A burning issue: Building more natural gas power plants hurts the environment

Creating construction jobs and providing returns for investors are not good reasons for going that route.

SHARE A burning issue: Building more natural gas power plants hurts the environment
A plan to build three new natural-gas powered plants in Illinois is taking our state in the wrong direction to combat climate change.

A plan to build three new natural-gas power plants in Illinois is taking our state in the wrong direction to combat climate change.

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Why is Illinois still building natural gas-powered power plants?

The need to convert to renewable energy sources couldn’t be clearer. Signs of havoc from climate change are around us every day. We’re seeing record-setting temperatures, stronger storms, more severe droughts, enormous wildfires, historic floods and more. Much of that is caused by burning fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases and warm the planet.

Yet plans are going forward for the Lincoln Land Energy Center, a gas-fired plant near downstate Pawnee in Sangamon County, about 13½ miles south of Springfield. A draft permit is being considered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, a bitter pill to swallow for environmentalists who negotiated Illinois’ new clean energy law. Two other gas plants, already approved during the Bruce Rauner administration, soon will be operating downstate near Elwood and Morris.

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All by itself, Lincoln Land Energy Center will emit more carbon dioxide than 800,000 automobiles. As the Chicago Tribune reported, emissions from all three new gas-fired plants will send more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than did four coal-fired plants that closed last year. That’s taking Illinois in the wrong direction. Creating construction jobs and providing returns for investors are not good reasons for going that route.

Building new gas plants clearly is out of step with what the state and nation should be doing. Just last week, President Joe Biden signed into law clean energy provisions introduced by U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., to require 10% of existing and future military installations to reach net zero emissions by 2035.

Renewables must be our ultimate power source

Gas plants not only burn a fossil fuel, they also are a source of methane leaking into the atmosphere from the natural gas grid. Although methane does not linger in the upper atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, it is a much more potent greenhouse gas. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of Illinois’ new green energy law, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in September, the state is encouraging people and companies to buy electric vehicles. Meeting clean energy goals also will require buildings to convert to electric heating and electric appliances to replace those powered by gas. Yet the benefits of those transitions can be fully realized only if the ultimate power source comes from renewable wind, water or solar energy, not natural gas.

The construction of new gas plants is partly a result of the Legislature’s years-long delay in enacting new clean energy legislation. No one knew if economically threatened nuclear power plants, now aided by the climate law, would stay open or whether subsidies would be available to spur construction of green energy facilities. The delay also created a missed opportunity for keeping consumers’ power bills down.

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The latest gas-fired plants are probably the last ones that will be built in Illinois. They need to run for at least 20 years for investors to make a profit, and the clean energy law sets a goal of 100% clean energy in the power grid by 2045. But new plants that burn fossil fuels make an effort in the future to postpone clean energy deadlines more likely. The harder it becomes to keep Earth’s temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the harder it becomes to imagine people in future years doing what they won’t do today.

Enacting Illinois’ clean energy legislation was a major milestone. But it will require the full involvement of individuals, businesses and all levels of government to dodge the worst effects of escalating climate change. As Biden’s major climate initiatives in his Build Back Better legislation remain bottled up in Congress, it’s important for everyone else to adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of Illinois’ law.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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