ROMEOVILLE – About 250 power plant workers will lose their jobs as NRG Energy cuts operations at its Romeoville facility and converts Joliet to natural gas.
The workforce reduction will come in two waves – one in April and another in April 2016 – at the New Jersey-based company's coal-fired power plants in Joliet, Romeoville, Waukegan and Pekin.
Most of the job cuts will come from Joliet and Romeoville, said Doug Vedas, business representative with IBEW Local 15, which represents about 425 of the 600 workers at all four plants.
About 50 employees will lose their jobs or take severance packages when a generating unit in Romeoville closes in April, while another 25 will do the same at the Joliet plant, Vedas said.
The biggest hit overall will be at the Joliet plant in April 2016, when NRG will cut about 120 jobs as it begins to convert that plant to natural gas, Vedas said. Coal-fired plants converted to natural gas typically require less manpower, he said.
The remaining layoffs will come from the Waukegan and Pekin plants, Vedas said.
The Joliet and Romeoville plants have been major local employers since they were built in the 1950s by Commonwealth Edison. In more recent years, they operated under the Midwest Generation division of California-based Edison Mission Energy before being acquired by NRG.
David Gaier, spokesman for NRG Energy, declined to confirm the accuracy of the numbers of employees being laid off at each plant, noting talks with the union are ongoing.
NRG Energy, which took over the four Illinois plants earlier this year upon acquiring Edison Mission Energy, also plans to upgrade plants in Pekin and Waukegan to comply with environmental regulations. Gaier said the plan for the Illinois fleet will bring NRG more than halfway to meeting new federal limits for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, he said.
“This plan, in one fell swoop, will single-handedly achieve 56 percent of Illinois' target for reductions in CO2 emissions,” Gaier said.
Romeoville's Unit 3 will cease operations by April 1, but its Unit 4 will continue operations as long as it remains in compliance with state and federal emission laws and regulations, Gaier said. The site's other two units closed in previous years.
NRG said the moves will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by at least 16 million tons by 2020 – the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the road. It also represents a $567 million investment from NRG, Gaier said.
Ellen Rendulich, director of Lockport-based Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, said the reduction in operations at the Romeoville plant and the conversion of the Joliet plant is a good move. But she said it was also sad the change came at the cost of people losing their jobs.
"They are doing something finally after all these years. ... It's sad it has to be this way. We are sad and concerned," she said.
She said she hoped NRG Energy would have converted the plants to renewable energy.
"Over the years we have been asking the unions and the heads of the company over there to re-train those people to renewable energy jobs," she said.
She said CARE has been a critic of the four plants since 1995, when the group started researching levels of pollution there and found out the plants were engaging in numerous Environmental Protection Agency violations.
She said many environmentalists were worried about the effects of these plants on people's respiratory health.
With NRG's decision, the IBEW Local 15 is losing about half of its union members in its fossil fuel division, Vedas said.
“It hits our numbers hard," Vedas said. "You just don't bounce back from something like this.”
Gaier said while NRG sympathizes with those losing their jobs, the company is taking the lead in positioning itself for an energy future that's "different from today." He said NRG is developing operations that provide electricity to vehicles and solar power.
"We didn't take this decision lightly. We are sensitive to the fact that we're reducing head count," Gaier said. "We're doing this for the environment, for the economy and for consumer choice."
Coal-fired power plants in the United States have been under significant environment and economic pressure in recent years, Romeoville Mayor John Noak said.
So Thursday's announcement came as no surprise, he said, noting how in 2012, Edison Mission Energy – then-owners of the four plants before NRG took over – closed its two Chicago plants, Fisk and Crawford stations, and filed for bankruptcy later that year.
"For anybody who's following the industry, it's no surprise that it was going to occur at these facilities. The coal industry in its entirety has an uncertain outlook into the future, not only because of environmental regulations but because of competition from lower-cost alternatives," Noak said.
A 2014 U.S. Energy Information Administration report is projecting that a total of 60 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity will retire by 2020. Between November 2013 and March 2014, plant owners across the U.S. announced the elimination of about 5.4 gigawatts of coal-generated power.
• Herald-News reporter Felix Sarver contributed to this story.