PI Original Josh Kalven Monday November 24th, 2008, 1:17pm

"Clean Coal" Bill Includes A Silver Lining

A three-year round of tug-o-war
between Illinois environmentalists and the coal industry ended last
week in what appears to be a tie of sorts.

On Thursday, the legislature unanimously passed a bill that paves the way for a new "clean coal" power plant in downstate ...

A three-year round of tug-o-war between Illinois environmentalists and the coal industry ended last week in what appears to be a tie of sorts.

On Thursday, the legislature unanimously passed a bill that paves the way for a new “clean coal” power plant in downstate Taylorville, which seeks to capture 50 percent of its own carbon emissions.  Specifically, the General Assembly signed off on a feasibility study, which lawmakers will ultimately examine before deciding whether to begin construction on the plant.

But tucked inside SB1987 is an additional provision that, over the next 15 years, will dramatically alter Illinois’ power grid for the better.

We put out a few calls to people at the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club on Friday to get their views on Illinois’ latest energy legislation.

The Sierra Club’s Becki Clayborn said she’s not buying the coal lobby’s pitch that new coal-gasification technology -- which stores carbon emissions below ground rather than releasing them into the air -- makes for “clean” coal consumption. Even if the carbon output is reduced, she said, “another plant is another plant.”

On the other hand, EPLC co-legislative director Barry Matchett acknowledged that, while coal is far from ideal,  the bill represents a step forward.

“Here you’ve got precedent, in a coal state, where the carbon is sequestered,” he told us.  Matchett added that, once that happens, there’s no way of going back to business-as-usual in Illinois.

Taylorville aside, both groups agree that the legislation’s most significant benefit is a tough, new mandate on utility companies. Once the governor signs the bill, those utilities known as "alternative retail electric suppliers" -- which serve approximately half of the electrical load in the state -- will be required to generate 25 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2025.* Ultimately, hundreds of new wind turbines will be built as a result and “green-collar” jobs will grow.

In any event, the Taylorville plant is far from a done deal. As we’ve noted before, there are some potential hurdles that could emerge before the General Assembly gives the project a final up-or-down vote.  The good news is: even if the power plant falls through, the renewable energy mandates are here to stay.

CORRECTION: This post originally suggested that the 25 percent mandate applied to all utility companies.  In fact, it only applies to "alternative retail electric suppliers."  A bill passed in 2007 already requires major regulated utilities such as ComEd and Ameren to meet such a standard by 2025.

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