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Ameren plans to add a lot more renewables this decade. Critics say it’s not enough

Ameren's coal fired Labadie Energy Center behind a fallow field.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Ameren’s coal-powered Labadie Energy Center in Labadie, Missouri, in January 2022. The utility has plans to keep portions of the power plant running until the early 2040s.

Electricity production accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

To reach climate goals that number has to go down, and an update this year from Ameren Missouri details how the electric utility in the St. Louis region plans to transition away from power generation that relies on fossil fuels.

“We want to ensure we always have power 24/7 to meet our customers' rising needs,” said Ajay Arora, Ameren’s chief renewable development officer, "that we have enough of a buffer of various generation resources to be able to do that.”

He explained that the plan prioritizes reliability, resiliency and affordability while moving to clean energy to meet the company’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. A key goal is to keep the rates customers currently pay consistent as Ameren makes its transition, Arora said.

“Ultimately we are replacing aging coal plants and generation resources so there’s a cost that comes with it,” he said. “A way to (minimize costs) to benefit our customers with the significant tax credits that are being provided through the inflation reduction act for renewable energy.”

Ameren has plans for solar starting next year, wind in 2026 and battery storage in 2027, with various projects to add capacity in those categories lasting through the mid-2030s. It would add to the wind generation installed over 2020 and 2021 to meet a Missouri requirement that 15% of a utility's power generation comes from renewable sources.

“Now we’re in a period where our aging generation resources are retiring,” Arora said. “So there’s a little bit of a gap while we were seeking additional projects to replace the retiring generation.”

The electric utility will also build new natural gas fired power plants later this decade as part of this transition. Arora said they will be necessary to ensure reliability when Ameren needs power on demand.

This part of the proposal has the director of Missouri's Sierra Club chapter upset.

“I cannot believe that in 2023 Ameren is proposing two new gas burning power plants, like that is a solution that is acceptable for our communities,” Gretchen Waddell Barwick said.

With this kind of new infrastructure, there’s an expectation that it will be used for a long time, Waddell Barwick said.

“That’s the problem with building new gas in the late 2020s and early 2030s,” she said. “Sometimes these plants are used for 50-plus years, especially here in Missouri.”

Arora said the new gas facilities will have a lifespan of at least 30 years. But he added the company expects technology available in the future will make it possible for the utility to reach its net-zero emission goals.

“Either by carbon capture, or offsets where there are other methods like reforestation and other things,” Arora said.

The utility also intends to use “clean dispatchable resources” like small modular nuclear reactors, long-duration battery storage or green hydrogen, he added.

Environmental groups also question Ameren's planned timeline to retire legacy coal-fired power plants. The company shuttered its Meramec Energy Center last year and has plans to shut down its Rush Island Energy Center and Sioux Energy Center in 2024 and 2036 respectively.

But the utility plans to keep units at its Labadie Energy Center operating until at least 2042.

That coal plant is one of Missouri’s largest emitters of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, according to data from the EPA. The EPA also found emissions in those two categories increased between 2021 and 2022.

“Ameren isn’t serious about reducing harmful air pollution,” Waddell Barwick said.

The company intends to keep Labadie in operation because of its cost and that it can produce high amounts of power with short notice, Arora said. He added the plant operates in accordance with EPA standards including the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, National Ambient Air Quality Standards and Mercury Air Toxics Standards.

“As we transition to renewables, it’s plants like those that allow us to keep the lights on while we add renewables to our mix,” he said.

But for the people who live in Labadie, it’s more years of living next to a facility that pollutes their community.

“It makes me angry and disappointed,” said Patricia Schuba, who heads the Labadie Environmental Organization, a grassroots coalition of local residents advocating for stricter regulations on the plant. “And the whole time they’re going to know they’re going to benefit in the end because we have to buy their energy.”

Schuba adds it makes her consider leaving an area where her family has lived in for more than a century, long before the Labadie Energy Center came online in the 1970s.

“I feel like I’m left behind,” she said. “You lose value in land that has accrued over generations. It’s not fair because we didn’t pollute our community.”

Moving forward, Schuba said there’s a good opportunity for the EPA and other regulators to step up as new pollution standards are considered.

“We need them to follow through,” she said. “It’s not a political game. It's our lives, our communities and the future of our planet.”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.