Illinois will take another step away from coal by the end of the year when a Texas company shutters four downstate power plants that burn the lung-damaging, climate-changing fossil fuel.
But under the terms of a deal Vistra Energy brokered with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, the company will be allowed to continue running some of its dirtiest coal plants while scuttling others that are relatively clean compared with what is left of a rapidly dwindling industry.
About 300 workers are expected to lose their jobs after the shutdowns in Canton, Coffeen, Havana and Hennepin. Those left work at plants in Baldwin, Bartonville, Joppa and Newton.
Closing four downstate coal plants promises less pollution that can take years off lives and cause lung damage, heart disease and respiratory ailments in Chicago and other downwind communities. It also will eliminate millions of pounds of carbon dioxide the plants emitted each year, an amount equivalent to taking more than 1.3 million cars off the road.
But leaving the Edwards plant open in Bartonville, south of Peoria, is a particularly sore spot for community activists. Plant operators are under a federal court order to reduce pollution; Vistra, like Dynegy before it, has opted not to invest in scrubbers that reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.
By contrast, the soon-to-be-shuttered Coffeen plant in Montgomery County is one of the nation’s cleanest when the amount of pollution it emits is compared with how much electricity it generates.
The four coal plants that survived the cutbacks Vistra announced Wednesday were responsible for more than 80% of the asthma-triggering sulfur dioxide emitted by the company in Illinois last year, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis of federal data.
The plants remaining in Vistra’s portfolio also emitted about 60% of the current fleet’s emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen dioxide, the analysis found.
Three of the four plants that will remain operating are so old that environmental regulators long ago exempted them from installing modern pollution-control equipment. People living near those coal plants will continue to be exposed to noxious pollution at levels that would be illegal if the facilities were built today, critics noted.
“We are concerned about the workers and communities impacted by these announcements,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, a nonprofit group that has been fighting for years to ditch coal and shift the nation toward jobs in industries producing clean, renewable sources of electricity.
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Vistra became Illinois’ largest producer of coal-fired electricity last year when it acquired eight power plants in a merger with Dynegy, another Texas-based company. Even before the deal was finalized, Vistra executives hinted they might end up scrapping the entire Illinois fleet because the aging coal plants struggle to compete in energy markets.
The plants burn coal from Wyoming instead of Illinois. But the company employs about 1,000 people in Illinois, and the power plants contribute to the tax base of local communities.
"Even though today’s retirement announcements were inevitable ... they are nonetheless difficult to make,” said Curt Morgan, Vistra’s president and chief executive officer.
The flexibility offered to Vistra by Pritzker’s administration, and former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s before it, reflects the clout of coal-related industries in central and southern Illinois, where power plants and mines once offered well-paying union jobs in sparsely populated areas with unemployment rates higher than the statewide average.
During the late 2000s, Vistra’s corporate predecessors agreed to either clean up the coal plants or shut them down by the end of this decade. Faced soon after with competition from cleaner, less-expensive natural gas, coal-dependent companies persuaded state regulators to push back deadlines, allowing executives to avoid the do-or-die decisions.
In 2017, Rauner extended another lifeline by proposing to make it easier to keep operating the dirtiest coal plants, which generally are less expensive to operate. Rauner’s proposal, drafted with significant input from a former owner’s attorneys, would have locked in place less stringent limits on pollution even if Vistra shut down some of its coal plants.
The Pritzker administration dropped that provision in response to opposition from environmental groups and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office.
Under the terms of the compromise negotiated by state and company officials, Vistra will be allowed to emit more sulfur dioxide than it did last year but will be required to slightly reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from the remaining coal plants in its fleet, the Tribune analysis found.
Meanwhile, fast-declining prices for wind and solar power are pushing coal out of the marketplace even faster than market analysis once expected. On Wednesday, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded its outlook for the North American coal industry to negative from stable, citing declining demand on the international market and the shift to gas and renewable energy in the United States.
A coalition of environmental and clean energy groups is promoting legislation in Springfield that would allocate funding to help workers find new jobs and protect communities from financial hardships when coal plants close.
Vistra is pushing its own measure that would require downstate ratepayers to subsidize the company’s proposed shift to solar power on the sites of its shuttered coal plants.