As President Joe Biden pushes the nation toward 100% carbon-free electricity to combat climate change, a coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois is one of the biggest roadblocks.
The Prairie State Generating Station is among the top 10 industrial sources of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the United States, emitting as much as 2 million cars combined every year.
Less than a decade old, the massive electric generation plant is the brainchild of Peabody Energy, a St. Louis-based coal company that for years denied it contributes to global surges of extreme heat, wildfires, drought, flooding and rising seas.
Most of the other big U.S. coal plants still operating are at least 40 years old. They are either past or close to the end of their expected life spans. But Prairie State could keep churning out climate-changing pollution for another half century — decades past Biden’s 2035 deadline to purge fossil fuels from the power sector, according to a new analysis published in the journal Science.
The findings renew questions about why five Chicago suburbs and dozens of other municipalities across the Midwest agreed to collectively borrow more than $5 billion to build a new coal plant in Washington County.
Peabody later sold its 5% stake in Prairie State for a fraction what it spent to help build it. Municipal investors, though, are locked into long-term contracts to buy electricity from the power plant and pay off the construction debt.
“If you built a coal plant in 1955, you didn’t see climate action coming,” said Emily Grubert, an engineer and assistant professor at the Georgia Tech School of Public Policy who conducted the Science analysis. “But did people in the mid-2000s have enough information to realize (Prairie State) was a risky investment? Yes, they did.”
In 2007, around the same time Batavia, Geneva, Naperville, St. Charles, Winnetka and 200 other municipalities signed up with Peabody, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide can be regulated as air pollution. Private investors abandoned dozens of similar projects, scared off by skyrocketing construction costs.
Peabody promised municipalities below-market electricity prices if they invested in Prairie State. But the coal plant and adjacent mine ended up costing more than twice as much as the company’s initial price tag, forcing many of the cities, towns and villages to raise electric rates and, in some cases, local taxes.
The municipal investors did not account for the environmental cost of emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead, some joined Peabody in lobbying against efforts to confront climate change.
Peabody now acknowledges that human activities — mostly the burning of fossil fuels — are responsible for the changing climate. It also argues that coal should “play a significant role in the global energy mix for the foreseeable future.”
There is little room left for coal when levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than at any point during the past 800,000 years. If emissions aren’t dramatically reduced soon, scientists say, climate-influenced catastrophes could kill millions of people and devastate the global economy.
“Humans have long witnessed natural disasters, but now we are seeing an increasing intensity of such events,” said Donald Wuebbles, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Illinois who served as a White House science adviser under President Barack Obama. “What were once very rare events are now becoming more common.”
Biden pledges to make climate action a key part of his administration’s efforts to recover from COVID-19. Rapidly expanding the deployment of wind and solar power, electric vehicles and energy-efficient buildings would help repair the nation’s virus-ravaged economy and create thousands of new jobs, he said.
The new president’s plans got a boost last month when a team of energy experts at Princeton University concluded the U.S. could affordably slash greenhouse gas emissions to zero in all sectors of the economy by 2050. Meeting that goal, the researchers said, will require a monumental commitment to clean transportation, electricity and home heating.
“Folks, we’re in a crisis,” Biden said while introducing his climate team. “Just like we need to be a unified nation to respond to COVID-19, we need a unified national response to climate change.”
Grubert, the Georgia Tech researcher, thinks meeting Biden’s target for electricity providers could be one of the easiest ways to decarbonize the country.
Grounding her analysis on federal data and the typical retirement age for power plants using the same technologies, she concluded that 85% of the coal- and gas-fired plants operating during 2018 could be scrapped by the middle of the next decade.
Prairie State is the biggest source of climate pollution among the remaining 15% that would need to shut down earlier than expected under a zero-carbon strategy, according to Grubert’s analysis.
Economic realities already are prompting companies to close coal plants, including some that are relatively new.
Natural gas prices are at historic lows. Wind and solar power are increasingly cost-competitive and becoming more efficient, while industrial-scale batteries can store energy for times when the wind isn’t blowing or sun doesn’t shine.
As a result, coal plants provided just a fifth of the nation’s electricity during 2020, down from more than half a decade ago, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Peabody and other coal companies are closing mines, shedding jobs and seeking bankruptcy protection from creditors.
“The Prairie State plant is an economic boondoggle, even more so in the context of what is happening to the coal industry,” said Howard Learner, president of the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center. “It certainly doesn’t help us meet our climate goals.”
In a three-page summary of her findings, Grubert urged elected officials and other policymakers to be straight with Americans about impending job losses in the fossil fuel industry. Leaders should begin preparing now for a decline in local tax revenues after power plants close, she added.
Planning for the transition to carbon-free electricity is vital, Grubert wrote, because coal and gas plants expected to still be around in 2035 are disproportionately located in states with poverty rates higher than the national average.
“States are starting to talk about it, but the states that need to talk about it aren’t,” Grubert said.
She likened the lack of preparation in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Wyoming and other coal states to the collapse of the U.S. steel industry during the 1970s and ’80s. Scores of communities that thrived during the boom years are still struggling to recover.
During the past four years, President Donald Trump repeatedly promised he would save the coal industry, echoing what politicians once told their constituents in fast-declining steel towns. Trump mocked climate science, appointed coal industry lobbyists to top positions in his administration and attempted to roll back more than 100 environmental regulations during his term.
Yet he failed to stop market forces that already had been cleaning up the nation’s electricity supply. Coal plants closed at a faster rate under Trump’s watch than during any other presidential term, including both served by Obama, who Republican politicians still accuse of waging a “war on coal.”
Since Trump took office in 2017, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled; owners of another 73 plants have announced their intention to close additional coal-burning units this decade, including all units at nine of the 13 remaining coal plants in Illinois, according to a tally by the nonprofit Sierra Club.
Investors in the Prairie State plant continue to defend their decisions to finance Peabody’s project. They also are promoting smaller steps to reduce climate pollution.
Naperville, for instance, is expected to get 17% of its electricity this year from carbon-free sources, including wind and solar power procured by the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, an association of 33 cities that owns a 15% stake of Prairie State. St. Charles and Winnetka buy electricity through the same agency.
Brian Groth, Naperville’s utilities director, said the city has installed solar panels on municipal buildings and is working with the IMEA on a 1 megawatt solar array in town that should come online this year. (Prairie State generates 1,600 megawatts.)
“This is going to take a group effort among state governments, municipalities and customers,” said Linda LaCloche, the city’s spokeswoman. “People are going to have to dedicate themselves to change. Naperville, I think, is on a good path.”
The IEMA is pledging to reduce its reliance on coal by 40% during the next five years, said Staci Wilson, the agency’s director of government affairs.
For at least another decade, though, Prairie State and other coal-burning power plants are expected to dominate the energy portfolios of IMEA members. The same is true for other Prairie State investors, including a separate agency that provides electricity to Batavia and St. Charles.
“Prairie State can and should continue to serve as a stabilizing resource to the Midwestern energy grid well beyond 2035,” Alyssa Hare, a spokeswoman for the plant’s operating company, said in a statement.
Without unforeseen technological breakthroughs, Prairie State likely is one of the last coal-fired power plants to be built in the United States.
There is another reason why its demise could come sooner than expected. Most of the municipal contracts with the plant’s operator expire in 2035 — the same year Biden wants the nation’s electric grid to be carbon-free.