2 coal-burning plants to power down early
From the Chicago Tribune:
Built during the early part of the last century to satisfy Chicago's growing demand for electricity, two of the nation's oldest coal-fired power plants will shut down amid concerns about lung-damaging air pollution and competition from cleaner, less-expensive energy sources.
A combination of economic realities and steady pressure from environmental leaders, federal regulators, community groups and Chicago aldermen nudged Midwest Generation to speed up closure of the Fisk plant in Pilsen and the Crawford plant in Little Village.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped in and brokered a deal that will mothball Fisk by the end of the year and scuttle Crawford by the end of 2014, a few years earlier than state-imposed deadlines to clean up or shut down the aging coal burners.
The agreement, announced Wednesday, gives Emanuel a victory that evaded former Mayor Richard Daley, who often boasted of his efforts to make Chicago the nation's greenest city. More important, it promises cleaner air in a region plagued for decades by noxious soot and smog that triggers asthma attacks, causes heart problems and leads to premature deaths.
Chicago the last major U.S. city with coal plants still operating within its borders. For years, environmental and community groups have blamed Fisk and Crawford for high asthma rates and other health problems in their predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhoods. A 2010 report by the National Research Council estimated that pollution from the coal plants costs surrounding areas $127 million a year in hidden health costs.
About 180 workers will be laid off, but electric rates won't change because the plants are closing. Midwest Generation, which bought the coal plants from ComEd in 1999, sells its power on the open market and, like many other coal-dependent companies, has found it increasingly difficult for its smallest, least-efficient plants to compete with nuclear power, natural gas, wind energy and newer coal plants.
"They were only going to spend money on these plants if they thought customers would pay high enough prices to make the investments worthwhile," said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, one of the groups behind a proposed city ordinance that targeted Fisk and Crawford. "With natural gas prices low and electricity demand flat, they ran out of excuses to keep running these dirty old clunkers."
During a conference call with investors and an interview later with the Tribune, company officials said Wednesday the cheapest natural gas in a decade has sapped Midwest Generation's ability to make money from the Chicago plants.
"We just don't see a viable path to operate and retrofit those plants," said Doug McFarlan, a Midwest Generation spokesman. "We would like to move on."
In return for the company closing the coal plants sooner than expected, Emanuel pledged to pull back the proposed Clean Power Ordinance. Green groups - including Learner's organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago and the Sierra Club - will drop their lawsuit against the power company.
Midwest Generation also gets an extra year to decide what to do with its Waukegan coal plant, 40 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan. In documents filed Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, its parent company said it is "less likely to install environmental controls" at Waukegan, meaning the plant could shut down by 2014. The company said it also might shut down one of the units at its Joliet coal plant and "possibly others" at plants in Romeoville and downstate Pekin.
A year ago, Midwest Generation told investors it planned to delay installing pollution controls at all of its power plants "for the maximum time available," a decision that allowed the company to hedge its bets as electricity markets began to favor gas over coal and the Obama administration pushed for more stringent pollution limits.
Unlike other power companies that are fighting in Washington and the courts to block tougher clean air standards, Midwest Generation has publicly supported the administration's court-ordered pollution rules and vowed it was ready to meet them. The company already has installed equipment at all of its plants to substantially reduce emissions of toxic mercury, and has obtained permits to overhaul its coal burners to curb smog- and soot-forming pollution.
Closing the Chicago plants will eliminate big sources of air pollution that during the past decade drew the ire of policymakers, public health experts and environmental groups. It also will substantially reduce the city's emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Fisk and Crawford are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from industrial sources within the city, according to data submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In May, activists from Greenpeace scaled the Fisk smokestack and unfurled a "Quit Coal" banner - a dramatic, attention-grabbing tactic after years of protests, prayer vigils and street theater in front of the plants.
As community opposition grew to include a majority of Chicago aldermen, Midwest Generation kept stressing it had agreed years ago to clean up or shut down its plants. The company's pledge followed a 2005 Tribune investigation that led to state rules requiring all coal-fired power plants in Illinois to make deep cuts in smog, soot and mercury pollution.
"These plants in particular have disproportionally affected low-income neighborhoods where asthma is a big problem," said Robert Cohen, chairman of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Stroger Hospital. "Closing them should bring relief right away to people in those neighborhoods."
Before taking office, Emanuel said he supported efforts to clean up the Chicago plants. Aldermen delayed a vote on the Clean Power Ordinance after the incoming mayor made it clear he wanted to weigh in on the negotiations, which at one point included a long-term deal for the state to buy electricity from a Midwest Generation wind farm. House Speaker Michael Madigan nixed the idea because it would have required the state to pay above-market rates.
In a statement, Emanuel said he would solicit input from the company and community groups as the properties are redeveloped.
"Midwest Generation has made an important and appropriate decision ... which will be good for the company, the city and the residents of Chicago," Emanuel said.
Built in 1903, the Fisk plant was designed for Samuel Insull, an aide to Thomas Edison who turned Commonwealth Edison into a business juggernaut that rapidly expanded the once-novel use of electricity to thousands of homeowners and businesses. Insull added Crawford to the company's fleet during the 1920s.
The latest steam turbines inside the plants were installed during the 1950s and '60s. In a 2009 lawsuit, the Obama administration and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan accused ComEd and Midwest Generation of extending the life of the plants without installing pollution controls. Now the government likely will drop its appeal of a trial judge's decision that threw out the case.
Nationwide, companies have announced the closure of more than 100 coal plants during the past three years. Like Fisk and Crawford, most were built or upgraded during the middle of the last century and until recently had avoided the toughest provisions of the 1970 Clean Air Act.
"We're seeing a radical shift in the electric power industry," said Bruce Nilles, an attorney for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Keeping these old coal plants running just doesn't make sense anymore."