southeast,” said coal mine belt coordinator Justin Ketteman, who lives in Benton. “Other people live northwest, southwest and we take that money and we're spending it in that community — not to mention all the money that we spend here at the coal mines. (Closing) would have a catastrophic effect on the local, and even further economy.”
“Southern Illinois is not just riddled with a bunch of good-paying jobs, so we would end up having to move elsewhere,” he added. “And, honestly, we'd probably have to move out of the state of Illinois to find a better job.”
The Pritzker proposal
Moving to find work was brought up by multiple employees who feared they would not be able to find anything close to home. Some said they would be open to working in the clean energy sector, but there was skepticism on how lucrative the field would be compared to coal.
According to an outline of Pritzker’s proposal, there would be several provisions meant to ensure a “just transition” for workers and communities impacted by the forced closures of plants like Prairie State.
These would include a displaced workers bill of rights that would provide benefits to energy workers impacted by closures and grant programs to promote economic development in affected communities.
There would also be funds dedicated to a coal-to-solar program that would aid in converting coal plants to renewable energy facilities. A Prairie State Transition Task Force would also be created to investigate carbon capture and sequestration and debt financing options for communities with a stake in the plant.
Ketteman, who has worked in coal mines for nearly two decades, was skeptical.
“This here is a career,” he said. “Seventeen years is a career. ... That is what everybody here has chosen. And that is why it's a topic of conversation every day because they do have that in the back of their mind.”
For Adrian Ellington, Prairie State was the reason he did not move away. More than a decade ago, he was ready to pack up after unsuccessful attempts at looking for a job. But, when he heard about the plant, he made it his mission to get hired.
Eventually, he did. Now, he and his wife have five kids, saying that the job has “allowed me to take care of a lot of things and have a good life.”
At the plant, Ellington is a control room operator, where he keeps an eye on every aspect of one of the plant’s two generators through an impressive setup of computer screens.
“We are state-of-the-art and everything,” Ellington said. “I mean I control every piece of equipment from here.”
In between stations monitoring the plant’s two 800-megawatt generators is an emissions control station that monitors in real time how many pollutants are being released by the plant. There are warning signals in place should they come close to exceeding state and federal limits.
Officials tout the plant’s efforts to keep emissions under control, noting that coal is transported via conveyor belt from the on-site mine, cutting down on transportation emissions. From there, it is pulverized into smaller pieces and then burned at a high temperature and pressure, extracting more electricity per pound than typical.
The steam that’s created turns the blades of a turbine, which is connected to a generator that creates electricity. About 345,000 volts of energy are transmitted to a switchyard, where utilities can then carry it to homes via power lines.
Other emissions controls include sulfur dioxide scrubbers, which inject a limestone and water mixture into the air stream, where it reacts to capture or “scrub” the SO2.; and selective catalytic reduction, which controls nitrous oxide emissions by injecting product into the air stream as it passes over a catalyst, causing the NOx to be converted to nitrogen and water.
Dry and wet electrostatic precipitators, which eliminate nearly all particulates, are also used.
The plant is also participating in a $15 million U.S. Department of Energy study to design carbon capture technology.
“Here's the way I think about it: instead of spending the time, the money, the resources to try to get us to shut down, why don't they join with our owners who are spending their money to try to make this place even better for the future?” asked Kettemen, the belt coordinator.
Still, many acknowledged the future, and it's not coal. The company says it is in support of an "all of the above" energy strategy. Worker say they are not inherently opposed to renewables.
"Whatever day that it transitions over, hopefully they can train some of the coal miners into working on solar, maybe someday," Hill said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the location of Marissa. This version has been corrected.