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Despite stern letter, Schmitz supports Prairie State

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 10:40 p.m. CDT

GENEVA – Despite its strong wording, a letter from State Rep. Tim Schmitz, R-Batavia, asking Attorney General Lisa Madigan to investigate Prairie State Energy Campus, the lawmaker said he supports the downstate energy campus.

"The basis for the letter ... was the $300 million in bond money from the state for the project," Schmitz said. "I don't care how much anyone else spent."

Schmitz said the letter reflects his concern regarding cost overruns on the $5 billion project and the impact on participating communities that might have to pass the cost along to ratepayers.

Schmitz said he did not expect a response unless an investigation resulted in charges being brought.

Schmitz's Feb. 28 two-page letter, detailing the ills of the coal-fired power plant near downstate Marissa, included costs that went $1 billion over estimates, its poor generating capacity and a Securities and Exchange Commission probe.

Geneva is a member of – and has a contract with – Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency for an entitlement share of 35 megawatts in Prairie State Generating Company, which owns Prairie State Energy Campus.

Batavia also is a member of the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency and is in a long-term contract to purchase electricity from Prairie State. 

The plant was developed by Peabody Energy and serves 30 member communities in several states.

At a Geneva City Council meeting this week, several residents asked Mayor Kevin Burns to join Schmitz in seeking an investigation into possible fraud in connection with the Prairie State campus. Some were members of the Sierra Club, which has been critical of the campus.

But Schmitz said he supports Prairie State. He said he just wants to know where the money went.

"I hope it thrives and starts cranking out power so the rates go down," Schmitz said. "It is a project I supported in legislature. It's the largest clean coal plant built in the U.S., and I hope it does everything its supposed to do."

Schmitz said he has heard from constituents who want the coal plant shut down.

"I don't want the plant shut down," Schmitz said. "I want it to be at peak efficiency and doing what it's supposed to do. ... I want to know why did it go $1 billion over cost. Who answers for that $1 billion?"

Burns did not respond to residents, but said later he disagreed with them and would not ask for an investigation.

"We have no evidence to believe we were duped," Burns said. 

Burns said he and Batavia city officials met with Schmitz and State Rep. Mike Fortner, R-West Chicago, about Prairie State, and both are in favor of the project.

Fortner said his concern is for ratepayers in Batavia and Geneva, and he wants an external audit.

"I support the project. I have concerns about the cost overruns," Fortner said.

A decision to have an external audit would have to be decided by NIMPA and the Illinois Municipal Electric Association, of which St. Charles and Naperville are members, Fortner said. Though they have public members, they are private entities, he said.

Burns said wind and solar would cost more right now, and the city's investment in the coal-fired plant provides a stable, affordable power source until alternatives are more readily available. 

Burns said Geneva's electric utility gets 50 percent of its energy from Prairie State, 10 percent from contracts with Settlers Hill Landfill and more than 30 percent from NextEra Energy, which produces power from solar and wind sources, according to its website, www.nexteraenergy.com.

Resident Bill Scown said Geneva ratepayers will pay $7 million more a year for electricity from Prairie State.

"The cost of wind power is very reasonable right now," Scown said. "There is no reality behind the mayor's statement."

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