Ameren announces plans to reach 'net-zero' carbon emissions by 2050, and spend billions on renewable energy

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

ST. LOUIS — Ameren announced Monday that it intends to invest $8 billion in renewable energy projects over the next two decades, and will accelerate its plans to reduce carbon emissions and retire a pair of coal-fired power plants — reaching “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

The company’s two largest coal plants, though, will still run until the late 2030s and early 2040s.

The moves mark significant progress for the utility and an acknowledgment that it needs to make big changes, some outside experts said, as costs for renewable energy drop dramatically. It’s an increasingly familiar playbook for large U.S. power utilities. A growing list have made similar commitments to reach net zero by mid-century, while also planning to keep major coal plants running for decades.

“This is driven by market forces because renewables have become so much cheaper than coal,” Ashok Gupta, a Kansas City-based senior energy economist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of Ameren. “Having so much coal in their portfolio was seen as a risk by investors.”

Ameren’s moves were unveiled in a long-term generation plan — known as an Integrated Resource Plan, or IRP — that the St. Louis-based electricity monopoly submits to state regulators every three years.

Ameren’s last plan, from 2017, featured a $1 billion commitment to add wind energy equal to about 10% of its electrical generation — its first big step toward renewable power. The new outlook filed Monday further pushes the company away from its fleet of aging coal-fired power plants, which supply about two-thirds of its energy.

“Now’s the right pivot point to begin incorporating more amounts of those resources into our portfolio,” said Marty Lyons, chairman and president of Ameren Missouri. “We’re looking for the best balance between reliability, affordability, and environmental stewardship.”

The company intends to invest $4.5 billion in renewable energy projects by 2030, for 3,100 megawatts of generation — which includes roughly $1 billion of wind energy development first announced in 2017 and now nearing completion. By 2040, Ameren aims to have spent $8 billion on 5,400 additional megawatts of renewable capacity. The new generation will be a mix of wind and solar power, and will account for nearly 60% of Ameren’s electricity sales by 2040, the company said.

The plan also cuts greenhouse gases faster: Ameren had planned to reduce carbon emissions 35% by 2030 and 80% by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. The new plan cuts them 50% by 2030, 85% by 2040, and to net zero by 2050. Such targets would pull Ameren into compliance with international climate change recommendations.

Ameren operates four coal plants around the St. Louis area, and sped up the planned retirement dates for two of them in its new plan. It says its Sioux plant will now retire in 2028 instead of 2033, while its Rush Island plant will run until 2039 instead of 2045 — despite an ongoing appeal over a court order that would compel the facility to address years of Clean Air Act violations by adopting expensive pollution controls that threaten its economic viability.

Retirement plans remain unchanged for Meramec, the company’s smallest and oldest coal plant, set to stop generation in 2022, and for Labadie — the largest in Missouri, and among the biggest nationally. Two of Labadie’s four units are set to be phased out in 2036, with the remaining two running until 2042. All of Ameren’s plants were built in the 1970s or earlier, and will be 61 to 72 years old upon their planned retirements.

Statements from a range of groups expressed support for Ameren’s plan, including local religious leaders, consumer advocates, environmental nonprofits and elected officials such as St. Louis County Executive Sam Page. Other groups agreed that the plan outlines a positive shift, but said it wasn’t fast enough.

“It doesn’t go far enough to address the climate crisis we’re experiencing now,” Andy Knott, a St. Louis-based representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said in a statement.

The Sierra Club recently called on Ameren to reach 100% clean energy by 2030.

Knott was also skeptical that Ameren would do what it said.

“The IRP doesn’t change the fact that, over the last three years, Ameren spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in a dark money effort to erode environmental and public health safeguards at the Environmental Protection Agency while pushing to keep toxic coal waste in vulnerable areas like floodplains,” Knott added. “Overall, Ameren needs improvement.”

Ameren defended its decision to keep certain coal plants running until their planned retirements.

“These assets are still producing low-cost energy and providing reliability benefits for the region,” said Lyons, in an interview with the Post-Dispatch. “We really see those as being foundational to allowing this transition.”

But there are looming questions about the cost of that switch, and how much regulators would allow Ameren to charge ratepayers for the renewable projects.

Gupta, the energy economist, said the plan is a meaningful move in the right direction on climate change — and is hopeful that even more can be achieved, sooner.

“Even now, there’s a lot more to do,” he said. “With the right policy support, even more can happen and should happen.”

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©2020 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS
A logo sign outside of the headquarters of the Ameren Corporation, in St. Louis, Missouri. - Kris Tripplaar/Sipa USA/TNS