TAYLORVILLE - Officials from the company that is trying to build a $3.5 billion clean-coal power plant near Taylorville met with Christian County business leaders Thursday to talk about the benefits of the project.
The push to get the Taylorville Energy Center started is taking on added urgency with a key piece of legislation set to be considered during the General Assembly's fall veto session in November. The project has been in the works for nearly eight years.
"We've got to get this done," said Bill Braudt, a project manager and developer for Nebraska-based Tenaska Inc. Braudt spoke during the Christian County Economic Development Corp.'s annual meeting at Taylorville Memorial Hospital.
"This is our shot," Braudt said. "We don't have confidence going forward. The time for changing is over. We've met the law. Let's get going."
Lawmaker support for the project, however, is not being viewed as a sure bet. Major groups remain opposed and concerned about the project in the form it has taken.
The Illinois Manufacturers' Association is concerned that its members could end up taking on added costs from the plant being built. It doesn't want to place a burden on industrial electricity rate payers, said Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the association.
"If there's a way to do this that's cost effective, that makes sense, we're all for it," Denzler said. "We're not just saying no to anything."
The enabling legislation for the plant would expose industrial electricity customers such as Decatur agricultural processor Tate & Lyle to potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional electricity costs, said Chris Olsen, Tate & Lyle director of community and government affairs.
Residential and commercial electricity users will have just over a 2 percent cap on their electricity cost increases associated with the new plant, but industrial customers and others not included in those categories do not have similar protection.
"We could end up bearing the brunt of whatever cost overruns there might be," Olsen said. "It creates a lot of uncertainty for us."
Braudt said the company understands the manufacturers' concerns but questions what the alternatives would be. A 2 percent increase is a small price to pay, given the plant's potential benefits, Braudt said.
If the rates are capped for everybody, the project is completely unfundable, Braudt said.
Electric rates are bound to go up, regardless of whether the plant is built, so Braudt said the plant, if it is built, will save the companies money in the long run. He said things aren't as bad as the opposition makes it seem.
"The sky is not falling," Braudt said.
Christian County officials are excited about the project because of the unprecedented economic boon it could create. Construction of the plant could bring 2,500 well-paying jobs over four years, with at least 400 permanent jobs, Braudt said.
"If this plant is half as successful as we think it's going to be, it will change the complexion of not only Christian County but the entire region," said Mary Renner, Christian County Economic Development Corp. director. "These projects don't come along often. It's an opportunity we can't afford to miss."
Denzler said more jobs could be in jeopardy if other major employers end up paying more for electricity. Some companies base their decisions on where to locate, in part, on how much they're going to pay for electricity, Denzler said.
"Jobs are certainly a good thing, but when you think of the total job loss that could be created through higher prices, it dwarfs the temporary jobs that will be created for a short period of time," Denzler said. "Manufacturers ask about the cost of electricity. That's one of the things they factor in when they make business decisions."
Other groups have raised concerns about the possible environmental impact of what is considered unproven technology, Denzler said.
"It's not just a cost factor," he said. "Cost is a huge part of it, but you have environmental concerns as well."
In addition, the project would provide a needed boost for a struggling coal industry in Illinois. Although the details of where exactly the coal would come from aren't finalized, it would come from somewhere within the state, Braudt said.
"There is a huge market for us if gasification technology catches on," said Phil Gonet, Illinois Coal Association president.
Olsen points out that concerns such as Tate & Lyle's need to be raised and clarified, but the concern is not with the use of coal.
"We are strong supporters of the continued efficient use of coal," Olsen said. "We support continued innovation in the development of clean-coal technology. Coal is important to our energy future, but we also need to have a practical, cost-efficient way to be able to utilize it."
The General Assembly's veto session starts Nov. 16, and the energy center related legislation is seen as an important part of a jam-packed few days. Supporters of the project acknowledge that they have their work cut out for them to make sure the project gets off the ground.
"We have the fight of our life going on right now," said state Sen. Deanna Demuzio, D-Carlinville. "It's been too long. We need to get it moving."
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