Vistra plant closures set stage for Ill. energy debate

By Jeffrey Tomich | 08/22/2019 07:11 AM EDT

One of the Midwest’s largest owners of coal-fired power plants has announced it will close a third of its Illinois coal fleet, teeing up a debate over the state’s energy future.

Vistra Energy Corp. is shutting coal-fired power plants in Illinois.

Vistra Energy Corp. is shutting coal-fired power plants in Illinois. CSIRO/Wikipedia(coal); PxHere(coal plant)

One of the Midwest’s largest owners of coal-fired electric generation announced plans yesterday to shut a third of its Illinois coal fleet under a deal with the state and environmental groups to get more freedom in how it operates the rest of its plants.

Vistra Energy Corp. plans to pull the plug on units that generate just over 2,000 megawatts and employ 300 people.

The announcement follows an order by the Illinois Pollution Control Board earlier this year under which Irving, Texas-based Vistra would retire coal plants and agree to lower emissions caps in return for more flexibility to run its more profitable, but higher-emitting units (Energywire, June 21).


Vistra and its predecessor, Dynegy Inc., had pressed MISO and former Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) for changes to help keep its coal units in the black. In the end, the company got some of the relief it sought.

"Even though today’s retirement announcements were inevitable due to the changing regulatory environment and unfavorable economic conditions in the MISO market, they are nonetheless difficult to make," Curt Morgan, Vistra’s CEO, said in a statement.

The decision sets the stage for how Illinois — still one of the nation’s largest coal-consuming states — addresses its energy future. The Legislature will convene for a fall veto session with several competing energy bills vying for attention.

Among them is the sprawling "Clean Energy Jobs Act" backed by a coalition of environmental advocates, labor groups and others. The bill would double the state’s renewable standard to 50% by 2030, set a 100% renewable goal by 2050 and direct the state EPA to establish rules regulating carbon dioxide emissions.

The measure also aims to boost low-income and minority neighborhoods as well as help coal plant workers, miners and communities that have been hit hardest by pollution and fossil plant closures (Energywire, March 1).

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, a member of the coalition behind the bill, said Vistra’s announcement should focus attention on "how those workers and the communities around the plants can be assisted."

"We hope this lends some urgency," he said.

Chicago-based Exelon Corp. is also backing legislation that would help its nuclear fleet. And wind and solar energy developers and their trade associations are supporting the "Path to 100 Act," which would increase Illinois’ renewable standard to 40% by 2030. The current renewable portfolio standard requires that 25% of the energy supplied by investor-owned utilities come from renewable resources by 2025 (Energywire, Feb. 11).

Yet another competing bill advanced by Vistra seeks to help redevelop central and southern Illinois coal plant sites into utility-scale solar and energy storage (Energywire, March 26).

Among the Vistra coal-fired plants to be shut down are the Coffeen, Duck Creek, Havana and Hennepin power stations.

The company said the decision of which plants to shut down resulted from an analysis that included several factors, including compliance with the new emissions caps, plant economics, federal regulations and the grid operator’s market rules.

Justin Vickers, an attorney for the Environmental Policy & Law Center, said it’s no surprise Vistra is choosing to shut the 915-MW Coffeen plant because, while it’s the cleanest in the company’s fleet, the company complained of being forced to run it at a loss to meet emissions requirements.

EPLC and other environmental groups urged the state Pollution Control Board to adopt a rate-based emissions standard that would have led to Vistra shutting its highest-emitting units.

"It’s a disappointment, but it’s not a surprise" that they are closing Coffeen, he said.

About an hour northeast of St. Louis, the plant came online in the mid-1960s, but so-called scrubbers were installed a decade ago that sharply reduced sulfur dioxide emissions.

As recently as last year, the CEO of Dynegy, the previous owner that was acquired by Vistra, called Coffeen one of the "cleanest coal plants in the world."

State Sen. Andy Manar, a coal-friendly Democrat whose district includes the Coffeen plant, blasted Vistra for the choice to close Coffeen and criticized the changes to the state’s Multi-Pollutant Standard that led to the decision.

"Shame on the Pollution Control Board for not doing its homework and allowing this to happen," Manar said in a statement. "If power plants are to be closed, the worst polluters should close first."