'This must change': Activists push back on We Energies' plans to delay the retirement of the Oak Creek coal plant

Environmental activists and elected officials gathered outside We Energies’ downtown Milwaukee office on Wednesday to express their opposition to the company’s plans to delay the closure of a coal-fired power plant.

In June, We Energies and Alliant Energy said the decision to delay the shutdown of the Oak Creek coal-fired plant is due to energy supply fears and supply chain issues.

Activists claim the utility could have done more to prevent a delay.

“Poor planning is part of what caused this delay and proper planning is what will be critical to ensure that this will not happen again,” said Elizabeth Ward, Wisconsin Sierra Club chapter president. “Delaying the retirement (of the plant) by one year could mean 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (emitted), 2.4 deaths, additional hospital admissions including an asthma ER visit, a heart attack, over one case of bronchitis, over 26 additional asthma attacks and over 126 lost workdays.”  

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Racine Dominican Sister Janet Weyker, director of the Eco-Justice Center, said the delay is going to cause health issues to the residents in the surrounding community.

“Why did this delay happen? It is said it’s because of unexpected high energy demands and supply chain issues. But what is the real cause?” Weyker said. “When you come down to it, it is the lack of urgency and inadequate planning.” 

Weyker said the delay in closing the plant also contributes to the overall climate change issues happening across the country.

“Any energy produced from burning fossil fuels, especially coal, is not cheap or affordable,” Weyker said. “Consider the added health and environmental costs that will be incurred by extending those coal-burning units until 2024, 2025.” 

Brendan Conway, director of media relations for WEC Energy Group, We Energies’ corporate parent, said the company is “leading the clean energy transition.”  

“We’re investing billions of dollars over the next five years and that’s going to double the amount of renewable energy in our system, and on top of that we also remain committed to some of the most aggressive carbon reduction goals in the entire industry,” Conway said.

“The decision to extend the retirement timeline of those units in Oak Creek … it’s a necessary step to help keep the lights on at a time when, quite honestly, other states and regions are dealing with energy shortages and price volatility and weather-related emergencies.”  

Conway emphasized the delay is temporary as the company continues to plan on adding more renewable energy capacity.

“We’re planning on bringing these solar projects online, these solar battery projects, but they’re delayed due to supply chain issues and global, overall, issues,” Conway said. “Some of these projects, the timelines have been shifted.” 

Weyker acknowledged We Energies is moving toward more renewable energy but urged the utility to find a solution to the supply chain issues.

“It is good that We Energies is still committed to increasing its use of solar and wind energy; however, the supply chain shortages are slowing down their transition to renewable energy,” Weyker said. “This must change.”  

Retirement pushed back a year

Originally, We Energies planned a phased retirement of the Oak Creek power plant in 2023 and 2024.

The retirement of the first two units of the plant, built in the 1950s, will be delayed until May 2024.

Retirement of the second two units, built in the 1960s, will be delayed for approximately 18 months, until late in 2025, the utility said.

“The decision to postpone the retirement dates for these units is based on two critical factors: tight energy supply conditions in the Midwest power market and supply chain issues that will likely delay the commercial operation of renewable energy projects that are currently moving through the regulatory approval process,” Scott Lauber, president of We Energies, said in a statement in June.

We Energies said it plans on reducing its CO2 emissions by 60% from its power generation fleet by the end of 2025 and by 80% by the end of 2030. Both measures are compared to a 2005 baseline.

Alliant Energy also announced it was delaying retirement of the Edgewater Generating Station in Sheboygan from the end of 2022 to June 2025.

“Shifting the retirement dates for our coal-fired facilities in Wisconsin helps ensure we can weather multiple uncertainties while continuing to add cleaner, renewable energy to the grid,” David de Leon, president of Alliant Energy, said in a statement. 

State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said he was excited when We Energies announced it was moving more toward renewable energy but “that pinky promise is no substitute for policy.” 

“Clean energy isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s exceedingly popular,” Larson said.

“We Energies knows this, and their recently announced delay in transitioning to green energy shows them trying to have their cake and eat it, too, gaining good press for promising something they can’t deliver, and continuing to profit while failing to make good on their own promises.”

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