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Burned out: why (and how) northern Wisconsin will soon abandon coal as a power source

The Weston Plant, which has been burning coal to generate electricity since the 1950s.
Ben Meyer/WXPR
The Weston Plant, which has been burning coal to generate electricity since the 1950s.

Standing atop Wisconsin Public Service’s Weston power plant, 220 feet above the ground, it’s impossible to miss the giant coal pile on the property.

About a half-million tons of coal are at the facility at any given time, ready to ready to be burned, ready to produce much of the power used by people, businesses, and industry in northeastern Wisconsin.

Weston Plant asset manager Len Rentmeester.
Ben Meyer/WXPR
Weston Plant asset manager Len Rentmeester.

“We purchase all of our coal from the Powder River Basin. It’s west, Wyoming area,” said Len Rentmeester, the asset manager for the plant, as he watched a bulldozer push coal onto a conveyor belt.

Two trains arrive at the plant each week, each carrying 17,000 tons of coal.

Inside the plant, the coal is pulverized to a powder then burned at 2,500 degrees in a boiler. The process turns water into hot, pressurized steam, which is used to spin a turbine to create electricity.

“We’re driven by the demand of the system,” Rentmeester said. “[For example,] air conditioners come on this time of the year. That makes our load as a system go up.”

The facility includes two coal-fired units: Weston 3 and Weston 4. WPS calls Weston 4 “one of the cleanest power plants of its kind in the country.” Rentmeester pointed out the unit’s success in controlling nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. However, the plant captures no carbon, the potent greenhouse gas.

The RV-sized turbine at Weston 4. Steam, created when burning coal heats water, spins the turbine to create electricity.
Ben Meyer/WXPR
The RV-sized turbine at Weston 4. Steam, created when burning coal heats water, spins the turbine to create electricity.

Although Wisconsin produces no coal, coal-burning plants like the one in Weston supply 36 percent of the state’s electricity.

That number is sure to drop, however.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new rules that will force American coal plants to either close or cut back 90 percent of their carbon emissions by 2032 if they wish to operate long-term.

Emily Grubert, an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame.
University of Notre Dame
Emily Grubert, an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame.

“These new regulations are actually the first time that we’ve really officially regulated greenhouse gases from existing power plants,” said Emily Grubert, an associate professor of sustainable energy policy at the University of Notre Dame. “That’s a really important precedent in a lot of ways.”

Last year, WPS announced it plans to beat the government to the punch.

By the end of 2031, it will fully retire Weston 3. Weston 4 will be converted to burning natural gas – another fossil fuel, but a cleaner one.

Such a move will allow WPS to avoid having to retrofit its coal plants.

“Essentially, if you close earlier, you don’t need to put very expensive equipment on your plant,” Grubert said. “If you want to maintain your operations longer, then you probably need to invest in the expensive equipment.”

Control operator Clint Grambort keeps tabs on 16 different screens that display real-time data about power generation at Weston 4, which has a capacity of about 600 megawatts.
Ben Meyer/WXPR
Control operator Clint Grambort keeps tabs on 16 different screens that display real-time data about power generation at Weston 4, which has a capacity of about 600 megawatts.

In 2022, natural gas surpassed coal as the top electricity source for Wisconsin.

WPS’ coal plan follows a national trend decades in the making, even before the new federal rules came out.

“Coal has been in decline for a while. It likely would remain in decline and decline further,” Grubert said. “This [set of rules is] something that ensures that we have a bit of an enforcement mechanism for some of the emissions piece of it. But it’s not like the coal industry was doing well before.”

For example, in Wisconsin alone, coal accounted for 70 percent of electricity generation in 2001. It’s now half that, thanks to industry forces.

Nationwide, 200 coal plants have closed in the last decade, and coal now supplies just 16 percent of American electricity. Two decades ago, it accounted for more than half.

Hodag Solar Park in Rhinelander, which opened in 2022.
Ben Meyer/WXPR
Hodag Solar Park in Rhinelander, which opened in 2022.

For WPS, some of the coal-plant production will give way to gentler methods of supplying power, like those in a 50-acre field near Rhinelander.

The Hodag Solar Park’s 21,000 solar panels can generate enough power to electrify about 2,000 homes.

Renewable energy accounts for just a small fraction of Wisconsin power production, though WPS says it plans to continue expanding capacity.

WEC Energy Group, the parent company of WPS, expects to be fully done with burning coal by the end of 2032.

And spurred by economic forces and new federal rules, coal’s continued fade in Wisconsin and nationwide seems inevitable.

Conveyors lift coal more than 200 feet to begin the power generation process at Weston Plant. The plant seeks to keep 90 days' worth of coal on hand at all times.
Ben Meyer/WXPR
Conveyors lift coal more than 200 feet to begin the power generation process at Weston Plant. The plant seeks to keep 90 days' worth of coal on hand at all times.

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Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He then contributed with periodic stories until 2024. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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