New Report Has Bad News for Illinois Coal Plants: It’s Time to Go

October 24, 2018 | 12:01 am
Photo: Karen Long MacLeod/CPLC
Jessica Collingsworth
Former Contributor

In 2016 Illinois extended its clean energy leadership with the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act. The law strengthened Illinois’s renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, created the state’s first community solar program, and launched the Illinois Solar for All program. Under FEJA, solar capacity in Illinois is expected to grow from 90 megawatts to more than 3000 megawatts in the next decade.

Yet, many coal-fired power plants continue to operate in Illinois, and coal plant owner Dynegy-Vistra is seeking state subsidies and easing of pollution standards to keep their plants open and profitable.

The faster the state can retire its aging inefficient coal plants—a critical step in the clean energy transition—the greater the benefits will be for communities across the state.

UCS’ new analysis, Soot to Solar, analyzes the public health and economic benefits, carbon pollution reductions, air quality improvements, and social equity gains that could result by replacing coal power plants in Illinois with renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage.

Widespread benefits from FEJA

We conducted a multi-layered analysis that evaluates scenarios both before and after FEJA as well as two scenarios that include additional coal plant retirements. Implementing FEJA brings large economic and environmental benefits to the state. Thanks to FEJA:

  • New renewable energy capacity drives a total of $3.4 billion in capital investments in Illinois
  • Energy efficiency improvements spur another $1.3 billion in investments
  • Illinois adds 1,300 MW of new wind capacity and 3,406 MW of new solar capacity above the pre-FEJA baseline scenario by 2030
  • Total installed renewable energy capacity in Illinois is projected to reach more than 8,890 MW by 2030 under successful implementation of FEJA
  • Illinois electric sector CO2 emissions will decrease by 22 percent by 2030, NOx emissions will be reduced by 36 percent, and SO2 by 35 percent

Old coal-burning power plants have the greatest emissions per energy delivered.

Beyond FEJA

Illinois is off to a good start with FEJA, but with climate risks growing and public health impacts of pollution well-known, more could be done to close the state’s 15 polluting coal plants sooner.

We modeled two scenarios where two or eight coal plants were retired beyond those that will likely close under FEJA.

Greater carbon emissions reductions will occur under both coal retirement scenarios. By 2030, carbon emissions fall to 33 percent below 2016 levels from the closure of the Waukegan and E.D. Edwards coal plants (Waukegan Edwards scenario) and 51 percent below 2016 levels from closing Dynegy-Vistra’s eight MISO connected coal plants (Dynegy-Vistra scenario).

Clean energy growth in Illinois spurred by additional coal retirements is achievable and affordable. Under the coal retirement scenarios, annual savings for a typical household range from $93 to $102 per year by 2030.

Extensive public health benefits

In 2016 alone, air pollution from Illinois coal plants led to an estimated 2,300 asthma attacks and more than 350 premature deaths. Closing coal plants before 2030 greatly decreases the negative public health impacts caused by these plants.

For example, retiring the Waukegan and Edwards coal plants early avoids an estimated cumulative total of 178 asthma-related emergency room visits, 264 heart attacks, and 431 premature deaths compared to if the plants operate until 2030.

The pre-2030 retirement of six Dynegy-Vistra units avoids an estimated cumulative total of 408 asthma-related emergency room visits, 592 heart attacks, and nearly 1,000 premature deaths.

Closing the Waukegan Coal Plant

Waukegan residents, anchored by the community group Clean Power Lake County, have been advocating for a just retirement and transition plan for the Waukegan coal plant for nearly a decade. Our analysis finds that concern over electricity reliability, a typical talking point for the plant’s operator and its supporters, is not an obstacle to closing the Waukegan coal plant.

We found that generation from the two remaining coal units can be readily and reliably replaced with an equivalent amount of generation located anywhere in the 13 states served by the grid operator PJM.

The existing oil-burning combustion turbines on site at the Waukegan plant can be readily replaced with investments in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies.

The future of coal in Illinois

The Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) is considering changing an important air pollution standard that could lead to increased emissions and health impacts. On October 4, the IPCB passed on the proposal put forth by the Illinois EPA and supported by Dynegy-Vistra and instead put forth its own proposal lowering the annual caps on pollution from Dynegy-Vistra’s plants and then requiring that the caps be lowered when plants are retired, mothballed, or sold. The IPCB is accepting public comments on the revised proposal.

With the proposed change there is still fear that the company may close its cleaner plants and keep its dirtiest plants open longer. Instead of seeking changes to state pollution standards, Dynegy should be taking steps to close its aging, polluting coal plants and transition towards renewable energy and greater energy efficiency.

UCS recommendations

There are several actions Illinois elected leaders and policymakers could take to accelerate the state’s clean energy momentum, continue to close additional dirty coal plants, and to lead the region in creating a sustainable energy future:

  • Facilitate community involvement. State and local policymakers, utilities, and power plant owners must meaningfully engage with stakeholders, especially communities of color and low-income residents living near coal plants, to establish equitable and just transition plans. In the case studies included in this report, we explore the community-level economic, public health, and land impacts at five coal plant sites.
  • Adopt policies that support the deployment of energy storage. Illinois should consider policy options that incorporate the value of energy storage into future solar projects and reward solar projects that include energy storage, so that Illinois can fully realize its clean energy potential and integrate more renewable energy into its electric grid.
  • Design electricity rate structures that encourage customers to invest in solar and energy storage and reduce peak demand. Customer outreach and education is also crucial: utilities should clearly communicate to customers how they can modify their everyday behaviors to maximize savings on electricity bills.

Soot to Solar shows that with additional policies to incentivize clean energy development, Illinoisans can gain even larger public health, economic, environmental, and community benefits.

This blog is available in Spanish. We also have an interactive feature that highlights the communities in our case studies, available here.