Season 1: Episode 6

Nov. 11, 2020

Did you know that uneconomical coal plants in the Midwest are costing you, the ratepayer, millions of dollars? In recent years, utilities across the region have been clinging to uneconomical coal assets while slow-walking investments in clean energy. Yet, the age of coal is coming to an end and plants in communities across the Midwest are on the chopping block. In this episode, we’ll speak with two frontline community leaders, both active in the fight for a just energy transition that supports coal communities and coal plant workers.


Nick Hylla, MREA Executive Director
Jordan Pupols, MREA Events Manager


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About This Epis0de

The coal business is costly. With the price of renewable forms of energy plummeting in the last decade, coal has become an increasingly uneconomical asset. But who’s on the hook for bearing the financial, health, and environmental burdens of coal fired power plants? Whether the plants are operating or retired, ratepayers are paying for them, plus interest. And, without community engagement and support from state legislators, it will likely be the local communities and laid off coal plant workers that pay the highest price.

Utility investments are reviewed and approved by a state-appointed public utility commission. This approval includes assurances that the new assets are needed and that they are a benefit to ratepayers. The approval also includes a protected rate of return for the utility investors over the life of the asset. But what happens when the utility and their regulators get it wrong? When the asset, like a coal-fired power plant, begins to lose money well before expected? Should ratepayers continue to pay higher prices to ensure that investors get their expected returns? Or, does the coal plant become a “stranded asset” for which the investors will not be fully reimbursed? And what happens to the plant workers and local community when the power plant is shuttered?

Though regulatory policy has long been the driver of change to the Midwest’s energy mix, community voices focused on creating economical and equitable energy systems are starting to find their rightful place in the decision-making process. State legislatures across the Midwest are also stepping up to support a clean energy transition that provides economic, societal, and environmental benefits to communities across the Midwest. And local champions, along with community leaders like Laura Lane and Ryan Hidden, are leading the way with support of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

In the last few months alone, utilities have announced plans to retire coal plants across the Midwest and, at the same time, build a record amount of utility owned solar and wind generation. How will this affect the coal plant communities near you? What will happen to the workers? Who will pay for the clean-up? How will the communities recover economically? These answers will depend, in large part, on how the communities organize. Our guests for this episode have demonstrated that your voice can matter. By working together, you can put pressure on your representatives and on your utility’s executives to transition your community’s energy mix to cheaper, cleaner sources that deliver greater local economic development benefits.

SPECIAL GUEST: Laura Lane – 

Sierra Club’s MG&E Beyond Coal Team 

Laura is a member of Sierra Club’s MG&E Beyond Coal team. She started volunteering with the Sierra Club because she is extremely concerned about environmental issues, especially climate change, and wants to advocate for things she cares about, including clean energy, mass transit, full funding for our state parks, and clean water. She studied environmental law at the University of Colorado and passed the Wisconsin Bar in 1999 and after her first child was born, she became a full-time mom and freelance writer. She has written three books for children with a fourth one due out this fall, and she specializes in writing about science, nature and social studies.

SPECIAL GUEST: Ryan Hidden – 

Organizing Representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign

Ryan is the Organizing Representative for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. Ryan works with communities in Peoria and Central Illinois to move beyond fossil fuels and toward a clean energy future while providing a just transition for workers and the community. He can be reached at 309-265-8057.


On Coal Plant & Monopoly Economics:   

The Cost of Coal White Paper: A clean energy portfolio could provide the same energy and capacity requirements as the Alliant coal plants at a lower cost by 2026.

How To Retire Early: This report by Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that replacing the fleet of global coal plants with clean energy plus battery storage could be done at a net annual savings as early as 2022.

Coal Costs UsA recorded panel discussion by Sierra Club WI on health and wellbeing costs of coal.

Harnessing Financial Tools to Transform the Electric Sector: Discusses creative financing tools that can be used to address the problem of ‘stranded assets.’

The Billion-Dollar Coal Bailout Nobody is Talking About: Self-Committing in Power Markets – May 2019: Energy Innovation interviewed Union of Concerned Scientists Senior Energy Analyst, Joe Daniel, to learn why this is happening.

Used, But How Useful? How Electric Utilities Exploit Customers to Bail Out Uneconomic Coal-Fired Power Plants – May 2020

Monopolies Cost Americans $300 a Month. We’re No Longer the Land of Free Markets – November, 2019: Thomas Philipponn discusses his book The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets

On Getting Involved:   

SC WI Clean Energy Action Page: this regional resource is updated regularly with actions to take.

Coal Ash is Polluting Illinois: A report highlighting groundwater across IL. Learn the facts and how to get involved.

Hear Stories of Individual People Impacted by Coal Plants:

Clean Power Coalition of Southeast WisconsinThey work to ensure that WE Energies doesn’t sacrifice health for the sake of financial cost. Learn how to get involved.

Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition: Learn about CEJA, which, among other things, calls for transitioning the IL power sector away from fossil fuels with equity and justice at its core. This coalition provides regular CEJA updates and ways to get involved.

You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy. Do we use them? Oh no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.”

– Thomas Edison, 1910  

On Recent News:

Consumer Advocates Praise Deal to Refinance Debt on Shuttered Coal Plant in Southeastern Wisconsin – November, 2020: Securitization is expected to save ratepayers about $40 million while allowing the utility to recover its investment.

How Utilities Can Avoid Being Financially Swamped by the Coal Closure Wave – October, 2020: Securitization allows utilities to retire uneconomic coal plants faster, but often requires legislative change.

WEC Energy Group Plans to Shut Down Oak Creek Coal Plants by 2024 – November, 2020: Shutting it  down will save $50 million a year in operational and maintenance costs.

State’s Move From Fossil Fuels Accelerated by Retiring Coal Plants – November, 2020: A trio of WI’s largest utilities announced plans to retire coal plants  to cut emissions and deliver customer savings.

Renewables are Shrugging off the Pandemic as a Coal Inflection Point Looms – November, 2020: Renewables will overtake coal to become the largest source of electricity generation worldwide in 2025

Midwest Utilities Craft Ambitious Renewables, Coal Retirement Plans to Meet Goals – November, 2020: Six utilities plan $15.6 billion in spending and coal retirements expected to reach 5.8 GW by 2023

This Episode Brought to You By:

Northwind Solar is a Central Wisconsin worker-owned cooperative specializing in the design and installation of solar electric and energy storage systems. Find out what solar can do for you.

From the Midwest and beyond, the Energy News Network provides daily updates on the transition to a clean energy economy. Sign up for any of our free daily regional newsletters at

For more information on how your organization can sponsor a future Rise Up podcast episode, view the details on the Rise Up Midwest supporter page, or contact Gina.


Address: 7558 Deer Rd. Custer, WI 54423
Phone: (715)-592-6595

The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) is a nonprofit organization with the mission to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable living through education and demonstration.