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Early closure for Vistra coal plant prompts fresh call for Illinois solar-storage transition policy

A proposed large-scale battery storage project in Morro Bay, California that Vistra Energy is planning to build. Image: Vistra.

US power generation holding company Vistra has renewed its call for legislation designed to assist the transition from coal to renewable energy in the US state of Illinois.

The call for the introduction of the Illinois Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act comes as Vistra announced the early closure of the 1GW Joppa Power Plant operated by one of its subsidiaries. The plant had been scheduled for closure in 2025, but that has been brought forward to 1 September 2022.

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The decision to close early followed a complaint brought by environmental group the Sierra Club in 2018, which was brought before the state’s Pollution Control Board, and focused on environmental exceedances which were alleged to have taken place before Vistra took ownership of the plant, the company said.

The closure is part of an agreement that has been reached over the matter and Vistra Energy said that there are mounting financial and legal pressures that come from operating coal plants. It wants to implement a plan worth US$550 million to repurposed coal plant sites in central and southern Illinois, but needs the legislation to pass to make this investment possible.

When the Illinois Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act was tabled by State Senator Michael Hastings and then-State Representative Luis Arroyo in 2019, Vistra described it as a “visionary and comprehensive transition plan” for those coal plants. In total Vistra subsidiaries’ 5.5GW of coal generation in the region accounts for around 40% of summer electric capacity in the Mid-continent Independent System Operator (MISO) Zone 4 area.

It would help mitigate the uncertainty surrounding the future of those plants, their nearby communities and the workers operating them, while also driving forward investment in renewable energy and storage to replace the increasingly uneconomic fossil fuel power stations, Vistra argued, even setting up a website to promote the Act.

“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, including approval of the revised Multi-Pollutant Standard that is critical to the proposed legislation.

“This bill establishes a reasonable and achievable path to transition existing coal power plants to renewable sources of utility-scale solar and energy storage that help meet the state's evolving energy goals,” Vistra CEO Curt Morgan had said in 2019, adding that the legislation would also support local jobs transitions and local communities while also lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Vistra said that through the Act’s passing it would invest its money in around 300MW of utility-scale solar energy with 175MW of battery storage across nine sites in total. Joppa, for example, while not deemed suitable for a solar array, could host a 45MW standalone battery project on the current coal plant’s site. That battery project could create more than 100 local jobs and create US$10 million of economic output for Massac County where the plant is located.

While Vistra will continue to pay some property taxes for the plant’s site for three years following its closure, the company argued that utility-scale solar and storage facilities in Illinois would also improve the local tax base with decades of guaranteed property tax revenues. The overall transition plan meanwhile would support nearly 3,000 jobs in the state, creating around US$461 million in earnings for workers between 2022 and 2025 and generate around US$1.7 billion in economic output for Illinois in that time, according to analysis by Dr David Loomis of Strategic Economic Research, whose statistics Vistra quoted in a press release this week.

Vistra has already built up significant momentum in the battery storage sector — it’s the company behind the world’s biggest battery storage project to date, the 400MW / 1,600MWh system at Moss Landing in California, most of which (300MW / 1,400MWh) has already come online in the past few months. Vistra also said in late September last year that it intends to invest US$850 million on close to a gigawatt of solar and energy storage projects in Texas also tied to coal plant retirements and also wants to build a 600MW standalone energy storage facility in California's Morro Bay which it revealed plans for in February. 

Earlier this year, Sam Huntington, a director at analysis and research group IHS Markit told that solar-plus-storage is becoming a simple choice through economics in US states predominantly in the Mid-West that have been historically dependent on coal, while the chief operating officer of energy storage technology provider FlexGen, Alan Grosse, said that his company has become increasingly busy working on battery storage projects in those states as the demise of coal looms over the horizon.  

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