- Vistra Energy is calling for state lawmakers to pass the Illinois Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act of 2019, a bill it says will help keep its uneconomic coal plants online another five years while supporting the development of more clean energy.
- The legislation would repurpose downstate coal plant sites to solar and energy storage, resulting in approximately 500 MW of new renewable generation coming online between 2021 and 2022. It will also help keep at-risk coal plants online through 2024, providing Vistra with up to $140 million annually.
- The company says the bill will allow time for the state to add new renewable generation and transmission to keep energy reliabile and affordable, but environmental groups say the measure is a "bailout" for unnecessary generation that would otherwise retire years sooner.
Vistra and environmentalists disagree on whether the utility's coal plants are needed for reliability.
Last spring, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club released a report that found retiring eight of the utilities coal plants in the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) Zone 4 could save ratepayers $14 billion without impacting reliability. But the utility maintains the coal plants are necessary.
"There are many challenges to operating power plants in Illinois, from longstanding and unresolved capacity market design flaws to delays in regulatory updates and other economic pressures," Curt Morgan, president and CEO of Vistra and its Illinois subsidiaries, said in a statement.
The legislation establishes a "reasonable and achievable path" to transition existing coal plants to renewable resources, he said.
Through its subsidiaries, Vistra has nearly 5,500 MW of capacity that accounts for 40% of MISO Zone 4's summer capacity. The company says 75% of its capacity in the region is at risk of closing by the end of this year "due to a number of factors."
But environmental groups oppose the legislation for a variety of reasons, according to J.C. Kibbey, a clean energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The way it's being marketed is pretty misleading," he told Utility Dive. "It's lipstick on a pig. Vistra uses the word 'transition' over and over again, I think hoping people wont notice this is a coal bailout."
The report last year, issued with the Sierra Club, concluded energy supply in southern and central Illinois would be secure, "even with the closure of these plants," he said.
But if the legislation is approved, Vistra could get grants from the Illinois Power Association to help keep the facilities online. Vistra would commit to redevelop sites into 500 MW of new utility-scale solar and energy storage, expected to be commercially available between 2021 and 2022.
Vistra says the phaseout would allow it to reduce total fleet emissions by 75% from 2005 levels by 2030 and will provide for an "orderly transition process for energy workers and plant communities by preventing a rash of plant closures later this year."
Kibbey sees a less-altruistic motive: coal companies "are increasingly seeing the writing on the wall," he said, and are "trying to squeeze every penny out they can on their way out the door, and that includes money from ratepayers and taxpayers."