Power Lines Blog

Visiting Southern Illinois — coal country


The week of May 15, I went to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the first joint annual meeting of the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency and the Illinois Municipal Utilities Association. Kevin Gaden, President and CEO of IMEA/IMUA and a member of the American Public Power Association’s board, and his crack staff (including Doc Mueller, Staci Wilson, Troy Fodor, Rodd Whelpley, Ed Cobau, and Tammy Hall) put on a great joint meeting.

Driving to Springfield from St. Louis, I was reminded that Southern Illinois is coal country. Most people think of Abraham Lincoln when they think of Southern Illinois, and there were plenty of signs of his presence along the way. But the rest stop that I visited on I-55 was named the Coalfield Rest Area.

34-coalfield-reststopA plaque inside explained that beneath the ground, active mine shafts support the coal industry. Coal beds up to 15 feet thick underlie about two-thirds of Illinois, and it has the largest amount of coal reserves of any state.

The plaque noted that 20 miles to the south in Mt. Olive, a coal miners’ strike that started on July 4, 1897, eventually produced (after much strife) the 8-hour work day and solidified the newly formed United Mine Workers. On a prior trip, I had stopped in Mt. Olive to visit the Mother Jones monument — she was a famous labor activist who is buried there. She was reported to have said “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” The plaque closed by noting the rest area is dedicated to “the coal resources and those whose lives are linked to it.”

As I left the building thinking about this history, by sheer coincidence I ran into Don Gaston and his wife, heading to the same meeting. Don is the President and CEO of the Prairie State Energy Campus, the large, modern and very efficient coal-fired power plant in Southern Illinois which many Midwest public power utilities, including IMEA, co-own.

Prairie State is a “mine-mouth” plant — its coal comes from the adjacent Lively Grove mine. Ownership of the coal supply and proximity of location makes the fuel source more secure (no monopoly railroads to give you the business!).

And just to drive home the point, as I came into Springfield, I passed the Dallman 4 Station owned by the City of Springfield’s City Water, Light & Power — it, too, uses Illinois coal. It looms over you as you pass it on the freeway. And the city, never wanting to pass up an opportunity to share its history, has painted a huge sign on the side of the powerhouse featuring Lincoln’s profile, which urges drivers to “Visit Mr. Lincoln’s Hometown.”

springfield-lincolns-home-townPhoto by Brian Bowles

I got to Springfield in time for the reception, dinner, and awards ceremony. I always like to see local utility managers and public officials being honored for their work and dedication to public power — it is people like these, who spend their careers in their communities serving their fellow residents, who really deserve recognition. I also enjoyed watching Kevin give out APPA safety and RP3 recognitions to deserving Illinois public power utilities. Safety and reliability are absolutely vital to the good work we do in our member communities.

But one award really stood out for me. Doc Mueller, IMEA’s Senior Vice President, Government Affairs & Management Services (also known fondly to his members as “the Great Explainer”) is retiring from IMEA at the end of June. He has been a true rock for public power at the local, state and federal levels for many, many years — he was already a fixture when I came to APPA in 2004. His cool head, mellifluous voice, immense mental rolodex, and readiness to jump into the fray when needed have been of great help to public power nationwide on many issues. He got a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd, and I for one had tears in my eyes. He is leaving IMEA in the good hands of Staci Wilson, IMEA’s Director of Government Affairs, who has been working with him since last fall, and who is already stepping up on some challenging telecom issues in current state legislative session. I will really miss Doc.

sue-with-doc-and-kevinThe next day, Kevin gave his “year-in-review” presentation — he touched on the challenges facing public power utilities, including the problems IMEA has because it is located on the seam between the PJM Interconnection and the Mid-Continent Independent System Operator. Trying to serve IMEA’s customers in PJM with generation resources located in MISO has never been easy. Of course, when the generation units were planned, both the load and the resources were in the MISO footprint! Recent rule changes are making it even tougher. It is surely frustrating when arbitrary RTO rule changes upset well-laid resource plans.

We heard from Garry Golden, a very interesting futurist, who explained to us the mysteries of microgrids and blockchain databases — a fast-growing way to account for transactions, including money flows.

Then Rodd Whelpley, Bert Kalisch, President & CEO of the American Public Gas Association, and I took the stage in cushy chairs for an “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-style session about what is going on in Washington. Rodd was channeling James Lipton, even down to the blue index cards!

We talked about what the Trump Administration could mean for energy and environmental policy, what is different about Washington now, and what is still the same. To put it mildly, it is an interesting time in DC, so it was good to compare notes with a fellow energy trade association CEO. I noted that the change in administration could mean more action on the environmental and energy policy fronts at the state level, so IMUA should be prepared.

Finally, I was glad to see Ed Cobau had brought with him mass copies of the new edition of the APPA Safety Manual to hand out to his members. In the thrifty tradition that exemplifies public power, Ed was saving on postage and shipping by distributing the manuals at the meeting. As the new edition takes into account recent OSHA regulatory changes, it is important for our members to get it, so they can stay up to date and safe!

As I drove back to St. Louis, I reflected on the regional differences in our membership and the communities they serve. Part of what I love about this job is getting a chance to see up close and personal the various parts of our country and their different traditions and cultures. Vive la différence!

Sue Kelly

Sue Kelly

President and CEO