The Sierra Club's Missouri Beyond Coal campaign achieved a prized goal this month when Ameren Energy announced that it would phase out its 923-megawatt Meramec coal-fired power plant in St. Louis County by 2022, with an option to retire the plant even sooner.
The announcement comes after years of advocacy from the Beyond Coal campaign, local citizens, the Club's Missouri Chapter, and allied health and environmental groups to retire the outdated 61-year-old coal plant and invest in clean energy. Below, the plant's four smokestacks loom behind a residential neighborhood in south St. Louis County.
"If you've ever been to one of our Missouri planning meetings, you know that we often repeat for each other during tough times… 'be patient, we have to stick with this for the long haul,'" says Holly Bender, associate regional director for Beyond Coal. "Today, the patience and relentless advocacy paid off."
For the past several years the Sierra Club has urged the Missouri Public Services Commission to adopt an integrated resource plan and made the case that retiring the Meramec plant is the most prudent path forward in light of new carbon pollution regulations and changing market conditions.
The Club has steadfastly called for reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions at three St. Louis-area coal plants, demanded groundwater monitoring at coal ash sites, and urged local elected officials to be leaders in taking a stand against coal pollution in St. Louis County. Last year the Club revealed Ameren's leaking coal ash ponds across the state and the company's significant contribution to decades of unsafe air quality in St. Louis.
"This victory is a testament to the patience and perseverance of the Sierra Club team in Missouri and the power of an all-in campaign," Bender says. "In the belly of the beast, and in the hometown of coal's giants, dedicated grassroots engagement, strategic legal work, and a relentless drive to change the public's perception about coal has won the day. We will continue to advocate alongside Meramec-area communities for a retirement date sooner than 2022, and ensure that Ameren finally gets serious about adding clean energy."
Ameren currently produces 75 percent of its power from coal, and has for a long time joined Arch and Peabody in deeply vesting coal's future in the community. Missouri gets 85 percent of its electricity from coal, and according to the American Council for An Energy-Efficient Economy, the state ranks 43rd nationally in energy efficiency.
Local elected officials receive generous donations from Ameren, potential clean-energy allies have shied away from fighting against coal due to the company's hefty donations and support of annual galas, and Ameren's public relations machine has successfully convinced citizens in greater St. Louis that it really does care about clean energy -- despite its rating among the Natural Resources Defense Council's "Gang of 8" top polluters lobbying in Washington against clean air and water protections.
In announcing its decision to phase out coal at Meramec, Ameren said the plant had reached the end of its useful life. The decision comes as Ameren has realized great success saving energy -- and saving its customers money -- through energy-efficiency programs. Ameren previously stated that the power generated by Meramec could be entirely replaced through strong energy-efficiency programs.
"As a local mother, this announcement could not have come soon enough," says Donna Seidel, a local parent who lives close to the Meramec plant. "Our community is looking forward to collaborating with Ameren and other stakeholders to find a plan to make south St. Louis County an even safer place for our families to live."
The announcement to phase out the Meramec coal plant represents the 168th coal plant to retire or announce retirement since 2010, cutting nearly 252 million tons of carbon emissions -- the equivalent of 53 million passenger vehicles.
"After years of dangerous coal pollution, we could use a breath of fresh air from Amaren and some forward-thinking investments in clean energy," says Andy Knott of the Beyond Coal campaign in St. Louis. "As utilities elsewhere in the Midwest continue to grow clean-energy portfolios, Ameren has lagged behind with woefully low investments in readily available and cheap resources like wind, solar, and efficiency, which can create local clean-energy jobs."
Today, the United States has more than 61,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity and 13,000 megawatts of installed solar capacity -- enough to power the equivalent of 20 million American homes.
"Communities in south St. Louis have struggled with unsafe air for decades," says St. Louis-based Sierra Club organizer Sara Edgar. "We're ready to work with Ameren on a plan to invest in local clean energy, to build a responsible timeline for transition of its workforce at Meramec, and to move as expeditiously as possible to stop burning coal in St. Louis."
Photo courtesy of Simmons Hanly Conroy