Activists protest the Crawford power plant in Chicago in April, 2011. (Photo by Rainforest Action Network via Creative Commons)
Activists protest the Crawford power plant in Chicago in April, 2011. (Photo by Rainforest Action Network via Creative Commons)

Chicago’s two coal plants will close earlier than expected, according to a May 2 announcement by Midwest Generation, with both plants closing in September.

Previously the Fisk Generating Station was scheduled to close by the end of this year and the Crawford Generating Station by the end of 2014.

Midwest Generation president Douglas McFarlan said by email it was “purely an economic decision, very consistent with what dozens of others coal plant owners have done this year due to depressed power prices and forecasts overlaid with challenges for retrofitting smaller units.”

McFarlan said that in January, the “retirement queue” of plants expected to close in the PJM Interconnection, where the Chicago plants sell their power, was about 4,000 MW by 2015. “Today it is over 16,000 MW; we added 850 MW with the Chicago shutdowns,” he said.

Environmental and public health groups that have pushed for the closings for more than a decade – making them a national symbol of campaigns against coal-fired power – cheered the announcement, and highlighted the fact that the expedited closings were ultimately driven by economics.

“Coal is not just harmful to public health and air quality; it’s bad for business too,” said Faith Bugel, a senior attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, in a statement. “Clean energy is where the jobs are now.”

Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, had agreed to the previous closing dates in February, after talks between environmental and health groups and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In exchange, environmental groups dropped a Clean Air Act lawsuit charging that all six of Midwest Generation’s Illinois plants violated emissions standards.

Earlier this year the company had also told investors that they would be evaluating the future of the entire Illinois fleet, which sells power on the spot market and has become increasingly less profitable because of competition from cheap natural gas.

Last week the Sierra Club released a report finding the remaining four Illinois plants cannot operate profitably if they install pollution controls mandated by 2017 under state and federal law. The report also cited findings by the PJM Interconnection indicating that grid stability and reliability would not be affected by the closure of any of Midwest Generation’s Illinois plants.

The Sierra Club and ELPC are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Environmental leaders said the stepped-up Chicago closing dates and the possible closings of other Midwest Generation plants mean there is increased urgency to facilitate renewable energy development in Illinois, specifically wind energy.

“We know that it’s only a matter of time before Illinois moves to cleaner sources of energy, we just need to be ready for that,” said Illinois Sierra Club director Jack Darin. “We can’t control the schedule that the corporations operate on, but what we can do is prepare for something better and cleaner – whether it’s at the local level working with municipalities to build municipal energy programs or at the state level, improving state clean energy policies.”

Greenpeace senior field organizer Edyta Sitko agreed that while environmental groups see the plant closings as a victory, they also want Midwest Generation or its parent company Edison International to invest in more wind power in Illinois. “We’re also demanding from the company that they give us something better than these dirty old coal plants – like Edison is doing all over California – investing in clean energy jobs,” she said.

McFarlan has previously said that Edison is “helping lead the transition to new energy sources as the sixth largest developer of wind energy projects in the country.”

The Fisk plant, located in the largely Latino Pilsen neighborhood, was first built in 1903, with the current operating unit dating to 1959. The Crawford plant about five miles away in another low-income Latino community, Little Village, was built in 1924 with current units dating to 1958 and 1961.

Together they represent about 850 MW and employee 165 people, three quarters of them union members. These workers had packed Chicago City Council hearings regarding a proposed ordinance that if passed would have forced the plants to convert to natural gas or shut down; a similar state law was also proposed.

“If I had a comment today it is that there are 165 men and women working in those plants today and hundreds who preceded them who are rightfully proud of the role those plants have played in building the city of Chicago,” McFarlan said. “They have been incredibly professional since we announced two months ago that we would be closing their plants. They deserve the thanks and commendation of a city for their dedication and service.”

Local grassroots groups and national organizations including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace had made the plants symbols of environmental justice, since surrounding community members were exposed to higher levels of particulate matter known to exacerbate cardiac problems and asthma and other respiratory problems.

Youth members of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) led visiting journalists and youth groups on “Toxic Tours” by the Crawford station, and in May 2011 members of Greenpeace scaled the stack of the Fisk station and painted “Quit Coal” on it, remaining there for 26 hours.

The local group Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) had also for more than a decade pushed for the Fisk plant to close down or install greater pollution controls. LVEJO, PERRO and the Pilsen Alliance are working with Midwest Generation and city officials on a task force to decide what happens to the sites of the two Chicago plants.

“They say it was almost entirely because of fuel and production-related costs, but we feel pretty good that in addition they were facing the costs from continual increased regulation on the state and federal and city levels,” said PERRO co-founder Dorian Breuer about the stepped-up closing dates. “This is incredibly exciting news. We’re all going to breathe easier now, particularly kids with tiny vulnerable lungs and ailing older people.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer and author whose work has appeared in The Chicago News Cooperative, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other outlets.

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This work by Midwest Energy News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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