Now that Alliant Energy has committed to closing its Edgewater coal plant in 2022, it's time to schedule Columbia’s retirement as well. The Columbia coal plant was built in the 1970s outside of Portage, Wisconsin and has more than twice the capacity of the Edgewater 5 plant in Sheboygan (1,023-MW compared to 380-MW). By closing down Columbia and replacing it with a clean energy portfolio, Alliant would save its customers millions and end its reliance on coal in Wisconsin.
In a new white paper published Tuesday, May 26, the Sierra Club calls for Alliant to close its Columbia plant by no later than 2030. Our economic analysis shows that Alliant could retire both Edgewater and Columbia by 2026. The white paper can be viewed in full here, but the following points explain several arguments for closing the Columbia plant early:
Mitigating the effects of climate change
While Alliant Energy has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent and eliminate coal power from its portfolio by 2050, it appears the utility will meet this commitment through a “business as usual” approach. Under its current plan, Alliant could continue to operate coal units well into the 2040s. But if we're going to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we need to act much more swiftly in replacing coal. The timeline for Columbia's retirement has significant implications, as Columbia is the top pollution emitter in Wisconsin. Closing down the plant would be one of the most effective ways of reducing our state's emissions of greenhouse gases and other toxic pollutants.
Prioritizing communities; protecting public health
Coal plants threaten air and water quality, and by extension, human health. A recent Harvard study found that air pollution like that caused by coal plants increases COVID complications and can increase COVID deaths by almost 10 percent. Groundwater polluted by Columbia's coal ash contains double the safe level of molybdenum and arsenic, and coal ash waste threatens to pollute the nearby Wisconsin River. Clean air and water keep our communities healthy, but Columbia stands in the way.
Dollars and sense
Alliant’s decision to close Edgewater deserves celebration, and now Columbia has to go as well. In 2019, generating energy from the Columbia coal plant cost Alliant ratepayers up to $9 million more than if Alliant had bought energy from the regional energy market. Continuing to operate the Columbia through 2030 would cost Alliant's ratepayers up to $257 million more. By replacing Columbia with clean energy such as wind, solar, storage, energy efficiency, and demand response technologies, Alliant could save customers millions. By transitioning to clean energy, Alliant would also create jobs and contribute to the growing green economy.
Just this week Alliant announced six new solar projects in Wisconsin, part of Alliant’s plans to install 1000 MW of solar by 2023. Even while retiring both Columbia and Edgewater, Alliant would only need to add a small amount of additional clean energy capacity to satisfy its reliability requirements and could do so cost effectively as early as 2026.
How quickly Columbia is retired has significant implications, even as Alliant introduces its solar projects. With time running out to avert the worst consequences of climate change, Wisconsin utilities must act to save customers money, contribute to the growing renewable energy job economy, and make plans that satisfy the Badger State’s climate goals.