Despite anticipated air quality improvements in downtown Milwaukee as the Valley Power Plant gears up to make its switch from coal to natural gas, company officials said the decision was solely business driven.

Residents of downtown Milwaukee will soon see a major improvement in their air quality as We Energies’ Valley Power Plant, situated in the heart of Milwaukee, plans to make the switch from coal to natural gas.

In response to We Energies’ application for the switch, filed in April 2013, the Public Service Commission gave the company the go-ahead Friday to begin its conversion at the Milwaukee power plant, which has been in operation since 1969. The changeover will take place in two parts, one turbine at a time, Barry McNulty, spokesperson for We Energies, said.

“The plant has two turbines, and we can’t go without one of those in operation through this coming winter so we’ll have to do one at a time,” McNulty said, adding the project is expected to be completed by early 2016.

Although the switch is a major victory for environmental groups like Clean Wisconsin, McNulty said the switch was a business decision. Environmental concerns were not the “driving motivation” for the switch, he said.

The Valley Power Plant supplies 280 megawatts of electricity to surrounding businesses and residences in downtown Milwaukee and steam that 400 local customers used for heating, laundry, sterilization and food processing, according to We Energies’ website.

As the only coal burning plant in the state without modern pollution controls, the Valley Power Plant has become known for emitting high levels of mercury, smog and soot into the air surrounding the plant, a statement from environmental group Clean Wisconsin said.

Milwaukee has repeatedly been graded with an “F” grade for its high number of unhealthy air days by the American Lung Association, the statement said.

“Thousands of people, including an estimated 30,000 Milwaukee County children with asthma, will soon be breathing cleaner air for many generations to come,” Katy Walter, Clean Energy Specialist with Clean Wisconsin, said in the statement. “Today’s authorization made it official: Valley’s days are numbered as one of Wisconsin’s most notorious polluters.”

A Clean Wisconsin report said these types of dangerous coal emissions can lead to several serious health problems, including asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, which is cause for concern for the 24,000 Milwaukee residents living within one mile of the plant.

Clean Wisconsin has worked closely with other organizations to bring about the power plant’s conversion, starting the “Cleaner Milwaukee Coalition,” which will oversee the transition.

We Energies’ overall company emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and mercury have decreased by 80 percent since 2000, and this conversion is another step in the right direction environmentally, according to a statement released by We Energies.

“As the EPA prepares to establish carbon rules, it is extremely important for all of Wisconsin’s power plants and industrial facilities to take a serious look at the steps we can all take to reduce our dependency on coal,” Walter said. “The community’s work at Valley will undoubtedly have a significant impact on air quality, and it serves as a great example of the good that comes when dedicated people organize around the issues that affect us all.”

These changes will benefit the environment by cutting emissions without drastically affecting the plants function, McNulty said. Valley Power Plant will continue to produce 280 megawatts of power following the conversion, he said.

Nyal Mueenuddin contributed to this report.