As negotiations continue over a climate and energy bill in Illinois, misleading online advertisements from a group called “Voices for Cooperative Power” have appeared. The ads running in Illinois political media outlets claim that legislators are on the verge of closing the Prairie State Energy Campus, a “state-of-the-art coal plant” that has “$1 billion of emissions controls.” While state lawmakers are working on how to equitably phase out coal and gas power plants in the state, the advertisements imply that the Prairie State Energy Campus should remain open because it is “highly efficient” and “came online during the Obama-Biden Administration.”

In truth, the $5 billion 1,600 MW coal plant located in Marissa, IL – about 50 miles from St. Louis – emits more carbon dioxide, methane, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides than any other power plant in the state. These pollutants are greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming while causing severe health and environmental problems. Prairie State was also the eighth largest carbon polluter among power plants in the United States in 2019, when it emitted 13,859,542 metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

Screenshot from RMI report authored by Kevin Brehm, Laurie Stone, David Posner, and Uday Varadarajan, “Transition Opportunities for Prairie State Energy Campus,” 2021.

Voices for Cooperative Power, which is behind the online advertisements, is a new advocacy effort from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) – the trade association for electric cooperatives. NRECA launched Voices for Cooperative Power earlier this year. The website, which was registered on February 24, 2021 and went live on May 6, 2021, features NRECA policy priorities along with images of electric cooperative members – though some are simply stock images available for purchase. The banner image used on the main page of the Voices for Cooperative Power website is a stock photo available at Shutterstock, titled “Group of Diversity People Teamwork Together.” Another image on the main page of the website is also a stock image, titled “Friendly female colleagues having good relationships, pleasant conversation at workplace during coffee break, smiling young woman listen talkative coworker, discussing new project, talking in office.”

The advocacy effort replaces NRECA’s “Our Energy, Our Future” program, which campaigned against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan as well as other EPA proposed rules. The Voices for Cooperative Power Twitter handle was renamed from the original “Our Energy, Our Future” account, which explains the account start date of 2009, and older posts frequently link to that effort’s now-deleted website and other social media channels.

Screenshot from Wayback Machine capture of www.ourenergy.coop on September 23, 2012

Voices for Cooperative Power describes itself as a “network of electric co-op members working together to influence elected officials who are making energy policy decisions that impact our co-ops and, by extension, our way of life.” NRECA noted in a blog post that it launched the advocacy effort to “modernize and improve efforts to influence Congress and the White House.” Louis Finkel, NRECA’s senior vice president of government relations, said, “We’re connecting cooperative communities through the use of social media to have a thoughtful and sustained dialogue about issues of importance to them and to the future of their cooperatives.”

In addition to running misleading ads in Illinois, the website emphasizes electric cooperatives’ efforts to reduce emissions, including a deceptive claim that “nearly two-thirds of [cooperative] power comes from low- or no-emission sources.” NRECA’s figure appears to include fossil gas plants as a “low- or no-emission source.” Gas typically emits half the carbon of coal when burned, but that’s still far from no emissions,  and these plants rely on a supply chain of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, prone to leaking.

Electric cooperatives also remain more reliant on coal than the US electricity sector as a whole. Coal accounted for 32% of electric cooperative retail sales in 2019, according to an NRECA fact sheet, with gas increasing to 32% as well that year; fossil fueled power plants account for nearly two-thirds of the industry’s power supply.

Owners of Prairie State Energy Campus work to scuttle clean energy and climate bill despite benefit to their customers

The Illinois legislative session ended last month without the passage of a bill that could have been the nation’s most comprehensive and equitable climate and energy plan. But 52 legislators co-signed a letter to Governor Pritzker saying that they supported keeping the Prairie State Energy Campus online past a 2035 coal-phase out target. J.C. Kibbey, a clean energy advocate in Illinois for the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained to Midwest Energy News that the backers of the Prairie State coal plant set up the “11th hour” roadblock. Pritzker, however, said that he would have vetoed a bill that exempted the coal plant. The Senate adjourned without taking action, and a special two-day session also did not result in legislation. After the session ended, WCIA’s Mark Maxwell reported Senate President Don Harmon’s chief of staff  previously worked at a lobbying firm that Prairie State hired. Sen. Harmon told WBEZ that the relationship “does not factor in at all” during the negotiations on the final bill.

The backers of Prairie State have harmed not just communities in Illinois but customers throughout the region. In 2007, Peabody Energy, American Municipal Power, and the plant’s other promoters persuaded more than 200 communities in eight states to sign long-term contracts to buy power from the proposed coal plant. Peabody, which was at the time the world’s largest private-sector coal company, owns the mine next to the plant’s site. 

Despite promises of cheap power, the plant’s construction costs ballooned to a $5 billion total price tag. Cheap gas and renewable projects have also caused customers of Prairie State to pay more than they would have paid for the same energy and capacity from the wholesale market. 

Peabody gradually reduced its ownership interest in the power plant to 5% and ultimately sold that remaining stake in 2016 to Wabash Valley Power Association, an Indiana-based generation and transmission association. 

A February 2021 analysis from Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent nonprofit, found that closing Prairie State would most likely save customers money. “Between now and 2030, market prices for energy are expected to remain low, and the price of energy and services from wind, solar, and battery storage are expected to decline. By 2030, closing Prairie State Energy Campus and replacing it with a clean energy portfolio that includes wind, solar, battery storage, demand flexibility, and energy efficiency is expected to save ratepayers money without sacrificing reliability.”

Featured image: a screenshot of the Voices for Electric Cooperative website.

Posted by Matt Kasper

Matt Kasper is the Research Director at the Energy & Policy Institute. He focuses on defending policies that further the development of clean energy sources. He also focuses on the companies and their front groups that obstruct policy solutions to global warming. Before joining the Energy & Policy Institute, Matt was a research assistant at the Center for American Progress where he worked on various state and local policy issues.

Posted by Joe Smyth

Joe Smyth is a Research and Communications Manager for the Energy and Policy Institute.