carbon emissions
Credit: Ian Britton / Flickr

Illinois is on track to reduce its planet warming carbon emissions by 22 percent by the year 2030, according to new research, thanks to the state’s massive energy bill that passed in 2016.

The report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the projected growth in energy efficiency and renewable energy from the Future Energy Jobs Act can replace generation from the state’s coal plants while keeping the lights on across the state. Additionally, researchers found that Illinois can reduce emissions by as much as 48 percent by 2030 if Dynegy-Vistra’s six coal plants are closed, researchers found.

“FEJA is a good start, but Illinois can do more,” said Jessica Collingsworth, a report author and a lead Midwest energy policy analyst for the science group.

The report supports claims by clean energy advocates and says the faster Illinois transitions from coal, the greater the benefits that will accumulate, including ratepayer savings, carbon emission reductions, and improvements in air quality and public health. The report found:

Renewables are competitive: Researchers expect renewable generation and energy efficiency to increase to meet state goals, with renewable electricity sales projected to be 17.9 percent of power sales by the year 2030. All that new capacity will generate $3.4 billion in capital investments and energy efficiency measures will add an additional $1.3 billion.

Large gains from FEJA: Illinois’ energy mix will have substantially more clean energy than if the bill had never passed. By 2030, Illinois will be home to 3,406 megawatts of solar capacity and 1,300 megawatts of wind capacity above a baseline scenario, the study found. “Illinois has lots of new renewable energy coming on board through solar and wind,” Collingsworth said.

Clean energy can save Illinois money: A utility-scale energy storage system costs $14.3 million to install, but when coupled with solar generation and energy efficiency, it can save $19.1 million over its 25-year lifetime. Further, researchers found that under various scenarios in which coal plants close across the state, a typical household will save between $93 and $102 in energy costs annually by the year 2030.

Broad public health benefits to closing coal plants: Researchers estimate that air pollution from burning coal in Illinois caused 2,300 asthma attacks and more than 350 premature deaths in 2016. They found that closing six of Dynegy-Vistra’s coal plants and replacing them with renewable generation could prevent nearly 1,000 early deaths, along with a broad range of other health benefits.

Vistra, the company that now owns Dynegy, did not respond to requests to comment on this story. In October, the Illinois pollution board proposed new emission rules for Dynegy’s Illinois plants. Vistra said it supports the new proposal.

A previous study funded by a coalition of environmental advocacy groups concluded that Dynegy-Vistra’s coal-fired power plants in downstate Illinois will likely close by 2025 without creating any reliability issues. The company has said it is reviewing the economics and performance of these plants and looking of ways to make them more efficient and cost-effective.

In Waukegan, Illinois, a city located 40 miles north of Chicago on Lake Michigan, a coalition of community groups and environmentalists have been advocating that plant operators stop burning coal at a power plant currently operated by NRG Energy for nearly a decade.

The UCS report found that if the Waukegan plant is retired before 2030, 143 premature deaths could be avoided along with 89 heart attacks, and 58 asthma-related visits to an emergency room. Researchers also contend that the plant could be closed without hurting reliability. “The Waukegan plants can be closed tomorrow, and all the lights will stay on,” Collinsworth said. “There is no reliability issue.”

David B. Knox, NRG’s senior director of external communications, responded to the report with an emailed statement: “Without having had an opportunity to review the UCS study and their assumptions on impact to grid reliability, we cannot comment on the study. I can say that Waukegan has had numerous upgrades to reduce emissions and continues to provide reliable, affordable and increasingly cleaner power to the grid.”

In 2015, NRG spent $100 million to install scrubbers and other environmental controls at its plant in Waukegan, and the company has said that emissions have steadily declined from the Waukegan plant since 2010.

Celeste Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, a local environmental advocacy group, cheered the report. She said it supports arguments that residents have made for years. Flores’ group has long argued that the environmental impacts of burning coal are felt most by Waukegan’s low-income residents of color. “We are looking at the facts and the numbers and those don’t lie,” Flores said. “This brings credibility to the conversation that we’ve been having for years.”

Flores said there is great potential with the growth of renewable resources. “We worked really hard to get FEJA passed,” Flores said. “This report adds to the narrative that there is a just path needed for the retirement of the Waukegan coal plant. We’ve never wanted or advocated for the plant to shut down, we’ve wanted a just transition plan. We want to know what will happen to the workers, the land, and the tax base.”

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.