U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) met with leaders from the Illinois and regional environmental community to discuss important federal and state environmental and energy policy issues at ELPC’s office on Friday, Jan. 16th.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) met with leaders from the Illinois and regional environmental community to discuss important federal and state environmental and energy policy issues at ELPC’s office on Friday, Jan. 16th.
THE ISSUE: State could boost struggling nuclear plants
OUR VIEW: Lawmakers should tread carefully
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has five color-coded levels for its advisory scale — green is low and red is severe, with guarded (blue), elevated (yellow) and high (orange) in between.
A similar scale might be of use throughout Illinois for communities that depend on nuclear power facilities as bedrocks of the employment and property tax base. At present, the threat level would have to be no lower than guarded, as Exelon Corp. is discussing closing its generation stations in Cordova, Byron and Clinton.
Operations in La Salle County, Morris and Braidwood are not considered at risk, but it’s no understatement to say conditions are leaning away from stability and toward volatility.
As with many major corporations experiencing uncertainty, Exelon is taking its case to Springfield (via Chicago, of course) to explore how, if at all, the state’s tax dollars might be used to impact the private sector.
Of course utility companies straddle a line between public and private concern that other large employers, such as Sears or Archer Daniels Midland, can’t quite claim. The government is heavily involved in how much utilities can charge customers and the extra taxes on the services they deliver directly fund a great many special programs.
Further, power generation itself is a community issue. The way a nuclear plant affects its surrounding area is vastly different from that of a coal-fired power plant, for example, and it’s precisely that distinction Exelon has singled out in its attempt to leverage influence at the Statehouse.
A Jan. 7 report from several state agencies detailed how the state could aid Exelon by adopting policies that penalize competitors that emit carbon dioxide. House Speaker Michael Madigan last year directed the Commerce Commission and several other agencies to study ways to boost the financially struggling nuclear industry, and the findings aren’t all that surprising.
Exelon told lawmakers it wants to be included in a “clean portfolio standard” under which nuclear, solar and wind power producers are rewarded for providing energy to the state. Otherwise, the company could push for a price on carbon that would make its nuclear plants more competitive.
Chicagoans can turn down their thermostats to zero, but they still have to pay a fixed charge of $27 a month to Peoples Gas to receive gas service.
That fee, already the second-highest of any utility in the Midwest, could jump 43 percent to $38.50 a month if Integrys, the parent company of Peoples and North Shore Gas, gets its way. That charge already has risen 199 percent since 2007.
North Shore Gas customers, who pay a fixed monthly charge of $23.75, would see the fee increased to $29.55, a 24 percent boost, under a proposed rate hike.
Only Duke Energy of Ohio charges a higher fixed fee, $36.43, in the Midwest than Peoples Gas does.
State regulators are expected to consider the proposed increases this month, possibly as soon as Wednesday. If approved, the hikes will take effect Feb. 1.
The increases are part of Integrys’ efforts to shift more costs to the fixed part of customers’ bills. The utility is lessening its dependence on money it collects based on how much gas a customer uses.
Integrys’ reasoning is that it must recover expenses to maintain its gas mains and meters and can’t depend on people burning enough natural gas to cover those costs.
“Utilities are capital-intensive businesses, and our costs are overwhelmingly fixed,” said Jennifer Block, an Integrys spokeswoman.
Peoples Gas is in the midst of a $300 million infrastructure upgrade within the city of Chicago, where it has about 829,000 customers.
Even though other delivery costs are expected to drop, helping blunt the sting of any fixed-price increase, consumer advocates are fuming.
They pointed out that residents of smaller homes are being charged the same monthly service fees assessed to those who live in much larger dwellings and who probably use a lot more gas.
They say residents of larger homes should pay higher fees because the gas distribution system has to be larger to accommodate them.
Overshadowed by the hoopla over the inauguration of Gov. Bruce Rauner—and perhaps partially caused by it—U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is in damage control mode after opening a big breach with the state’s politically influential environmental community.
