State Power Debate Comes To Hillsboro

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Three mayors, two school superintendents, several county board members and other dignitaries were among the 15 speakers who spoke at an Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) hearing/workshop held in the historic Montgomery County Courthouse Tuesday, Jan. 16. A similar gathering had been held in the Chicago area earlier in the year; Representative Avery Bourne asked that another hearing be held locally because recommendations made by the ICC will have repercussions in her district.

She and Senator Andy Manar were present at the hearing, though neither testified. The ICC has been asked to determine if adequate power sources will be available for downstate Illinois if the current deregulated prices cause the closing of Dynegy coal-fired plants like the one at Coffeen and Newton; an underlying question, the one that drew the most testimony, involves the negative impact those closures would have on regional economics.

The ICC is to submit a written report to legislators, so this meeting was a fact-finding event of sorts. The moderator was Torsten Clausen; when the tone changed to discussion of an outline to facilitate writing the report, Jim Zolnienek became the facilitator.

The courtroom was standing room only at 12:50 p.m.; would be speakers stood in a line that stretched into the hallway. The testimony began at 1 p.m. and ran to 3:10 p.m.; after a 15-minute break, a smaller audience endured the legalistic type discussion that ended by 4:15 p.m..

Many of those who spoke asked the ICC to recommend passage of House Bill 4141 and Senate Bill 2250 in the upcoming legislative sessions; those bills would, according to Dynegy, level the playing field so local producers of electricity could compete with producers from out-of-state where costs are still regulated. Dynegy contends that it costs more now to produce energy than they receive in the current deregulated market. As a consequence, the decision will be to close the nonprofitable plants.

The first local person to speak was former county board member, when she chaired the Economic Development Committee, Heather Hampton+Knodle. She said if this area lost the eight plants at risk, it would be at a tremendous disadvantage when recruiting new manufacturing. She pointed out how many acres of ground it would take to mount solar installations to replace the coal-fired plant energy production, and she reminded the group of how poorly-conceived government regulations sent cattle-packing  plants in northern states into Canada, causing hardship for livestock producers in the upper Midwestern states.

County board member Dillon Clark told the audience that a recommendation by the ICC to not support the aforementioned legislation would chase jobs from Illinois.

County board finance chair Meghan Beeler said the power plants are economic drivers in the region; the plant in Coffeen pays $742,192 per year in real estate taxes and another $800,000 in sales tax per year. If the plant closes, necessary services would have to be severely reduced. Both direct and indirect impacts on the local economy would be huge.

Hillsboro School District Superintendent David Powell said the district, as does the entire state, relies too much on real estate tax, and 31 percent of his district's income comes from the power plant. He asked that the legislative give the plants a level playing field; "We don't want a handout, just an even chance." He recommended enthusiastic support for the proposed bills.

Hillsboro Mayor Brian Sullivan said "It is imperative the plant remains open to support current as well as future power needs." He added to his point with an illustration.

"If a company came today and offered to build a plant, the state would do what it could to cooperate; the plant would be welcomed. Now the struggle is to keep what is an undeniable asset." He concluded by saying we don't need another example of closing a plant by doing nothing.

Greenville Mayor Allen Gaffner brought a resolution of support for the Coffeen plant signed by the Greenville City Council. He spoke of industrial parks located in Greenville but fears a shortage of power in this part of the state. "It's hard to create or maintain jobs without electrical power," he concluded.

County board member and current Economic Development Committee chairman Glenn Savage asked for a planned orderly transition from carbon-fueled power sources (the current plants) to alternate power sources. The implication seemed to be that adequate alternate sources are not available yet.

Bill Schroeder, who has worked on the plants now under fire, said many local people still rely on employment in the plants, and it's important to keep those jobs.

Clausen then allowed testimony from those who had spoken at the Chicago area workshop; the spokesman from a group called the Illinois Industrial Energy Consumers said the issues are complex, but the members of his group, including U.S. Steel and Marathon Oil, support measured reforms in the marketplace to ensure, "...reliable electricity at the lowest possible cost." That requires improving the balance of supply and demand.

A representative of the Central Illinois Health Consumer Alliance, based in Peoria, presented testimony against an ICC recommendation for a marketplace change. Although she expressed heartbreaking sorrow for those areas whose economic health depended on one source (a Dynegy plant), she distrusts the company because of alleged pollution at Bartonville and feels that ultimately the affected areas here would recover and be better off if all eggs weren't in one basket. "The economics of coal no longer work,"  she said. "It keeps young people from job opportunities."

The Rockford Capital Group supports the Dynegy proposal because it will settle what is now a quite volatile market.

The Dynegy rep who spoke said Illinois must find a pathway to ensure power capacity; he said under current market restraints, 25 percent of coal-generated power has been lost and another 30 percent is under threat. That has had a direct impact on 25 Illinois counties, "The ICC must hear and recognize the risks and then act in a timely manner."

Litchfield resident Mary Ellen DeClue asked the ICC to study the positive impacts the solar and wind industries would have; in her opinion they would provide a less expensive, better, and cleaner source of power than coal.

John Conklin, representing AARP, spoke last. He appealed for affordable rates for the elderly, while maintaining an adequate  power supply for them.

It seemed a somehow fitting conclusion to the hearing.

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