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Environmentalists: Vistra Power Plant Closures Favor Dirtier, Cheaper Facilities

E.D. Edwards plant south of Bartonville

Environmentalists are blasting Vistra Energy’s coal-burning power plant closure announcement as a cynical cost-cutting move. 

The Texas energy company announced Wednesday it would close the Duck Creek Power Station in Canton and plants in Havana, Hennepin and Coffeen to comply with new state caps on nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions. Two-thousand megawatts of electric generation capacity will be taken offline by the end of the year, pending regulatory approval.

But environmental advocates said Vistra is shutting down cleaner power plants in favor of dirtier, cheaper facilities. 

The Duck Creek, Havana, and Coffeen plants are fitted with scrubbers. These reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, which is linked to respiratory issues. But they also produce higher overhead costs. 

“Instead of closing the dirty power plants that would be the common sense approach to this, they closed the ones that weren’t as dirty. And they did that simply for one reason, which was their bottom line," said Don Carlson.

Vistra is keeping its E.D. Edwards plant near Bartonville open. That plant does not have scrubbers. In 2017, Edwards was the state’s second-highest emitter of sulfur dioxide. The plant was cited for thousands of Clean Air Act violations in 2016.

Vistra's Joppa and Baldwin plants also rank high on sulfur dioxide emissions in the 2017 data. Newton and Duck Creek are not listed in that data. 

“It’s kind of a sad thing for the corporation to choose plants that actually are the cleanest-running for this shutdown," said Joyce Blumenshine with the Heart of Illinois Sierra Club. She said it's time for energy companies to take climate change seriously.


Carlson argued that Vistra may boost power generation at the Edwards plant near Bartonville to make up for the closures, leading to more pollutants in Peoria’s air. But Vistra says state rules prevent that from happening.

"The revised MPS rules, per the Illinois Pollution Control Board Order, is protective of public health and the environment and prevents a more frequent operation of higher emitting units to make up for the loss of generation from lower emitting units," said Vistra Energy spokeswoman Meranda Cohn. 

In a written response, she also provided a list of various pollution controls in place at the four plants remaining open. The list included nitrogen oxide controls at Edwards Unit 3 and Baldwin and low nitrogen oxide burners at the remaining units.

She said there is also dry-scrubbing at Baldwin and Newton, and carbon injection to control mercury emissions at the remaining units. 

In an April 2018 interview, Vistra Energy CEO Curt Morgan told CNBC that coal is on the way out and pointed to solar energy as the way to go. The company began floating the idea of closing some of its Illinois coal plants as early as February 2018. 

Vistra is lobbying Illinois lawmakers to pass legislation this fall to allow the company to convert its remaining coal-burning power plants into solar and battery storage facilities while continuing to burn coal through 2025. The Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act of 2019 is similar to legislation already passed in Texas and California.  The conversions would be funded through an extra charge to ratepayers.

Carlson called that prospect "just absurd," claiming the company has more than enough money to fund conversion to cleaner energies itself without impacting ratepayers. For the first six months of 2019, the company reported net income from ongoing operations at $607 million, and earnings before tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) of $1.54 billion. 

The company announced the acquisition of Dallas-based Ambit Energy for $475 million a day before the Illinois closure announcements. 

The Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act was referred to the Senate Assignments Committee in July.