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Suburban Chicago coal-fired power plants to shut down in 2022

The decision by owner NRG follows months of debate among Illinois lawmakers about closing all coal plants by 2035 to reduce air pollution and fight climate change.

The NRG coal-fired power plant in Waukegan, a longtime target of local protests, is expected to close in June 2022.
The NRG coal-fired power plant in Waukegan, a longtime target of local protests, is expected to close in June 2022.
Sun-Times file

Two coal-fired power plants in the Chicago area, both major sources of air pollution, will be closed by their owner in June of next year.

Citing economic pressures and the company’s transition from coal, NRG announced the planned retirements of the plant in Waukegan and another in Romeoville in 2022. Together, the two sites employ 111 workers.

“Closing these plants was a difficult, but necessary decision,” NRG said in a statement.

Celeste Flores of the group Clean Power Lake County said she was surprised by the move as her group has been calling for the closure of the Waukegan plant since 2013.

“This is sooner than anyone anticipated,” Flores said. “This is obviously a moment we are all taking in ... we are the ones living day to day breathing in this pollution.”

The announcement follows months of debate among state lawmakers about when to order the closure of all the remaining coal plants in Illinois to reduce air pollution and fight climate change. That debate came to a grinding halt this week even as Gov. J.B. Pritzker, legislators and various interest groups seemed to be in agreement on a 2035 date for closing all coal plants in the state. Though their numbers are declining nationally, coal plants are a major source of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

NRG, like other fossil fuel power companies, has been exploring a new business model as coal is less economical due to competition from cheaper natural gas power and often-subsidized clean energy sources such as wind and solar. Even subsidized nuclear power is squeezing out coal. A big piece of the energy bill being debated in Springfield is an almost $700 million bailout for three Exelon nuclear power plants so that the state can phase out fossil fuel energy sources.

Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, said she hopes the energy bill, if passed, will include money to convert coal plants like the one in her city to a renewable energy producer.

“I’m excited that we are looking to make this move,” she said.

The company announced the decision to investors Thursday and referenced NRG’s “path to decarbonization,” a goal of reducing harmful carbon emissions.

The Waukegan plant has been the target of local protests for years because of its proximity to tens of thousands of residents along the lakefront. Residents are concerned about the air pollution as well as ponds of coal-ash waste. The plant employs 65 people, the company said.

NRG previously decided to shut one of two coal plant units in Romeoville in 2014. That plant now employs 46 workers.

NRG said it will provide transition assistance and severance and will work with IBEW Local 15.

“We understand the impact this decision will have on our employees and the local communities,” the company said in a statement. “Employees will have the opportunity to apply for open positions within NRG.”

Waukegan has been the site of a coal plant since 1923, though the units open today began operating in 1958. The Romeoville facility, known as the Will County Generating Station, has been operating since 1963.

Advocates, who have warned of the health impacts of coal plants, welcomed the news.

“The closing of these last big Chicago-area coal-power plants is a testament to the tireless work of local community leaders living in the shadow of smokestacks,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for Respiratory Health Association.

Urbaszewski cited a 2012 study that found almost a third of Waukegan High School students had been diagnosed with asthma or experienced asthma symptoms.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.