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Springfield Officials, Residents Discuss Timeline For Coal Plant Closures

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois
Springfield residents packed the City Council Chambers on Wednesday to discuss proposal to partially close the city's coal plant.

Support is building in the Springfield City Council for retiring three of the city’s coal power generators. That came as Springfield residents shared their opinions at a public forum Wednesday night about the potential closure of Dallman 33 – one of three coal generators slated for retirement.

After a presentation from City Water, Light and Power, the debate turned to timing and questions about the fate of around 60 employees that could be affected by the closures.

The discussion followed a contentious meeting Tuesday night, when aldermen voted to delay final action on a resolution setting dates for the shut-downs. Some city council members said they were concerned they didn’t have enough information to make a decision about the coal plants next week.

By the end of Wednesday’s meeting, more council members said they could vote if the date for Dallman 33 was changed from February 2022, as proposed by Mayor Jim Langfelder, to October 2023.

The resolution also proposes closing Dallman 31 and 32, the oldest units, by the end of this year. That part of the measure has more support. That would mean Springfield’s power demand would have to be met by just Dallman 4, the newest coal generator; smaller, oil-fired turbines; and yet-to-be-signed contracts to purchase electricity from other providers.

Plan For Plant Workers

CWLP officials presented the findings from The Energy Authority’s report, which in May found the generators are more expensive to run than buying electricity from the open market. It also offered more details about the regulatory challenges the utility is facing with keeping the older units up and running.

Retiring Dallman 33 avoids $29 million in costs over the next five years, according to CWLP. The utility also predicts that operating the unit costs between $13 million and $16 million more per year than buying from the grid.

“The sooner you retire the units, the sooner you can start collecting the savings,” Brown said. “The farther you push it out, the easier it is to transition employees because we are going to have more retirements year after year. But that’s really the only advantage of keeping the units longer.”

Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer said he’s gotten calls from constituents who work at the plant and are close to retirement. Extending the deadline from 2022 to 2023 could mean more workers reach retirement, and younger workers could move into vacancies created by those retirements.

“I would be for extending it out if a lot of it is for that purpose,” Hanauer said.

Bill Shafer, a retired CWLP worker who spoke during the public comment period, said he supports waiting for the same reason.

“These are high paying jobs at the power plant — some of the highest paying jobs in the city — and you’re going to have people who take a 50 percent cut in pay just to take another job to provide for their families,” Schafer said. “There’s going to be a whole lot of pain for a lot of people.”

Still, some residents who spoke at the meeting pointed to the potential savings of millions of dollars per year if the unit is retired earlier.

Meanwhile, Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor asked for more details about how workers would be helped if they moved the closure date from 2022 to 2023, and what incentive or severance packages might look like.

“A lot of this has to do with the uncomfortable nature of not knowing what is happening to these employees,” Proctor said. “I think we want to do it as quickly as possible, and save as much money as possible, per your slides, but we also want to make sure we do right by the employees.”

Langfelder said ScottMadden, Inc., the consulting firm hired to help with a transition, is working on a plan. Some of the severance packages would depend on negotiations with the different unions that represent the plant workers.

Electricity division manager John Davis said he’d present at the next council meeting more details about how many workers might retire in the next few years and what the potential job openings would be at the plant.

Climate Change And An Uncertain Future

After two hours of debate among city officials, Springfield residents had their chance to share opinions on the coal generator closures.

Springfield resident Alli Kearney Fry, who works for the Illinois Environmental Council, told council members she supports shuttering Dallman 33 and using more renewable energy.

“As a young member of this community – the future is important to me,” she said. “I want the best for my hometown and I want Springfield to be a healthy and thriving community that I can raise a family in.”

Others who support the closing the plant said that there is growing support for the Illinois Clean Energy Jobs Act, a proposal from environmentalists to invest more money in the renewable energy sector. Gov. J.B. Pritzker mentioned his support for renewable energy in his State of the State address Wednesday.

Amy McEuen, an ecology professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, recounted the effects of climate change, more flooding, species dying off and the ocean growing more acidic. She called on the council to act quickly.

“Yes, rate hikes are something to consider, and job loss, but what we’re dealing with here is so much larger,” McEuen said.

She said she’s seen officials seek more data and more information, which she would support. “But I’ve seen that used as a political tool to kick the can down the road and put the burden on our children and we just don’t have time to do that anymore.”

Other speakers also talked about the future, but expressed concern about the city giving up much of its power supply and having to rely on the electricity market, which they said could be volatile.

A retired Illinois Environmental Protection Agency worker and Springfield resident said he worried that retiring the three units left just Dallman 4 and two smaller, oil generators to meet electricity demand.

“Will each one of those units be able to provide the power in case something needs to be maintained or taken down for a little while?” he asked. “I think that needs to be considered.”

CWLP has said the remaining generators can meet the average load, and that the utility is looking into getting bids for low-cost electricity when there is higher demand, such as during the hottest days of summer.

“I’m going to urge caution,” said Andrew Connell, who said he is an engineer and works on power plants. “Rates are going up around the world.”

Matt Lauterbach, a CWLP employee and union steward for the machinists, also encouraged officials to think carefully about such a risky decision.

“The estimated power pricing is just what it is, an estimate. You’re looking into the future, there’s no magic ball to tell you,” Lauterbach said.

Still, those supporting closure pointed to The Energy Authority’s report and the fact that the credit rating agency Moody’s praised CWLP’s efforts to diversify its electricity supply.

Springfield officials are expected to continue the discussion at next Tuesday’s city council meeting.

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