Prairie State Coal Plant
A billboard advertising "Moving Energy Forward" at the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa, Illinois. Credit: Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register

A standoff over forcing Illinois’ largest coal plant to reduce emissions could ironically prevent the passage of a comprehensive energy bill and lead to significant increases in carbon emissions, as some stakeholders see it. 

The Illinois Senate passed an omnibus energy bill (SB 18) late at night on Aug. 31, the latest move in a political drama that has dragged on for several years and threatened to devastate the state’s nascent solar industry, since the legislation is needed to restart solar incentives. 

Several powerful coalitions earlier this year found common ground on clean energy targets and how to meet them, but over the summer the state’s largest coal plant, Prairie State Energy Campus, became a key sticking point in the sweeping legislation. 

The bill passed by the Senate calls for Prairie State (and all other fossil fuel plants) to close by 2045, a deadline Gov. J.B. Pritzker has endorsed. Clean energy and environmental groups say Prairie State, Illinois’s largest carbon emitter by far, should be forced to meet declining emissions caps in the meantime. A statement from Pritzker’s office, published by Capitol Fax, said the office is “in discussions with stakeholders to ensure” that Prairie State and a municipally owned coal plant in Springfield achieve “real interim emissions reductions” leading up to 2045. 

But some lawmakers and stakeholders are pushing back against such a mandate, with the disagreement putting the bill’s future still in doubt.

Nuclear tipping point 

If the bill doesn’t pass in the coming days, Exelon has promised to initiate the closing of two of its Illinois nuclear plants, which it says cannot keep operating without subsidies included in the bill. Renewable energy industry leaders and others advocating for the Senate bill’s adoption say that if the nuclear plants close, the state will have to import coal-fired power from non-unionized plants in neighboring states, and total carbon emissions will go up by more than 20 million tons a year, according to a 2020 report by the Brattle Group that Pritzker used to guide his proposed nuclear subsidies. 

An analysis that backers of the Senate bill have circulated to legislators cites the Brattle Report in noting that 480 million additional tons of carbon dioxide will be emitted by 2045 if the Byron and Dresden nuclear plants close — since the energy would be replaced largely by coal-fired power. If the bill passes, enough solar will be built in Southern Illinois to offset 96 million tons per year of carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted, according to that analysis. 

Meanwhile, Prairie State emits 12.7 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, as noted in an investigation by Inside Climate News and the Chicago Sun-Times, for a total of more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2045. 

That means passing the Senate bill without emissions reduction targets would still be a net win on carbon emissions compared to no bill at all, backers argue, by a margin of more than 200 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2045. 

Another battleground 

The bill passed by the Senate includes many of the ambitious clean energy, equity and job creation components promoted by the Clean Jobs Coalition of environmental and community groups for several years, previously enshrined in a bill called the Clean Energy Jobs Act. 

Solar and wind industry players had previously backed a different bill called Path to 100 that lacked the in-depth equity, job training and just transition components of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. But in recent months those two coalitions came together on funding and other mechanisms directly related to clean energy, and controversy over subsidies for the nuclear plants also dissipated. 

Prairie State created a new schism between the Clean Jobs and Path to 100 coalitions. The Clean Jobs Coalition doesn’t want legislation to pass without emissions limits, whereas the industry coalition is desperate for legislation to pass immediately, with or without limits for Prairie State.

“The Illinois House has an opportunity to pass the strongest clean energy, pro-climate legislation in the country,” says a statement from the Path to 100 coalition released after the Senate passed the omnibus bill. “We urge the House to act quickly to resolve any outstanding issues while preserving the critical renewable energy policies in SB 18 that all parties agreed to after years of negotiations.”

Prairie State is owned by a consortium of nine public power agencies that made controversial and in some cases economically devastating binding deals with more than 300 municipal utilities and electric cooperatives across eight states. 

Critics say that ratepayers in these communities are being forced to subsidize unnecessary and overpriced carbon-intensive power, and that forcing Prairie State to close or ramp down earlier could provide both environmental and economic relief. 

“Illinois now has a path to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy,” said J.C. Kibbey, Illinois clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Clean Jobs Coalition member, in a statement. “It’s glaring that the bill still lacks near-term standards for the biggest polluter in Illinois, the Prairie State coal plant. Science tells us we cannot wait decades to reduce emissions from coal if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. We look to House leadership to add this simple but crucial missing piece and to pass a bill that our state can be proud of in the next few days.”

In addition to the stalemate over declining emissions limits for coal plants, Pritzker is concerned that union-backed provisions in the Senate bill could violate federal law and lead to a court invalidating the entire bill, as reported by Capitol Fax. The bill calls for union labor to be used on many utility-scale renewable projects, including on some transmission lines used to carry that energy. Text from the governor’s office quoted by Capitol Fax said: “The Governor’s office recommended that [these] problematic provisions be removed and the Senate refused.”

Without a bill, many companies and experts say, the Illinois solar industry will continue the precipitous decline that started when Renewable Energy Credits funded by the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act expired over the past year. New funding that would be created by the Senate bill is seen as crucial to restarting and expanding the wildly popular community and residential solar incentives created by FEJA. 

To add insult to injury, in late August utilities began returning money to customers that had already been collected for renewable energy development, because of a timetable enshrined in FEJA that turned out not to be realistic. 

Barely hanging on 

Michelle Knox founded WindSolar USA in Springfield, Illinois, in 2008, one of the state’s relatively few woman-owned solar companies. As Knox describes it, she “built something from nothing,” having “fully built and financed the start up of this business on my own with hard work and passion.”

In 2019 with FEJA incentives in full swing, Windsolar USA had its best year ever with a net income of $272,491 and 948 kilowatts of solar installed, Knox said. She had four teams working, including union electricians. In 2020, with the pandemic and a portion of incentive funding expiring in December, net income dropped to $34,911. With all incentive funding depleted this year, Knox posted a net loss of $6,412. 

“What small business can remain operational for any length of time with a negative net income?” Knox asked. “Not many. The only reason I can is because of the years of being in business and saving excess funds for unforeseen catastrophes like this.” 

Knox has been sending state legislators charts of her company’s metrics and data visualizations showing the urgency of decarbonization. She, like other solar industry stakeholders, is concerned that standoffs over emissions reductions and labor provisions could derail the legislation. 

“The time is now for a bill to be finalized and small businesses like mine to continue providing or even expanding clean energy jobs, contributing to local economies through sales tax revenue and financing of solar projects through local banks, and moving Illinois towards renewable portfolio standard goals,” Knox said. “I am asking legislators to hear my plea on behalf of small businesses across the state.”

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.