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Transition or bailout? Debate swirls over plan for struggling Illinois coal plants

April 15, 2019

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The owner of economically challenged coal-fired power plants in Southern Illinois is supporting legislation that, if passed, would help transform those sites into facilities for utility-scale solar and energy storage projects.

The Texas-based company, Vistra Energy, acquired the region’s fleet of coal plants when it completed its purchase of Dynegy Inc. last year. It says the facilities are beset by tough economic and policy conditions, and favors a bill before the state legislature that would provide funding to phase them out of production and repurpose the sites, instead of just shutting them down abruptly.

But some environmental groups oppose the measure, characterizing it as a potential “$140 million a year coal bailout,” according to J.C. Kibbey, an Illinois clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago.

Regardless of what becomes of the legislation in Springfield, the electric grid in downstate Illinois — a longtime bastion of coal production — faces major shifts in how it generates power.

“We know that drastic changes are imminent,” said Meranda Cohn, Vistra’s director of media relations and corporate affairs. “What we’re trying to do is create a viable business in Illinois and the status quo does not present that,” said Cohn. “We think this gives us an opportunity to continue to operate in the state and at the same time help the state meet its goals.”

Vistra employs about 1,000 workers total across its eight Illinois coal plants, Cohn said. The proposal would rely on a combination of funding mechanisms, including renewable energy credits and state-awarded grants. “Transitionary assistance” would be capped at $140 million annually from 2020 through 2024, a five-year period during which given coal plants would remain in operation, with solar or energy storage joining the mix at each site in either 2021 or 2022. The legislation would allow the plants to retire if unforeseen capital expenditures of more than $10 million would be needed to satisfy environmental laws or regulations and keep them in operation.

More: Facing likely closures, owner of Southern Illinois coal power plants supports bill to help repurpose sites for solar, energy storage projects

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