$90 million in new pollution controls approved for southeastern Wisconsin coal plant

Owners of a coal-fired power plant in southeastern Wisconsin will spend nearly $90 million on a treatment system that aims to reduce pollution in its wastewater. The changes are related to federal regulations that aim to limit contamination from coal waste in surrounding waterways.

In December, the Public Service Commission approved pollution controls for the 1,200 megawatt Elm Road power plant in Oak Creek, which is primarily owned by We Energies. Critics of the project say it makes no sense to invest more in the plant as the utility switches it to natural gas.

The coal plant is the newest to be built in the state at a cost of more than $2 billion when it was completed in 2011. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a rule just four years later that required coal-fired power plants to install state-of-the-art equipment. -advanced technology to treat wastewater discharged into waterways, including Lake Michigan.

The rule has seen years of delays and revisions under former President Donald Trump’s administration, which rolled back requirements for coal-fired power plants that went into effect at the end of 2020. The Department of Natural Resources Wisconsin required the site to comply with the rule by the end of 2023.

“This project is necessary to meet near-term federal regulations,” said Brendan Conway, spokesperson for We Energies. “These units will continue to operate, then probably transition over the next decade, and then continue to serve our customers for decades to come.”

New wastewater treatment technologies must be installed to reduce trace metals – such as mercury, arsenic and selenium – found in the wastewater from the plant’s treatment systems. These systems are used to reduce air pollution by removing sulfur dioxide emissions from burning coal.

In November, WEC Energy Group, the parent company of We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service, announced it would phase out coal by 2035 and convert the two coal-fired units at Elm Road to natural gas. The transition is expected to cost $150 million. The company predicts that coal will represent less than 5% of its energy mix by the end of the decade.

Clean Wisconsin said it supports efforts to protect water quality from industrial sources, but the environmental group argued that regulators’ decision to approve upgrades was not in the best interest. public service or environmental customers.

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“It’s part of a bigger problem of utilities continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure when what they really need to do is stop wasting money after the bad and move on as fast as possible. possible to renewables,” said Brett Korte, the group’s head of climate and energy. director, said.

The parent company of We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service announced plans last fall to invest $5.4 billion in renewable energy over the next five years. Last year, the utilities announced their partnership with Madison Gas and Electric on several solar storage and battery projects, representing an investment of approximately $1.5 billion.

WEC Energy Group also plans to add an additional 700 megawatts of solar power and 500 megawatts of battery storage that have yet to be announced.

Korte said utility proposals are not enough to meet Gov. Tony Evers’ goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. President Joe Biden’s administration has set a goal that the sector of electricity to become carbon neutral by 2035 as part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, or CUB, in comments to the Public Service Commission, said the compliance delay for new processing technologies has created a “back to the wall” scenario following approval coal-fired units in the first place. The customer advocacy group expressed concern that new investments would become prematurely obsolete as the utility transitions to natural gas.

“CUB believes it is particularly important in this instance that the Board be given every opportunity to monitor project costs and potential overruns in order to protect ratepayers and the public interest,” wrote Corey Singletary, Director of Regulatory Affairs. of the group, in the comments.

In November, WEC Energy Group reported that compliance with the 2015 rule would cost We Energies and Wisconsin Public Service about $110 million to comply in a quarterly U.S. filing. Security and Exchange Commission.

As part of the board’s approval, factory owners are required to report cost overruns of more than 10% within 30 days. Utilities are also required to submit annual progress reports that include any additional investment that may be required as part of the plant’s transition to natural gas.

James V. Hayes