Michael Turnure was just in time.
He’d just finished mowing the lawn at the K-River Motel and Campground in Baldwin before the rain came Wednesday afternoon.
The business Turnure’s run for 13 years relies in part on what he calls “boomers,” bands of skilled maintenance workers who roam the country keeping power plants in ship shape.
Dynegy’s plan calls for the shutdown of two of the Baldwin Energy Complex’s three units. They went in service in 1970 and 1975, respectively. The remaining unit, in service in 1973, will remain online.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“They come into town, do the job for a few weeks, and boom, they’re gone,” he said.
But if plans to shutter two of the three power generating units at Dynegy’s Baldwin Energy Complex move forward, far fewer boomers will come to town, something he said “would absolutely kill me.”
Dynegy on May 3 announced plans to shut down two of the plant’s three generating units, citing an April power capacity auction by the Midcontinent Independent Service Operator that set electricity rates too low as the driver behind the decision. The rates were so low that the Baldwin plant couldn’t recover the cost of keeping the units running.
“These units are uneconomic and not able to recover their cost through the MISO auction,” Dynegy spokesman Micah Hirschfield said.
Prices got so low in part because federal regulators stepped in and changed auction rules in response to a similar auction last year that sent electricity rates in the region skyrocketing.
These units are uneconomic and not able to recover their cost through the MISO auction.
Dynegy spokesman Micah Hirschfield
But the shutdown isn’t a sure thing: MISO, which manages the power grid for all or parts of 13 U.S. states and part of the Canadian province of Manitoba, must first decide whether the power grid can handle the loss of generating capacity the Baldwin shutdown would represent.
Shutting down the two units would mean a capacity loss of 1,220 megawatts per hour. That’s enough to power nearly a million homes and represents just shy of seven-tenths of a percent of MISO’s 180,000-megawatt grid.
Baldwin’s unit two, which can generate 595 megawatts of electricity per hour, will remain online.
MISO Spokesman Andy Schonert said if the grid can’t reliably serve its customers without the Baldwin units, an agreement will be struck under which the local utility —in this case, Ameren Illinois— will pay the Baldwin plant to keep the units online.
According to Hirschfield, Baldwin employees will be off the job only after MISO approves the shutdown. He said it would result in the loss of approximately 122 of the 220 plant employees.
Politics and policy
Reactions to the news from local politicians varied depending on which dome they the work under.
According to a statement from State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, the power capacity auctions responsible for high prices in 2015 and lowered prices in 2016 made it “clear that the way capacity rates are determined is not equitable across Illinois. Dynegy’s announced mothballing of units 1 and 3 at the Baldwin Power Station is in direct response to this difficulty and will devastate not only the 122 individuals facing job loss but also our communities that benefit from the tax revenues produced by this plant.”
Dynegy’s announced mothballing of units 1 and 3 at the Baldwin Power Station is in direct response to this difficulty and will devastate not only the 122 individuals facing job loss but also our communities that benefit from the tax revenues produced by this plant.
State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton
Costello joined State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, on Tuesday when Bradley introduced legislation designed to help the coal industry and coal-fired power plants. House Bill 6576 would give the Illinois Commerce Commission license to devise ways to help power plants pay for costly scrubbers they would need to burn Illinois coal, which is harder and burns hotter than the coal Dynegy hauls in from Wyoming to fire its Baldwin units.
Wyoming coal is softer and doesn’t burn as hot but it’s cheaper and cleaner to burn. Illinois coal is expensive and contains high amounts of sulfur.
Representatives in Congress made political hay out of the news by blaming the closure on the current administration’s energy policy.
“The Democrats’ war on coal has threatened to devastate two more communities in Illinois with this announcement that power plants in Baldwin and Newton will be retired,” said U.S. Rep John Shimkus, R-Collinsville. “The heartbreaking trend of power plant shutdowns and mine closures across the country is not merely the result of market forces, but of a deliberate campaign by the environmental left to keep America’s most abundant source of reliable electricity in the ground.”
According to U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, the shutdown is another “casualty” of the “war on coal.”
“The announced partial shutdown of units at the Baldwin Power Station is in no small part due to the flood of anti-coal regulations proposed by this administration,” Bost said. “(The) announcement is just another example of unjustified EPA overreach resulting in increased energy costs and reduced jobs in Southern Illinois. My thoughts go out to these hardworking Illinois coal miners and their families as I offer any help I can provide to the communities impacted by this decision.”
‘Feast or famine’
“It’s not good. I’m out here in the middle of a cornfield, so I really have to maintain this place to coax them to come in,” said Turnure, who owns the motel and campground in Baldwin. “I feed them once a week, food and drink. Anything to get them here. I started with nothing, I hope I don’t end up with nothing.”
Planned maintenance outages at the power plant bring in those “boomers” Turnure relies on for much of his business. But outages scheduled for May and September were canceled. The other big chunk of his business comes from people staying in the area for shooting tournaments at Sparta’s World Shooting Complex. That site has had recent difficulties of its own thanks to the state’s budget crisis.
It’s not good. I’m out here in the middle of a cornfield, so I really have to maintain this place to coax them to come in. I feed them once a week, food and drink. Anything to get them here. I started with nothing, I hope I don’t end up with nothing.
Michael Turnure, owner of K-River Motel and Campground
The situation has left him wondering how he’ll generate enough income in the summer and fall to make it through winter when business is slow.
“When you make money, you put it in the bank. When you don’t have any business, you take it back out and you pay the bills,” he said. “Whether I have people in here or not, the DirecTV bill, the water bill, all that just keeps on coming. It never stops. It’s feast or famine.”
“I hope that this is just a big bluff and I hope it’s a game that they’re going to play,” Turnure added. “They have to understand, we’re the ones that eat it. I’m not worried that the sky is falling just yet but I am concerned.”
Power plant employees did not comment for this story. Many of the employees are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union and belong to Local 51 in Springfield. A representative for the union said he did not want to comment “on an ongoing process.”
In Baldwin’s quiet downtown, Joe Eggemeyer sat chatting with Nick Brady inside Brady’s Tailhook, one of the town’s two taverns. Brady is the general manager there. Eggemeyer used to work at the Baldwin Energy Complex, putting in 10 years off and on until he left for good.
“It’s going to take a toll on a lot of people here. It’s how they make their living,” Eggemeyer said. “It’s going to take a real bad toll on everyone in the area.”