Day 2: The Future of Coal

Coal’s Long Goodbye: A Coal-Powered Community Envisions a Green Energy Future

In 2014, New Jersey-based NRG Energy purchased a handful of coal-fired power plants in Illinois, including one on the shores of Lake Michigan in Waukegan. NRG spent millions modernizing the plant and reducing emissions. While many in Waukegan see NRG as a job provider and crucial part of the tax base, others are tired of the same old energy source. Outside influences like the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign and the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill, along with Waukegan’s own lakefront redesign project, have brought the issue into the public discourse. A recent poll of residents found 70% of respondents favored transitioning away from coal. We discussed with community leaders and outside advocacy groups the possibility of seeing a different, greener future in the city.

Running a Coal Plant in the 21st Century

The modern tale of coal-fired power production is one of, well, less coal. For many of the plants that aren’t being shuttered entirely, big changes are under way as the fuel that stokes the fires is moving from coal to natural gas. We Energies’ Valley Plant in Milwaukee recently underwent that change. The group learned about that change as they toured the plant, and then heard from the company as it discussed another “modern coal” story, that of the beneficial reuse of coal ash, a practice some see as the best way to dispose of a pernicious waste product, but others contend is a public health menace.

Cleaning up Coal: Beneficial Reuse of Coal Ash

The residue left behind by coal combustion, called “coal ash,” is one of the main kinds of industrial waste generated in the U.S. The primary disposal method is still “wet storage” of the ash in large holding ponds. However, issues of these ponds leaching toxic heavy metals into nearby waterways and the occasional catastrophic failure led to the hunt for a new disposal method. Wisconsin leads the nation in the “beneficial reuse” of coal ash, where dry ash is mixed into materials like wallboard and concrete and as fill in embankments and roadways. The US EPA supports the practice and even lists coal ash as “non-hazardous waste,” but some claim that what’s buried with the ash doesn’t stay there. The group learned more about this from representatives of Wisconsin DNR, Clean Wisconsin, and others.