Naperville’s power future wedded to coal

One of the most insidious aspects of American life is the belief that, because we are free to believe whatever we like, all points of view are equally valid. Everyone supposedly has the right not to believe in things like evolution or climate change, and that right should be “respected.”

What that actually suggests, of course, is that, because everyone has the right to be wrong, they should never have to bear the consequences of being wrong. It should not be their fault if science education deteriorates or we put off controlling global warming until the weather begins to get weird. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what respect means.

In 2007, Peabody Energy, the nation’s largest coal company, asked hundreds of Midwestern communities and 17 electric power cooperatives to bear the financial risk of building the $3 billion, eventually $4 billion, Prairie State coal fired power plant in southern Illinois. In return, they would receive electricity at a stable cost that would forever stay below the market rate.

Around that time, more than 75 proposed coal fired power plants were cancelled because they were projected to be too expensive. Reports also warned that the cost of remediating the environmental effects of coal plants, such as toxic coal ash storage and heavy metal contamination, would continue to grow.

The participating communities either didn’t hear about the risks from Peabody or lacked the sophistication to understand them. And they ignored environmentalists who correctly claimed the plant would put over 13 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year, the equivalent of a couple of million extra cars.

What couldn’t be ignored, however, was that the cost of the plant ended up at $5 billion, more if you include financing costs, over-runs that the folks who assumed the risk, including Naperville, as the largest member of the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, would have to pay through higher electric rates.

Prairie State was built next to a coal mine, which was supposed to be a big advantage because of lower transportation costs. Unfortunately, that coal may be of such poor quality that it may actually be damaging the plant. Adding insult to injury, hydraulic fracking has lowered the cost of natural gas used to generate electricity, which may keep the market rate for electricity at half what Prairie State users currently pay.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will be able to prevent the Obama administration from implementing rules to lower CO2 emissions, but if it doesn’t that will further raise the cost of generating power with coal.

So far, this has not been as much of a financial hardship for Naperville as it has been for some cities. Our electric utility has gone from a $5 million surplus to a $14 million deficit in the last year, so rates will have to go up, perhaps $10 a month on average. However, they will still remain lower than the for-profit rates of Com Ed, Naperville officials are still comfortable with their decision, and most of the establishment still believes that it will work out in the long run.

Anyway, there isn’t much we could do. We could ask Midwestern attorneys general to investigate Peabody for concealing and misleading. We could publish the time-of-use rate schedule and ask people to shift their electricity use just for the good of the community, even though they will not be able to directly profit from it until the smart grid portal software is done.

And perhaps we could engage in a vigorous public discussion next time a momentous decision that will dramatically affect the city’s future must be made. For now, however, Naperville’s future is wedded to coal, for better or for worse, for richer or, as it turns out, for poorer.