“Don’t sign now” Naperville environmental leaders detail dangers of a potential city power contract extension

Prairie State Energy Campus, where Naperville receives a portion of its coal energy in the city's electricity contract
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Naperville has a decision to make regarding a potential contract renewal with the city’s power supplier, and local environmentalists are making their voices heard on the issue.

On March 18, the Naperville Environment & Sustainability Task Force (NEST) hosted a program titled “Naperville’s Coal Problem: Seize a Clean Energy Future” on the North Central College campus.

The discussion featured presentations from North Central College professor Dr. Paul Bloom, Maureen Stillman from the NEST Energy Committee, and the Sierra Club Beyond Coal’s Christine Nannicelli.

Upcoming decision on the city’s energy contract

Naperville started purchasing electric power for the city from the Illinois Municipal Energy Agency (IMEA) back in June 2011. The deal runs through 2035, and IMEA officials will likely request Naperville officials sign off on a 10 to 15-year contract extension, which would potentially lock the city down energy-wise until 2050.

A decision on the contract from the city council is required by April 2025.

Stillman said the city signing a contract extension with IMEA under the current standards was “premature” and considered it to be a “status quo contract.”

“The IMEA should be encouraging new electric generation technologies,” said Stillman. “We want a measure that says, ‘You want more renewables? We will get them, and we will manage them.’”

Naperville has the “dirtiest electricity in the state”

IMEA uses coal for roughly 80% of Naperville’s energy, which has resulted in the city having “the dirtiest electricity in the state,” according to Dr. Bloom. The agency gets approximately half its coal for the city at Prairie State Energy Campus in southwest Illinois.

Bloom suggested the city look for more sustainable alternatives for providing energy.

“The technology we need is here and it’s continuing to evolve rapidly and getting cheaper literally by the day,” said Bloom. “Solar and wind, cheaper than many fossil fuels.”

The agency is a publicly-owned company and is not required to follow the same state regulations as ComEd or other investor-owned energy providers. IMEA decides where the power supply comes from, service to customers, and local distribution.

Limits on coal burning lead to carbon capture plans

In 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker passed The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA). This bill aims for Illinois to be 100% reliant on renewable energy by 2050. CEJA requires Prairie State to reduce carbon emissions by 45% before 2035.

IMEA officials released a plan in December 2023 to work with this timeline. The agency plans to implement a carbon capture system, which involves extracting carbon from the coal-burning process and storing it underground. 

Bloom was dismissive of IMEA’s goal to shift to carbon capture for energy creation.

“So you’re keeping carbon out of the atmosphere so you can release more carbon?” said Bloom. “It makes no sense.”

After the presentations, NEST led breakout sessions where attendees wrote letters city council members asking them to vote no on the IMEA contract.

“We have to demand more of our city council members,” said Christine Nannicelli. “They have a fiduciary responsibility to do this, but they don’t answer to  IMEA, they answer to you. We need a transparent energy plan.”

City officials discuss energy solutions at council meeting

During the March 19 Naperville City Council meeting, the city’s director of energy utility Brian Groth led a discussion on Naperville’s mission, goals, and results on the city’s energy contract.

He detailed why Naperville entered a long-term contract with IMEA in the first place.

The reasons included state changes in how Illinois obtained power for residential and commercial customers, potential energy market shifts, and stability during city growth.

Councilman Benny White asked Groth if the city has looked into lowering reliability on coal and bringing more renewable energy sources into the mix.

Groth said city staff are in the “process of evaluating” options for a future energy contract.

Mayor Scott Wehrli voiced concerns over the city’s ability to implement replacement power facilities in the future, which could jeopardize “potential business and infrastructure opportunities.” Groth said the city still needs a “better picture” of what the risk trade-off will be before moving forward.

“One of the key points in the (request for proposal) that is out and being evaluated right now was to determine not only our options but the risks of those options as well,” said Groth.

The topic will return at an April city council meeting, in a presentation titled ‘What it means to own & operate an electric utility.’

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