Illinois Town Demonstrates Energy Flexibility
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Coal is king, at least when it comes to making electricity. It produces half the nation's electric power, and energy analysts say coal's share will rise over the next quarter century. Already power companies have plans to build more than 150 new coal plants.
INSKEEP: Today, MORNING EDITION starts a series of reports on the rush to build coal-fired powered plants. Coal produces cheaper electricity but also has more carbon-dioxide, and that's that principle greenhouse gas that's heating up the planet, which is one reason that environmental groups want to stop the coal rush. But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, antagonists found a way to compromise in one recent case.
Mr. TODD RENFROW (Manager, City Water, Light and Power, Springfield, Illinois) Welcome everyone to this glorious occasion for our new unit four from the city of Springfield. There's too many people here to recognize individuals…
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: In a big tent in the city of Springfield, Illinois, utility manager Todd Renfrow recently kicked off a groundbreaking for a new power plant. The plant will run on coal, and Illinois is a coal-mining state.
Mr. RENFROW: We're going to have the cleanest plant in Illinois, one of the cleanest plants in the country, and we're going to burn 700,000 tons of Illinois coal, which is a great milestone for us. So…
(Soundbite of applause)
JOYCE: The mayor was there too to shovel up the first patch of dirt.
Unidentified Man: Throw it away from your pant leg.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man: Very, very important.
JOYCE: The mayor had reason to be happy; he says it has been an ordeal to get the plant approved. It was on a hit list - the Sierra Club's hit list. The environmental group has vowed to challenge every proposed coal-fired plant it can. And the Sierra Club has stopped several proposed plants, three alone in Illinois. But Todd Renfrow says in Springfield a funny thing happened on the way to the courtroom.
Mr. RENFROW: I was led to believe by everybody involved - our attorneys in Chicago - that they were very tough to deal with and the opportunity to maybe come to some type of agreement would be very minimal. It turned out to be just the opposite.
JOYCE: What Renfrow's utility - City Water, Light and Power - worked out with the Sierra Club was a unique agreement. The utility would build a mid-sized coal plant if they would also buy 120 megawatts of carbon-free electricity made from wind turbines. Wind will provide about 20 percent of the city's power needs. In addition, the city will shut down two old, polluting coal plants and it will spend millions to teach its customers to use electricity more efficiently. Five years from now, Renfrow predicts his customers will be producing 25 percent less carbon dioxide, or CO2, than they do now.
Mr. RENFROW: Everybody agrees that CO2 is a problem and the way to eliminate that is just to contribute less to the atmosphere.
JOYCE: There's no law that says the utility has to cut back its CO2 emissions, but the city utility feared that might change. They wanted to protect their customers if government imposes some kind of carbon limit in the future.
Jay Bartlett is the utility's chief engineer.
Mr. JAY BARTLETT (Chief Engineer, City Water, Power and Light, Springfield, Illinois): This just puts us ahead of the game and makes us more ready for any regulations that come down the pike, whether it be a tax or any other kind of regulation. You know, our profile looks better with the wind energy.
JOYCE: Someone still has to build the wind turbines, about 60 of them, but the Illinois state government has agreed to buy half the wind power to run its state office buildings. For the Sierra Club, the boost for carbon-free wind power was worth dropping its objection to a new coal plant.
Attorney Bruce Nilles runs the club's Midwest Clean Air Campaign.
Mr. BRUCE NILLES (Attorney, the Sierra Club): For a coal-producing state to recognize that you can continue to burn coal and harness your other renewable resources - in this case, wind - in the heart of coal country was a significant step forward.
JOYCE: Environmental groups continue to challenge new coals plants elsewhere, especially in the Midwest.
Mr. NILLES: In the Midwest, we are literally ground zero for the coal rush. We have more than 50 coal plants proposed in a 10-state region over the next five to 10 years.
JOYCE: Not all of those are serious proposals, and many would employ new clean coal technologies such as gasification, which doesn't burn coal, but turns it into hydrogen gas. There's no question the nation needs more electricity. The battle is over what kind it will be. Coal is the least expensive way to make it. So, according to analysts at the federal Department of Energy, coal will provide even more of the country's electricity in 25 years than it does now. Unless, they say, government imposes some sort of limit on carbon; then, the whole ball game changes.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.