Clean energy advocates seek Tri-Cities transition away from coal

They urge St. Charles to say no to power contract extension

A large crowd gathered at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles on Nov. 15 to hear strategies for moving the Tri-Cities away from coal as a power source. (Photo for the Kane County Chronicle by Mark Foster)

ST. CHARLES – Clean energy advocates and supporters are generating a movement to transition the Tri-Cities away from fossil fuels and toward renewable power sources.

Almost 100 people met Nov. 15 at the Baker Community Center in St. Charles to hear speakers define the energy challenges facing the communities and plot strategies for making the switch.

Organized by the League of Women Voters of Central Kane County, the Sierra Club, Citizen’s Utility Board, Prairie Rivers Network and the Naperville Environment and Sustainability Task Force, the event attracted elected officials and municipal staff members along with motivated residents.

Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles each face different circumstances based on their power source contracts, but coal figures prominently for all of them.

That is most true for Batavia, which is saddled with a contract to buy all of its electricity from the coal-burning Prairie State Energy Campus in downstate Illinois.

“We have a coal problem but there are things we can do about it,” said attorney Susan Russo of Batavia, a League member and clean energy activist.

Bill Koehl of Geneva, another League member, said there is some urgency for action.

“The climate emergency is not just getting worse gradually, it is accelerating,” Koehl said. “The situation is getting real and getting serious.”

A theme throughout the evening was the speakers describing a lack of transparency and accountability from publicly owned electric suppliers.

“It’s time to bring democracy to our power supply and we can show the way,” Koehl said.

Because of contractual obligations, the city of Batavia buys more electricity than it uses and is forced to sell off the surplus at a loss, Russo said.

Increased electric consumption would help the city’s finances and start moving Batavia away from fossil fuels, Russo said.

Russo said that could be done “by educating and informing Batavians about the need to replace their gasoline-powered vehicles with electric vehicles, by replacing broken and outdated gas appliances with electric appliances and installing heat pumps instead of traditional furnaces and air conditioners.”

The city could provide education programs, incentives, rebates, awards and contests encouraging and enabling residents to make the change to electric, Russo said.

Russo called on residents to support the Greenest Region Compact initiatives that are incorporated into the city’s strategic plan and make buildings more energy-efficient.

Like other speakers, Russo said Prairie State and the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency use Open Meetings Act exceptions to hide information from cities, businesses and ratepayers.

Hammering on that theme was Scott Allen, the Citizen Utility Board’s Renewable Energy Policy coordinator based in Bloomington.

“We don’t know whose interests they are serving,” Allen said of publicly held utilities. “You should be in the room when decisions are made about our power supply.”

State Rep. Maura Hirschauer, D-Batavia, said legislation is pending in Springfield to provide greater transparency by utilities.

Many of the speakers pointed to Prairie State as the worst polluter in Illinois.

“Closing Prairie State is the right thing to do,” Hirschauer said, noting the expected closure of the plant in 2045.

St. Charles and Naperville buy power through the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, which is seeking a contract extension in 2024.

Maureen Stillman of the Naperville Environment and Sustainability Task Force said the two municipalities should say no to the contract extension.

“If we band together, we can do a lot,” Stillman said about negotiating a new contract with greater financial transparency, planning for a transition away from coal and no limits on local power generation.

While Batavia gets all of its power from Prairie State, Geneva gets a portion of its electricity from the coal-burning plant.

Stillman and many other speakers urged those two municipalities to oppose the proposed use of carbon-capture technology at the Prairie State facility. The speakers said the process, which involves capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground, has been attempted elsewhere and does not work.

A Tri-Cities Clean Energy group is forming. An organizational meeting will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 27 at the St. Charles Public Library.