A host of green groups expressed shock, disappointment and more after the Illinois Republican in an interview appeared to suggest skepticism that industrial pollution is causing global warming. At least one of those groups, Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center, is hoping to personally brief the senator and his staff on what they view as scientific realities. But the damage has been done.
Kirk’s comments came in an interview with a trade publication, E&E News, in which he suggested that Greenland has been losing its green for centuries, long before pollution levels really took off.
“We had the previous warming period, which was called the global optimum, and the best way to talk about that is when Leif Erickson went west from his home, he discovered a landmass that he called Greenland, because it was,” Kirk said after a Senate Republicans’ lunch to discuss legislation to build the Keystone Pipeline. “And that was called the global optimum, because the planet was much warmer. By calling Greenland ‘green land,’ we know that the climate has been changing pretty regularly within recorded memory.”
Kirk’s office later released a statement from the senator saying that “climate change is real and human beings definitely play a role.”
“As I have said since 2010, I will not support a carbon tax or similar attempts which hurt the Illinois or American economy,” he said, according to the statement.
MADISON, Wis. — Speakers at an all-day conference on energy policy in Wisconsin evoked two images of the state’s renewables sector. And neither is encouraging for clean energy advocates.
The first was “Rudy,” the inspiring 1993 film about a student’s quest to make the University of Notre Dame’s storied football program as a walk-on. The other reference was Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was sentenced to push a large boulder uphill for eternity.
Whatever the metaphor, renewable energy advocates in Wisconsin are being forced to embrace the role of underdog with Republican Scott Walker staying put as governor, the state Legislature awash in red and Walker appointees holding a majority on the three-member Public Service Commission.
Renew Wisconsin, the host of Friday’s meeting, sees the exponential growth in rooftop solar happening elsewhere across the nation, from neighboring Minnesota to red states such as Georgia. But the same is “just not happening in Wisconsin, and the major reason is policy,” said Tyler Huebner, the group’s executive director.
Wind energy development has largely been on hold in Wisconsin for a few years, Huebner said. And whatever momentum was building for adoption of more distributed solar generation was halted two months ago when the Public Service Commission approved a series of controversial proposals by We Energies, the state’s largest electric utility.
In a case that drew national attention, the PSC ultimately approved a reduction in net metering rates (the rates at which customers are credited for excess energy put on the grid) for We Energies customers, imposed a demand charge for recovery of fixed costs from customer generators and raised fixed charges for all customers (EnergyWire, Nov. 17). The commission also slightly reduced variable energy rates. But in sum, solar advocates say, the commission’s order effectively doubles the payback period on a residential solar energy system.
A poll last summer commissioned by an environmental advocacy group reflected strong support for energy efficiency and renewables. But without the ability to push through broad changes like an expansion of the state’s 10 percent renewable energy standard, furthering clean energy development must rely on more nuanced, targeted strategies, speakers said.
Those strategies include getting more large Wisconsin businesses on board and involved in policy discussions. Frequently cited was Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc., a global supplier to the building and automotive industries with $43 billion in sales last year. The company intervened in the We Energies rate case to oppose the utility’s proposal to increase fixed customer charges, arguing that the changes discouraged energy efficiency.
Brad Klein, an attorney for the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, emphasized the need for clean energy advocates to work with investor-owned utilities to redesign an outdated business model focused on a centralized power grid. That business model too often pits utility shareholder interests with consumer interests and serves as a barrier to reduce energy use and deploy new technology.
Klein cited the Utility 2.0 reforms pursued by the state of New York. And there’s a similar but less developed effort underway in Minnesota, where Xcel Energy Inc., a participant, just proposed significant new additions of wind and solar energy over the next decade and a half.
“I think the key is figuring out some of these business model challenges,” Klein said.
While some utilities are trying hard to reinvent themselves, “others are doubling down on the status quo” and flexing their political muscle by challenging changes in statehouses and utility commissions, he said.
Renewable advocates say We Energies and two other Wisconsin utilities that pushed through large fixed-charge increases last month didn’t provide sufficient proof to support the commission orders. A decision is coming soon on whether to seek judicial review, and if so on what grounds.
