It was almost six months ago when Vistra announced plans to retire its Joppa plant in 2025.

Shortly after, 2023 was a possibility.

But on Tuesday, Vistra officially announced Electric Energy Inc., will be shut down on Sept. 1, 2022.

“It was disappointing news to hear this morning that the Joppa power plant would be closing September of 2022,” Massac County commissioner Jayson Farmer said. “This facility has been a big employer in Massac County since the early ’50s, providing good paying jobs for a lot of local residents. Hopefully, moving forward, Vistra will be able to invest $59 million into the Joppa facility to transform the coal plant facility into renewable energy center.”

According to a press release from Vistra, the revised closing date is part of an agreement the company has reached in order to settle a complaint brought by the Sierra Club in 2018 before the Illinois Pollution Control Board concerning allegations of environmental exceedances occurring prior to Vistra’s ownership.

“The hardest decisions we make are those that impact the dedicated men and women of our plant workforce and the local communities,” said Curt Morgan, chief executive officer of Vistra. “In this case, we agreed to shut down the Joppa plant in light of the legal uncertainties and significant economic challenges facing the plant. First and foremost, we will work with our team members and the impacted communities to ensure a just transition, including our commitment to pay $1.1 million in incremental property taxes over three years.”

The press release noted Vistra is in the process of working with the plant’s local union leadership and will honor the plant’s locally negotiated commitments regarding severance and outplacement benefits, as well as wages, health care and other benefits during the remainder of operations.

Metropolis Mayor Billy McDaniel reflected to six months ago when word first came of the closure, noting with Tuesday’s announcement, “It’s just going to be more devastating to the community and the Maple Grove school district. It is going to make their job down there much harder, because they’re going to have to make changes in half the time,” he said. “It’s going to be devastating to the county. It’s going to be lost revenue for the tax structure. We here in the City of Metropolis feel badly. It will effect a small amount for our portion of the county taxes, but it will directly impact us on the labor pool, plus the money that is spent in sales tax inside the City of Metropolis.”

In October, McDaniel contacted the county’s other taxing bodies inviting them in the formation of a task force to assess the economic impact of EEI’s closure. On Tuesday, he said about five people responded. “It’s going to be something that’s going to take coordination through the taxing bodies and see what they can come up with,” McDaniel said.

In a statement, State Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis) said: “My heart breaks for the employees of the Joppa coal-fired power plant, as news was released this morning that the plant will close three years earlier than first announced. To see the rug pulled out from under employees that had been told they would have a job for three more years than they will actually get is appalling.”

Windhorst said the “Sierra Club sued Vistra for violations it didn’t even make. It is further disappointing to see another company bullied out of business by the radical Sierra Club, an environmentalist group whose goal is to eliminate the use of all fossil fuels. It is my hope that the people of Illinois, and the people of the United States, will wake up to the agenda being pushed by the Sierra Club and Democratic politicians and realize these policies destroy jobs and wreck economies.”

Repurposing and reinvesting

Around September 2020, Vistra began sharing information on its plans of investing $550 million to repurpose coal plant sites across central and southern Illinois, if the Illinois Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act is passed.

In Tuesday’s announcement, Vistra officials said they “remain focused on passing the Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act, which will enable us to reinvest and repurpose sites like Joppa into zero-emission generation, using existing infrastructure, creating jobs and adding to the property tax base. We have a construction-ready plan to invest $550 million, including approximately $59 million at the Joppa location, to transform coal plant sites into renewable energy centers,” Morgan said.

Through the Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act, Vistra proposes to develop approximately 300 MW of utility-scale solar and 175 MW of battery energy storage. This nine-site construction program would help Illinois more than triple its in-state utility-scale solar generation capacity and more than double its battery energy storage capacity — all by 2025.

“Vistra says it supports turning the real estate at several of its properties into solar farms,” Windhorst said. “Southern Illinois is blessed with abundant reserves of coal — a naturally occurring element that is an affordable, reliable way to provide energy to massive numbers of people. Solar farms should be a part of an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy portfolio that includes the use of coal-fired power plants, natural gas and other renewable energy sources.”

If the act passes, Vistra intends to build a stand-alone 45-MW battery energy storage facility at the Joppa plant, which does not have the site characteristics to support utility-scale solar. The new battery system would store enough electricity to power approximately 22,500 homes.

“Vistra would like to reinvest in and responsibly reuse its Illinois plant sites so local communities like Joppa and Massac County can economically benefit from the transition to renewable electricity generation rather than being left as a non-productive former plant site,” Morgan said.

The economic impact study projected that constructing the battery energy storage facility at Joppa would support more than 100 local jobs and spur more than $10 million in economic output in Massac County.

“Hopefully, that plant will not just sit there and die and deteriorate to the point where there’s nothing there,” McDaniel said. “Hopefully, the solar to battery will happen in that time frame. Five to seven jobs is better than none, but it is still going to be a blow for that community that is truly dependent on that tax revenue.”

Vistra paid $825,000 in property tax to Massac County in 2020 for the 2019 year. In November 2020, the company filed an appeal on two parcels, 04-14-300-001 and 04-15-400-001, stating the assessment on both “is based on a value that exceeds the fair cash value of the property.” Following two hearings, Massac County Board of Review rendered a decision on Jan. 20 to lower the assessed value by $2,148,830, which put the market value of the parcels at $6,446,490.

According to Tuesday’s press release, the Joppa plant is a significant generator of property tax for local governments in the area and in order to provide additional support for the community, Vistra will pay property tax payments in excess of market value for three years after the plant’s closure, based on a percentage of the plant’s 2019 tax bill. Once the plant is closed, Vistra will pay more than $1.1 million from 2023-25 to local taxing entities.

EEI began operating in the summer of 1953, coming into full operation on Aug. 5, 1955. The private industry was built to provide half of the power requirements for the new Atomic Energy Commission plant west of Paducah, Kentucky, with the other half from TVA’s Shawnee Steam Plant, which was already under construction.

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