City officials plea for Prairie State coal plant to remain open

Rochelle has $150 million in debt with plant that lawmakers may close early

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ROCHELLE — Rochelle city officials made a plea to the public Monday to reach out to state lawmakers and the governor’s office in support of keeping the Prairie State Energy Campus in Marissa, Illinois open past 2035. 

A proposed state energy bill would see the plant close earlier-than-planned in 14 years. The city has $150 million in debt left with Prairie State until 2042. Rochelle bought into the plant in 2007. The plant provides a large portion of Rochelle Municipal Utilities’ power. 

Rochelle Mayor John Bearrows said at a Monday press conference that the negative economic impact the plant’s early closure would have on Rochelle is “huge,” “financially-devastating” and RMU would “probably” no longer exist as we know it today. A decision is expected to be made this week in Springfield. Bearrows praised the newer plant that came online in 2012 and said its impact on the environment shouldn’t be lumped in with older coal plants. 

“I want you to flood their offices today,” Bearrows said. “Today's the day. We're asking everyone to reach out and show your dissatisfaction with an unplanned closing of Prairie State. I can't stress enough how important this is. This plant should not be in the same group as a plant that was built in 1965. There's a difference. I trust that everyone will reach out."

The aim of the state bill is to transition to green energy. Bearrows said the city is “very proactive” in solar and wind energy and not opposed to a transition to it, but wants to see sustainable, reliable and affordable energy. 

Bearrows believes there’s “no reason” Prairie State couldn’t be carved out of the bill, as it was slated to in recent weeks before being added back to the closure list. 

“When you talk about what Prairie State does, 1,600 megawatts of power,” Bearrows said. “To create 1,600 megawatts with solar panels, you're looking at 13,500 acres of prime farmland taken out of production. Let's look at what the next step might be. Are we going to have to learn how to sustain without food? Because we're going to have to learn how to get along without sustainable power if this happens.”

City Manager Jeff Fiegenschuh said Rochelle would have $50 million in debt left in 2035 when the plant closes that it would still be obligated to pay. Rochelle would have to go out and buy power to replace Prairie State’s supply. 

Fiegenschuh said the notion that the city could go out and buy power on the market at a lower rate than it’s paying Prairie State is “naive” to think. 

“To think we can go out and buy power and guarantee prices are low in 2035 if we don't have base load generation in this state and other states makes no sense,” Fiegenschuh said. “If Prairie State closes, our rates will have to go up. Because we're going to pay debt service on a plant we can't use and we're going to have to find 30 megawatts of power to make up what we're losing from Prairie State.”

Fiegenschuh believes the move in the direction of renewables needs to be done in a sustainable way that doesn’t impact rate payers, who he says will see a major rate increase to cover costs of Prairie State closing. 

The city hasn’t had a rate increase in six years and power costs at Prairie State have gone down in the past five years, Fiegenschuh said. 

Fiegenschuh said the city would have to think about buying more power in the late 2020s if Prairie State closes. It would also look at investing in and producing more renewable power in town and how it would pay for that, which would likely be rate increases. 

The closing of Prairie State would force the city to look at the business model it currently uses with RMU and its ability to continue to provide power at a low cost, Fiegenschuh said. 

“There's a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Fiegenschuh said. “Do I want RMU to go away? Absolutely not. I love our local utility. There's a lot of positives to having our local utility. The flip side is, we have a business model and we have to be able to fall within that business model.”