State Rep. Chris Taylor, who drafted a measure last year to expressly authorize third-party solar financing in Wisconsin, said the commission’s decision “made our state one of if not the most hostile to solar.”
Taylor, a Democrat who said she belongs to the American Legislative Exchange Council and attended ALEC’s annual meeting last spring just to stay up to date on what her political opponents are doing, implored environmental groups, businesses and others to work more closely. Otherwise, they cannot overcome a galvanized conservative movement.
“We need to get organized,” she said. “We cannot come to the battle with a fly swatter when they have a steamroller.”
Matt Neumann, an owner of Sunvest Solar, which has installed 10 megawatts of solar and does business in five states, said there’s no disputing that utilities see solar developers like his company as a competitive threat and the two industries will continue to butt heads.
“We’re diametrically opposed to each other, and there’s really no other way to say it,” he said.
Politically, though, the battle isn’t one defined by party lines. There’s strong support for solar expansion among some conservatives, he said. For instance, Georgia tea party activist Debbie Dooley as well as a solar advocacy group led by former Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. both opposed the We Energies proposal.
Neumann, the son of former Republican Rep. Mark Neumann, said distributed energy offers benefits that mesh with widely held conservative principles such as consumer choice and free markets, property rights, national security, and job growth (ClimateWire, Aug. 14).
“Those are just fun things to get Republicans thinking,” he said.
There are also subjects not to bring up.
“Do not talk about climate change, please,” Neumann said. “It’s a lightning rod topic, it’s not going to get you anywhere.”
Neumann said he’s met with Republican legislators and thinks that a measure to allow third-party financing for solar projects would be possible this session if framed as a consumer choice bill.
“A narrowly defined solar bill for financing I think has legs and can work,” he said. “Republicans would have to violate their own principles to deny it.”
Longer term, Wisconsin will have little choice but to transition to more renewable resources, especially if U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan is finalized, said Gary Radloff, director of Midwest energy policy analysis at the Wisconsin Energy Institute.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” Radloff said. “Our energy system is going to change, and you’re going to like it. But I have no idea how fast it’s going to happen.”
While embracing natural-gas-fired generation may help the state comply with greenhouse regulations and meet EPA’s 2030 target, the fuel would require significant upgrades in infrastructure, and history would suggest that prices for the commodity won’t stay cheap forever.
“We might have a couple of decades of reasonably priced natural gas,” Radloff said.
Ultimately, the most cost-effective strategy is to rely much more heavily on renewable energy and efficiency — a strategy that would require the scale of development underway in Minnesota.
“I don’t want to candy-coat this. It will cost us money,” Radloff said. “But it is achievable if you have the political will.”
The battle over storage of petcoke in Chicago continued Tuesday with the City Council’s zoning committee passing an ordinance that would order the city planning and development commissioner to set limits by the end of March on how much petcoke can be moved through KCBX Terminals’ facility on the Southeast Side.
Alderman John Pope, who represents the neighborhood, and environmental leaders and community activists testified in support of the ordinance, while KCBX’s president and two environmental consultants hired by the company testified that dust from the facility is not harming local residents and that stricter limits are not needed.
If the ordinance is passed by the full City Council, it remains to be seen how strict the limits will be, and how rigorously they will be enforced.
Public health department rules that took effect last year limit the footprint of petcoke storage facilities and require enclosure of operations and dust-suppression measures. But local residents are upset that KCBX has requested variances allowing them exemptions from those rules. Most notably, the company is requesting an extra 14 months to enclose the petcoke piles, and the company has said they cannot complete the enclosure more quickly.
At the hearing Tuesday, local residents and attorneys with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Law & Policy Center all called for limits of “zero” petcoke through-put, a de facto call to shut down or freeze the operations.
“Science shows there is no safe point other than zero” for emissions of fine particulate matter like petcoke dust, testified Brian Urbaszewski, environmental programs director of the Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago.
Nick Juliano, E&E reporter
Climate change isn’t caused by industrial greenhouse gas emissions, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said yesterday, citing evidence that Greenland was once green — and presenting his strongest disavowal of the prevailing scientific view linking human activity to rising temperatures and sea level.
