JOPPA, Ill. — In the late 1950s, rumors circulated around Massac County that the power requirements for the new Atomic Energy Commission plant west of Paducah would be furnished by private industry, with the other half from TVA’s Shawnee Steam Plant, which was already under construction.
Massac Countians learned on Jan. 11, 1951, that Electric Energy, Inc. would build a $74 million-steam electric plant in the Joppa area.
Fast forward 69 years and the opposite became true after six years of speculation over the closure of coal-powered plants in Illinois started coming to fruition.
In a move to accelerate its transition to clean power generation sources and advance efforts to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, Vistra Energy announced earlier this month its plans to close coal plants in Ohio and Illinois, including the one in Joppa.
Still referred to locally as EEI, the plant that employs 115 people is expected to be retired, along with the Baldwin Power Plant, by 2025 or sooner should economic or other conditions dictate. Vistra said its decision is based on the filing of the revised federal coal ash rule, known as the Coal Combustion Residuals rule.
“I was saddened to learn of Vistra’s decision to retire the remainder of their fleet of coal-fired power plants throughout downstate and southern Illinois, knowing that the decision will impact employees, their families and even entire communities,” said State Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis). “I have always advocated for an ‘all of the above’ approach when it comes to energy production — that includes making the best use of Illinois’ vast reserve of coal resources that we can. The coal industry has endured decades of increased regulation, increased costs of operation and stiff competition from the natural gas industry. Federal and state coal policies have had a long-lasting and devastating impact on the industry across the country.”
Construction of the four-unit EEI plant was underway by the end of 1951; in November 1952, the estimated cost of the project had increased to $103 million.
When the Atomic Energy Commission announced a major expansion of its Paducah production facilities, EEI added two more units to the Joppa station, making a total contemplated capacity of 1,050,000 kilowatts of power.
With costs escalating, construction was shut down and reorganized in summer 1953 with the first four units 80% complete. The original contractor was replaced and work resumed three months later. On Aug. 5, 1955, the Joppa plant was in full operation.
Construction of the project took four years and 10 months, more than 200,000 cubic yards of concrete, 24,000 tons of structure steel, 492 miles of tubing for the boilers and 1,130 miles of cable for the electrical system. The total cost of the six-unit plant was $181,675,000.
In addition to being the first investor-owned plant in the nation to build six units at one time on a crash program basis, the Joppa Steam Plant also pioneered many equipment design features that had previously been considered almost impossible. Among these design firsts were: longest turbine shaft in the world; greatest turbine power output potential on one shaft; largest current limiting reactor ever installed; tallest river crossing towers at 480 feet; among the longest cable spans across a river at 4000 feet; and highest steam temperature at 1,055 degrees.
From its opening until 1987, coal and fuel oil purchases from EEI amounted to $1.3 billion. During the same time period, the payroll for EEI employees meant an additional $165 million for the area’s economy. And, since operations began, the plant has paid $28 million in state and local taxes, thus affording better schools and many added services for the citizens of Massac County and the surrounding area.
Based in Irving, Texas, Vistra Energy merged with Dynegy in 2018, taking ownership of the Joppa and Baldwin plants. EEI generates 1,002 MW of electric capacity plus 239 MW of gas-fueled combustion turbines at its coal-fired plant. Baldwin generates 1,185 MW.
According to Massac County supervisor of assessments Gary Hamm, the EEI plant covers 5 acres in Joppa with the bulk of the property value on two parcels.
“In Massac County, they pay $825,000 in property tax,” Hamm told the Massac County Commission last month. “If they close that plant and don’t do anything, it’s going to devastate this area as far as from a value standpoint. I’m very concerned.”
According to an information packet released by the company, Vistra plans to reinvest and repurpose its plants across the state, including Joppa, converting them into “legacy plants” providing utility-scale solar and/or energy storage. Joppa is listed as an energy storage facility.
Converting its plants from coal to solar would invest $450 million in central and southern Illinois. Vistra said the project “unlocks immediate investment, jobs, sales, taxes and new, recurring property tax revenue for future generations in local plant communities.”
“Our team members have gone above and beyond to make these plants viable, and they have been safely powering these communities with affordable and reliable electricity for decades,” said Jim Burke, chief operating officer of Vistra. “The advance notice of these retirements provides us with ample time to work with our impacted employees and communities to ease the impact of the closures, including seeking the passage of the Illinois Coal to Solar and Energy Storage Act. We’ve proven ourselves in previous similar situations to live up to our core principles, taking care of our employees and communities. That will not change.”
Hamm told the county commission that “irrespective of what they (Vistra) do, I’m very certain the (property tax) value is going to drop. If they go to solar, I’ve got how the state has us assessed solar and it’s a different process. Versus closed, sure it looks good; but versus what we have, it’s going to be substantially different,” he said. “I’m concerned. I know they’re going to be challenging their assessments in counties where they’ve closed. There is a potential they could challenge this one.”
Vistra’s subsidiaries in Illinois generate 6,000 MW to 750,000 customers while employing 650 people.
EEI sells its energy to its stakeholders, primarily the Missouri-based utility holding company Ameren. Both Vistra and Ameren have the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“The aggregate impact of these milestone initiatives is clear: Vistra’s commitment to our transformation to a low-to-no-carbon future is unequivocal and offers unique opportunities for growth and innovation,” said Curt Morgan, president and CEO of Vistra. “As evidenced by the actions we take and investments we make, Vistra is paving its way for a sustainable future — economically and environmentally — and we’ve been focused on transitioning our generation portfolio for the benefit of the environment, our customers, our communities, our people and our shareholders.”
Along with Joppa and Baldwin, Vistra also announced other coal plant closures: the Edwards Power Plant in Bartonville in 2022 and four slated for 2027 or sooner should economic or other conditions dictate: Kincaid Power Plant in Kincaid and Newton Power Plant in Newton, and in Ohio, Miami Fort Power Plant in North Bend and Zimmer Power Plant in Moscow.
Since the company’s leadership change in 2016, Vistra and its subsidiaries have closed or announced the closure of 19 coal plants totaling more than 16,000 MW across Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts. In total, Vistra and its subsidiaries have now retired or announced the retirement of more than 19,000 MW at 23 coal and natural gas plants since 2010.
“The high costs placed on the backs of our coal industry under federal regulations have led to this incredibly tough decision, and it’s more important than ever we recognize the importance of coal energy in our country,” said State Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg. “I know this announcement has created uncertainty for many hardworking individuals in southern Illinois. I remain dedicated to working closely with Vistra to seek out opportunities for those impacted by this decision to retire the coal-fired power plant. Moving forward, I will continue my efforts to support Illinois’ coal industry and work to identify future economic opportunities for the Joppa community and surrounding area.”
Electric Energy, Inc. company background information was taken from the Massac County Illinois History Vol. 1 1987 book produced by the Massac County Historical Society.