Drive along Highway 32 and you catch only a brief glimpse of We Energies’ massive Oak Creek power plant, one of the last big coal-fired plants to be expanded in the United States. You can see the plumes of steam from miles around, but the plant itself is mostly concealed behind a series of berms, surrounded by green space where homes once stood. Ironically, as customers of We Energies, you’ve paid to conceal that new plant, and depending on your proximity to the plant you continue to pay in many other ways as well.
It might be hard to see the actual generating plant, but its presence continues to loom large in our area. If you live close to the plant, you’re likely paying the highest of prices for this plant in adverse effects on your family’s health. Exposure to coal dust, found in several homes in the area and documented here in the Racine County Eye, adds to the frequency and severity of asthma, COPD, and other respiratory diseases. Similar problems are exacerbated by particulate matter, the fine airborne particles too small to be removed that result from burning coal. Your health could also be affected by higher traces of molybdenum in your well water. Molybdenum is found in high concentrations of coal ash, the substance left by burning coal. Classified as an “industrial byproduct” in Wisconsin, coal ash has often been used as structural fill below roads and parking lots.
According to a Clean Wisconsin study of 1,000 wells there is evidence that such coal ash is contaminating drinking water of many families in Southeastern Wisconsin. An alarming example was found a few years ago when testing at a Racine County school in Yorkville revealed levels of molybdenum at twice the acceptable levels. Poor health and increased medical bills are costs hidden to many We Energies customers, unfairly born by those who live near the power plant.
Farther away, the cost of this coal plant might be paid by the increase in noise as coal trains rumble through your neighborhood or in long delays as you wait for another long coal train to pass. As a Wisconsin resident you also pay higher rates for electricity than other states in the Midwest. This affects not only your own budget, but has some effect on whether businesses will stay in or move to an area with higher than average rates. According to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, Charter Manufacturing has claimed that “most of the blame for We Energies’ high rates was its “massive level of excess electric generating capacity” created when it added two units to the coal-fired Oak Creek power plant in 2010 and 2011”. During the debate about what type of power plant would best suit the needs of our area, many residents and businesses advocated for a smaller, natural gas-fired plant; clearly this was a better choice. Now with electricity an essential need of contemporary life and with only a few viable alternatives, we are tethered to an already outdated plant.
There’s a more diffuse cost we all pay for burning coal which comes in the form of increased weather extremes and other consequences of climate change. Largely for this reason, over half of the new generating capacity built in the United States in 2016 incorporated some form of renewable energy. Clean, renewable energy is a reliable and affordable way to reduce many of the costs mentioned above, yet We Energies has attempted to either slow or obstruct this solution. By increasing everyone’s fixed rates and by requesting what basically amounted to a 30% tax on solar energy, We Energies led the effort to dampen the rapidly growing transition to renewable energy, putting Wisconsin behind other Midwestern states in renewable installations.
Restricting community-owned solar arrays and other third-party ownerships is another way that We Energies has attempted to impede the progress of clean, distributed energy. Ironically, we pay for this effort, in one way or another, as well. However, we do have the power to change the course of decisions made by our utilities. Concerned citizens have taken actions that moved utilities from coal to clean energy in other states and we can work toward that goal in Southeast Wisconsin. It will take the involvement of people who are concerned about the impacts of pollution on their families, concerned about high electricity rates and ready to see new jobs in our communities from wind, solar and energy efficiency. If you are interested in joining the effort to move We Energies off of coal, please contact the Sierra Club by email at email@example.com or by phone at 608-338-0746.
Tom Rutkowski is currently the chair of the executive committee of the Southeast Sierra Gateway Group which covers Racine, Kenosha and Walworth Counties.