Sierra Club: Coal to clean transition to save customers millions, as Alliant announces closing of Columbia Coal Plant

Sun Prairie, WI — This morning, Alliant Energy subsidiary Wisconsin Power and Light (WPL) announced plans to retire the two units at the Columbia coal plant — which Alliant Energy co-owns with Madison Gas & Electric and Wisconsin Public Service — in 2023 and 2024, a move that will result in Alliant Energy being coal-free in Wisconsin more than 15 years earlier than the company’s previous commitment. Today’s announcement is the result of Alliant Energy’s comprehensive resource planning process, in which Sierra Club and other stakeholders began participating in 2019, and continued collaborative discussions. Alliant Energy’s planning process was the first of its kind in Wisconsin, and included economic analysis of the company’s coal plants compared to clean energy resources like solar, wind and battery storage, which resulted in its “Clean Energy Blueprint” plan. The decision to retire the Columbia plant early is a significant step forward for the Blueprint, and follows Alliant Energy’s decision last year to retire the Edgewater coal plant in 2022 and invest in 1,000 MW of solar by 2023

“By acting now to move away from coal to clean energy, Alliant Energy is putting words into action at a critical time,” said Elizabeth Katt Reinders, Deputy Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Alliant Energy’s Blueprint shows how comprehensive resource planning that gives clean energy a chance to compete can deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to customers. This process, which included robust stakeholder engagement and advanced modeling tools, led to the decision to retire Columbia early and replace that power with clean energy. This demonstrates Alliant Energy’s commitment to keeping costs down for customers, contributing to the growing renewable energy job economy, and doing it in a way that is supportive of their employees and the communities they serve. The findings of Alliant Energy’s Blueprint process confirm the case Sierra Club has been making across the country, including in Wisconsin: when put head-to-head with fossil fuels, clean energy comes out the winner every time.”

The Blueprint validates a 2020 Sierra Club report  demonstrating that Alliant Energy would save customers millions by retiring both Edgewater and Columbia coal plants early and replacing that power with a clean energy portfolio that includes wind, solar, storage, energy efficiency, and demand response technologies. Alliant Energy has found that retiring Columbia early will save customers $250 million in avoided costs that would be required to keep Columbia operating over the next decade. 

“Our analysis shows retirement of Columbia Energy Center will avoid long-term costs for customers while also creating a cleaner environment,” said David de Leon, President of Alliant Energy’s Wisconsin energy company. “While Columbia has generated reliable and affordable energy for customers for nearly a half a century, we’re transforming the ways we safely and reliably deliver that energy in a cleaner way. At the same time, as we have done in the past, we will help our employees who have done so much to keep the facility operational for so many years, transition to new opportunities.”

In addition to delivering cost savings to customers, retiring Columbia early will avoid up to 53 million pounds of sulfur dioxide pollution, a known cause of asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung disease, bronchitis, and premature mortality, and 97 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution. That’s 7 million tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to taking 1.4 million cars off the road. Alliant Energy also pledged to provide career assistance and coaching to help prepare workers to transition into other jobs.

“Retiring Columbia will result in cleaner air, cleaner water, and huge reductions in climate pollution in this critical decade for action on climate – something that public health and climate advocates have been calling for for years,” said Laura Lane, Chair of the Wisconsin Chapter of Sierra Club and a volunteer leader in Sierra Club’s efforts to move Wisconsin beyond coal. “We appreciate Alliant Energy’s plans to ensure a fair transition for the Columbia workforce and other employees, and urge the company to include plans for the surrounding community and the remediation of coal ash waste on site.”

Columbia is the last coal plant Alliant Energy owns or operates in Wisconsin. Over the last year, half of Wisconsin’s remaining coal fleet has been proposed for retirement, totalling 2941 MW of coal, comprising four plants; with Wisconsin utilities also announcing 2500 MW of solar, wind and battery storage. Four coal plants, including a small municipal plant, remain, totalling the last 2766 MW of coal in Wisconsin.