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Illinois aims to be carbon-free by 2050, but some communities still rely on coal power

PLAINFIELD, Ill. (CBS) – Illinois plans to switch to 100% clean, carbon-free energy by 2050 – but some Chicago suburbs, including Naperville and St. Charles, are considering expanding coal-fired power generation.

Some concerned citizens complain that burning coal will not help Illinois meet its clean energy goal. They want the state to push for energy without a large carbon footprint.

Last year alone, more than 12 million tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide were emitted from a southern Illinois coal-fired power plant, the Prairie State Generating Station 36 miles southeast of St. Louis. The emissions put the plant in the top 10 worst emitters in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The power plant is being commissioned by the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA), which supplies electricity to dozens of communities, including Chicago's western suburbs, such as Naperville, St. Charles and the North Shore suburb of Winnetka.

“It's certainly one of the largest coal-fired power plants in Illinois,” said Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Current considerations over contract extensions for the Prairie State Generating Station reflect a continued reliance on coal, prompting climate change advocates like west-suburban mother Vanessa Sula to speak out.

“I actually started therapy recently because I have climate anxiety,” said Sula. “This is the world we are leaving to our babies.”

Not only has Sula made it to CBS 2, she is also reaching out to local and state lawmakers to advocate for clean energy in Illinois.

“Electricity generation is based on coal and the country and the world as a whole are moving towards energy generation that is less based on fossil fuels and more sustainable,” Sula said.

Learner was founding chairman of the Illinois Citizens Utility Board and the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

“From an environmental perspective, this is a bad deal,” Learner said of the dependence on the coal-fired power plant in the south of the state, “and this at a time when Illinois is moving politically in the direction of making our energy system cleaner.”

Learner stressed that Illinois' goal of achieving clean energy by 2050 is possible.

“It’s ambitious, it’s practical, it’s doable,” he said.

But this description is only true if everyone has the goal in mind – and money is not one of them.

“Put it on a referendum – put it out to the public,” Learner said. “Ask the public: Do you want solar and more wind and more energy efficiency or do you want more coal?”

CBS 2 reached out to both the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA) and the Prairie State Generating Station. They responded with the following statements:

Prairie State Energy

Prairie State brings great value to the communities we serve by generating affordable and reliable electricity while working to close the gap between today's technologies, the region's current energy needs and long-term carbon reduction goals, including those outlined in the CEJA.

Prairie State is held to very strict environmental standards and is committed to serving as a bridge to a cleaner energy future. It is evaluating ways to reduce carbon emissions while maintaining the energy production needed to adequately support the transition to intermittent energy sources such as wind and solar. This role has become even more important after the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the national regulator for grid reliability, warned that the pace of implementation of the new energy policy now directly threatens reliability.

Importantly, Prairie State's nonprofit owners are currently protected from market volatility, especially compared to the historical unpredictability of natural gas prices. A 2023 report by the think tank Energy Innovation, prepared in partnership with the University of California-Berkeley, concluded that Prairie State's costs are offset by highly subsidized renewable energy.

We continue to evaluate all possible options to reduce carbon emissions. All long-term operational decisions will reflect our mission to provide value to the communities we serve by producing reliable and affordable electricity while creating jobs and economic prosperity for hard-working men and women in Southern Illinois.

IMEA

IMEA is a wholesale electricity distributor. We have a comprehensive portfolio of energy sources including wind, solar, coal and hydro. This portfolio provides our members with reliable and affordable electricity.

The request from our member cities to extend their electricity supply contracts with IMEA is necessary so that we can significantly increase our investments in renewable energy, diversify our portfolio and keep prices low for the suburban residents we serve.

According to IMEA, ten municipalities have so far agreed to extend their energy contracts until 2050.

The cities of Naperville and St. Charles, the village of Winnetka and the city of Princeton – located in Bureau County about two hours west of Chicago – also issued statements about their relationships with IMEA.

Princeton

Princeton has had a relationship with IMEA as our electric provider for 40 years. The Princeton City Council recently voted to renew our contract with IMEA for several reasons. With IMEA as our electric provider, Princeton can ensure stable costs to avoid price fluctuations and provide reliable and sustainable electricity as we transition to carbon-free energy for our citizens and businesses.

St. Charles

IMEA is St. Charles' primary energy source. We have about 130 megawatts of peak power each year. St. Charles has not yet renewed its contract with IMEA beyond 2035, the city council is still considering it.

IMEA is currently able to secure the most predictable, affordable and sustainable energy for our electricity customers. The company also has a plan to secure renewable energy sources and comply with the rules and regulations set out in the state's climate law by 2050.

Winnetka

IMEA is the village’s wholesale supplier of electricity and energy.

IMEA has submitted the contract extension to the municipal council. The municipal council has until April 30, 2025 to make a decision on the contract extension. No formal action has been taken at this time.

Naperville

IMEA has offered contract extensions to all 33 members. Naperville has not yet entered into contract extension discussions with IMEA, but we have sought to obtain additional information to help us plan for our future beyond 2035.

Anna Harden

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