As President Donald Trump attempts to prop up the nation’s dwindling coal industry, Illinois is taking another step away from its dirtiest source of electricity. Under a deal brokered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, the Texas-based owner of eight coal-fired power plants in central and southern Illinois agreed last week to shutter 40% of its fleet by the end of the year.
Vistra Energy will be allowed to choose which units it retires and might scrap some of its cleaner power plants instead of the dirtiest. But the company’s agreement with the state’s new Democratic governor is far more stringent than industry-friendly rules proposed two years ago by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Rauner’s plan would have allowed Vistra to dramatically increase its emissions of lung-damaging and climate-changing pollution. Instead, the state-imposed limits brokered by the Pritzker administration are slightly higher than the fleet’s emissions during the past five years and will become more restrictive every time a coal plant closes for good.
The agreement is another sign that Illinois, like many other states, isn’t turning back from a steady shift to cleaner sources of electricity, despite Trump’s move last week to gut national climate pollution standards adopted by former President Barack Obama. It appears the only question is whether Trump’s latest rollback of environmental regulations will enable some coal-fired power plants to keep running longer than expected, slowing the transition to wind, solar and other forms of clean energy that are quickly becoming less expensive than coal.
Vistra became Illinois’ largest producer of coal-fired electricity last year when it acquired eight power plants in a merger with Dynegy, another Texas-based company. Even before the deal was finalized, Vistra executives hinted they might end up scrapping the entire Illinois fleet because the aging coal plants struggle to compete in energy markets.
Another sign that coal is still on the way out in Illinois: Vistra is pushing legislation in Springfield that would require downstate ratepayers to subsidize the company’s proposed shift to solar power on the sites of its shuttered coal plants. Lawmakers remain skeptical. The company’s proposal failed to gain traction during the recently completed legislative session.