Showdown in the Land of Lincoln

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August 10, 2021

About an hour and a half southeast of St. Louis in the heartland of Illinois sits the Prairie State Energy Campus – one of the most modern and environmentally controlled coal power stations in the country.  Not quite ten years old, Prairie State is among the most efficient plants in the country and runs year-round as a low-cost energy provider to the region.  Its owners, all not-for-profit municipalities or cooperatives, count on the plant to run to pay the nearly $5B in outstanding debt issues to pay for financing the project.

Unfortunately, being a critical energy resource hasn’t taken it out of the crosshairs of the Illinois legislature and the state’s governor, J.B. Pritzker (D), both of whom would like to see the plant closed along with all the other coal plants in the state by 2035.  Prairie State alone employs over 600 people in the economically challenged southern part of the state.

The problem?  Well, like many ideas germinated in politics, what might seem good on paper, in reality, is much harder to implement in reality.   Illinois receives its power through two regional grid operators.  Chicago and the state’s northern tier receive their power through the PJM grid, and the rest of the state gets its power from the MISO grid—where Prairie State is located.  Just this summer alone, MISO has declared multiple reliability events because of insufficient power supply to meet demand.  Closing coal plants like Prairie State, which can generate up to 1600MW of energy on demand, will leave the grid highly vulnerable and less resilient. 

The Pritzker proposal would be economically discriminatory as well.  Five of the six nuclear facilities in Illinois providing 58% of the state’s power reside in the PJM footprint. They would receive up to $700 million in subsidies to keep these carbon-free facilities online. Areas of the state losing jobs and getting stuck with stranded costs would get no compensation for meeting the governor’s stringent plant closure deadlines.  

So, it is a “double whammy” from an affordability and reliability perspective for consumers in the MISO footprint. Prairie States will be taken offline without any corresponding price supports for the imported energy needed to replace not only an affordable but reliable source of electricity.  

Prairie Power CEO Eric Hobbie, one of the cooperative utility owners of Prairie State, recently said, “we cannot let policy get ahead of technology,” when our neighbors say, “we don’t have any extra [power] today.”  What did he mean?   He doesn’t want MISO consumers to suffer through the same fate as millions of Californians did last August when policy finally got ahead of technology plunging millions of Californians into darkness because the energy imports did, in fact, dry up.

Yet, the bigger question to ask is this? How does a 20th Century electric grid continue to perform the most critical task to maintaining a robust economy – the delivery of reliable electric service – under the strain of 21st Century political and physical considerations?  

How does Thomas Edison’s Grid evolve into Elon Musk’s grid without affecting the reliability we’ve come to expect?  And, how do we do it with an increased dependence on intermittent renewable resources of electricity like wind and solar coupled with the exponential increase in electric vehicles flooding our roads, not to mention the push to completely electrify every aspect of homes and commercial buildings?

The answer does not lie in state and federal programs that mandate arbitrary actions before we have the technology to reliably, affordably, and responsibly provide power to consumers.  Winter Storm Uri and the June heatwave in the Pacific Northwest proved that failure to provide for a resilient grid could have devastating consequences and result in loss of life.  

Hobbie is right.  For the sake of resiliency, we can’t allow policy to get ahead of technology.  That’s already happened in California, where unrealistic state mandates are fast transitioning its reliability record to one that looks more like a developing nation.   Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen in Illinois.