WEC Will Close Coal-fired Plant in Wisconsin

The bell has tolled for another U.S. coal-fired power plant. WEC Energy Group on November 28 said it would shutter its Pleasant Prairie facility in Wisconsin, another victim of energy market dynamics that include low natural gas prices, falling demand for electricity, and the continuing move by utilities toward renewable power generation sources such as wind and solar.

The company said it plans to end operations at the 1,210-MW plant in 2Q2018. The plant’s two units were built in 1980 and 1985, respectively. Pleasant Prairie, operated by WEC subsidiary We Energies, sources an average of 13,000 tons of coal each day by rail from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. As part of the announcement, the company also cited its initiative to cut the utility’s carbon-based power plant emissions by 40% below 2005 levels by 2030.

We Energies over the past several years spent $325 million on pollution controls at Pleasant Prairie to reduce the plant’s emissions. Pleasant Prairie joins an ever-growing list of coal plants scheduled to close in the next several months and years, including three large facilities in Texas, plants in Kentucky and Montana, and Florida Power & Light’s last coal-fired plant in Florida. Xcel Energy in Colorado earlier this year said it wants to retire 660 MW of coal-fired generation in the next few years as part of a plan that includes adding more renewable and natural gas-fired generation to its portfolio.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), the regional transmission organization (RTO) that oversees the power grid in the Midwest, must still sign off on the Pleasant Prairie closure. We Energies representative Cathy Schulze told local media that the utility has generation in place to offset the loss of production from Pleasant Prairie, including two coal-fired baseload power plants in Oak Creek and a natural gas-fired facility in Paris.

The Oak Creek complex includes the Elm Road Generation Station, which came online in 2010. The plant has two coal-fired units, each with 634 MW of generation capacity. The older station at Oak Creek has four coal-fired units with upgraded equipment; the units originally came online from 1959 to 1967. They have a combined generation capacity of 1,135 MW.

The Paris Generating Station, which began operating in 1995, has four units, each with 100 MW of generation capacity.

Consumer Groups Concerned About Closure

Consumer groups decried the Pleasant Prairie announcement, citing the possible impact of costs for ratepayers related to the shutdown and future prices for electricity in the region. Two groups, the Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group (WIEG) and the Citizens’ Utility Board (CUB), said they will talk to Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission (PSC) about their concerns. Thomas Content, CUB’s executive director, in a statement said his group is concerned about WEC’s rates, which he said are “the seventh highest prices in the Midwest … they have built so much, they have surplus power they don’t need.”

We Energies in March of this year told Pleasant Prairie city officials the utility would begin a reduced operating schedule for the plant in cycles of three months on, three months off. The plant was offline in March, April, and May, then operated during the peak summer months of June, July, and August. It is scheduled to operate during winter.

We Energies spokeswoman Amy Jahns said the utility and labor unions will work together over the next several months to help the plant’s 158 employees, some of whom may transition to other We facilities, according to Jahns.

Elizabeth Katt Reinders of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin office said in a statement: “This welcome announcement is yet another example of the inevitable shift to safer and more cost-effective clean energy, and highlights why Wisconsin needs a proactive plan to shift to clean energy and invest in the people impacted.”

We Energies Adding Natural Gas, Renewable Generation

We Energies has been transitioning away from coal-fired power in recent years. Its parent, WEC, in 2016 signed an agreement to replace coal units at its Presque Isle plant in Michigan with natural gas-fired generation. Michigan regulators approved that plan in October of this year. The utility operates several renewable energy projects in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Said Schulze: “When you’re looking at our overall systems, we want to keep that diversity of [generating sources] in our mix. We still want to have some coal, natural gas, wind farms, hydro and solar. But the goal is to preserve fuel diversity and ultimately reduce carbon emissions.”

We Energies, which operates in Wisconsin and Michigan, recently said it wants to develop up to 350 MW of solar power in Wisconsin by 2020, which would represent the largest solar project in the state, though no sites have been identified. NextEra Energy in January 2017 announced it would build a 100-MW solar plant next to the Point Beach nuclear plant in Two Rivers. That project, scheduled to come online in 2021, is to date the largest underway in the state.

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).