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The new Prairie State coal plant in Illinois — BACT to the Future!

Great Scott! There’s a new coal plant in Illinois!

Could using Best Available Control Technology (BACT) be a solution for the future use of coal in electricity generation?

Here’s why I ask…

The nation’s newest coal plant is just about to open up in Marissa, Illinois. The Prairie State power plant, situated about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis, will produce 1,600 MW of  power via two 800 MW generators — one is going on-line later this year and the other is scheduled to start in June of 2012.

I was with a group of 30 energy and government representatives touring the facility and adjacent coal mine (very cool!) a few weeks ago and came away thoroughly impressed.  I left thinking to myself — “could  BACT be the future of coal?”

The almost completed Prairie State plant.

When people debate about the future of coal and the realities of clean coal generation…they rarely set the parameters of the debate correctly.  Clean coal debates should come in two categories: 1) Regulated emissions and 2) GHG emissions.

In terms of GHG emissions the use of BACT — combined with using coal from a mine-mouth operation — results in the plant generating 15% less GHG emissions than other, older coal-burning power plants. As reference, using coal from the adjacent mine saves 200,000 tones of CO2 emissions annually because they don’t have to ship it from Wyoming via diesel trains.

As for regulated emissions (NOx, SOx, particulate matter, mercury, lead, etc), using the newest, state-of-the-art, BACT translates into one of the cleanest coal plant in North America. These regulated emissions are at a  level no environmental engineer could have dreamed of 10-15 years ago.

And let’s not forget the 3,000 construction jobs or the 500 permanent jobs in the plant and coal mine.  This plant is an economic and energy engine.

And BACT is not a set process, the engineers are finding more and more ways to produce electricity from coal with smaller and smaller affects on the environment.  Is it enough?  Will Prairie State be the first of many new plants or the last?

Only time will tell but for all the haters of coal I have the following to say: Don’t assume today’s energy technologies are locked in stone.  Coal is cleaner.  Solar is cheaper.  Wind turbines are more productive. Nuclear plants are more efficient. There’s more natural gas on the market than anyone could have predicted even five years ago.

Prairie State shows what kind of operation is necessary to produce 1600MW of baseload power using an Illinois energy source (coal) that will last decades.  If someone built a new plant in two years, it would most likely have even better BACT included.

I can’t predict the future, but I provide this perspective to people who believe coal is on the way out — it’s also possible that it’s BACT to the Future!  For more information on the Prairie State facility….click here.


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