By Benjamin Yount Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – Supporters of a multi-billion dollar clean coal plant in central Illinois are telling state lawmakers it's time to act now, even though planners privately admit they may not have the votes to get the Tenaska plant to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk.
The Illinois House on Monday listened to hours of testimony about the planned Taylorville Energy Center. Supporters say the nearly $4 billion plant would provide thousands of jobs, spur clean coal technology and provide another source of electricity to customers across the state. Opponents counter that the jobs may be there, but the rest of the promised benefits are little more than talk.
Lawmakers in Springfield are not being asked to pony up any money to build the plant. Instead the legislation before the Illinois House would have the state buy all of the power produced by the Taylorville plant.
Bart Ford, who's been heading the Tenaska effort in Illinois for years, told lawmakers on Monday that if Illinois won't guarantee a market for the electricity from Taylorville, the plant will not be built. At least not here in Illinois.
"We've spent $40 million in four and a half years, we've agreed to take all of the risk and no payments until the project is completed in 2015…We're at the point where Tenaska either moves forward or gives-up on the Taylorville project, and the state is at the same point on clean coal power generally." said Ford.
And there are other states waiting to see which course of action Illinois does take. Taylorville Mayor Greg Brotherton came to Springfield not only to push for what would be an economic boost to his town, but to warn state lawmakers that the plant will find a home.
"I went to Indiana, I talked to some of the folks there, I visited some of the plants there. And the thing I kept hearing there was 'Hey, if Illinois doesn't want this send it our way. If they don't want to lead the nation in clean-coal technology, by golly Indiana will," Brotherton said.
But opponents are more than willing to let another state pay the costs they fear will come from a state-backed deal to buy electricity from the Taylorville plant.
Phil O'Conner with the STOP Coalition, which is fighting Tenaska, predicts people will see a spike on their power bills and fears Illinois will be stuck with a cost that is only going to grow.
O'Conner points to the way the deal between Tenaska and the state would be written as proof that the project is on shaky ground.
"Part of this massive rewriting [of legislation] involves the inclusion of entirely new ideas, entirely new processes, entirely new formulas for calculating the cost of this plant."
The STOP Coalition and O'Conner said if cost overruns aren't checked the Taylorville plant could cost Illinois $9 billion that the state does not have. But Ford said Tenaska has promised to cover 100 percent of cost overruns, and two-thirds of price increases.
State Rep Bob Flider, D-Decatur, said that's not a small promise from the Tenaska officials.
"If a utility went to the ICC under the old days of vertical integration … they would have been kicking and screaming over provisions like this. That seems like its a real home run for consumers," he said.
Ford and other clean coal supporters are not saying when they expect a vote in Springfield. Privately supporters say they still do not have the votes to pass the measure. But there is a growing sense that if lawmakers don't act soon, Tenaska may drop plans to build in Taylorville and look for another site in another state.