Kirk’s comments come ahead of a Senate vote series later this month that Democrats are hoping to use to create political headaches for the new Republican majority, especially embattled moderates like Kirk who are up for re-election next year in traditionally blue states.
While he was a member of the House representing a suburban district north of Chicago, Kirk was one of just eight Republicans to vote for cap-and-trade legislation in 2009. Although he renounced that vote soon after launching his 2010 Senate campaign and has been critical of the Obama administration’s climate regulations, Kirk remained supportive of policies to advance clean energy development and did not overtly question the prevailing view of most climate scientists.
That changed yesterday, in a brief exchange with E&E Daily in which Kirk lamented that “political correctness took over climate science,” dismissed scientists’ view that greenhouse gas emissions are linked to consequences like rising temperatures and said the problem is not one that should be addressed through government policy.
“We had the previous warming period, which was called the global optimum, and the best way to talk about that is when Leif Erickson went west from his home, he discovered a landmass that he called Greenland, because it was,” Kirk said after Senate Republicans’ first weekly caucus lunch. “And that was called the global optimum, because the planet was much warmer. By calling Greenland ‘green land,’ we know that the climate has been changing pretty regularly within recorded memory.”
Democrats are teeing up a variety of amendments to offer when the Senate later this month takes up legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Among them will be a nonbinding measure designed to put senators “on record” as to whether or not they buy into climate science, said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and is among the most vocal supporters of aggressive climate regulations.
“Scientists overwhelmingly believe that climate change is real. Unfortunately, we have a majority party here which disagrees with science. And I think it’s important for them to go on record,” Sanders told reporters yesterday. “Do they believe that climate change is real? Is it caused by human activity? Is it causing devastating problems? And they’re going to have to vote yes or no on that.”
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee today is scheduled to mark up legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, with a procedural vote on the Senate floor expected Monday. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pledged an open amendment process that will provide Democrats and Republicans broad latitude to offer amendments, some of which would be substantive while others would offer an opportunity to score political points.
Point-scoring seems the most likely outcome, as there have been some efforts among Republicans to keep the bill relatively clean of extraneous provisions, promising that there will be ample opportunity to discuss other issues separately.
“The majority leader has talked about a series of Democrat gotcha amendments. They will be accompanied by Republican gotcha amendments,” Kirk said yesterday.
Kirk said he would easily vote against an amendment such as the one Sanders outlined, based on a reporters’ description, and went on to criticize the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international climate agreement the United States never ratified.
“I actually served as a small part of the U.S. delegation to the Kyoto climate change talks. I have lived and breathed Kyoto,” he said. “And Kyoto stands for the principle, as you know, that all developing country emissions don’t count. I would say that Mother Nature disagrees with that Kyoto ruling.”
Pressed specifically on the link between human activity and climate change, Kirk offered the Greenland observation. In the brief exchange, he also noted that after voting for carbon cap-and-trade legislation in the House that he would not do so in the Senate, and he said that is “not too much” of a problem policymakers should concern themselves with. He then disappeared behind closing elevator doors.
A spokeswoman offered a more measured take in response to a follow-up request for comment.
“Senator Kirk believes that climate change is a long-term problem that deserves a long-term fix — and doesn’t support a politically motivated amendment intended to undermine the Keystone Pipeline and the jobs it would create in the U.S. and Illinois,” spokeswoman Danielle Varallo said in an email.
Kirk’s comments could be used as political fodder against him as he seeks a second term in 2016.
Kirk is a top Democratic target this election cycle, and he’ll be running for re-election in a presidential year in a state that has voted Democratic in every White House election dating back to 1992 — meaning he could have a tougher time than he did when he won the seat in 2010 by 2 points. Potential Democratic challengers include Reps. Tammy Duckworth, Bill Foster, Cheri Bustos and Mike Quigley, and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Kirk’s embrace of arguments popular among climate skeptics also came as a surprise to environmentalists, who long thought the Illinoian was one who they could count as an ally in some situations. In a 2011 interview, Kirk said climate remained a “long-term” concern that should be addressed through alternative energy innovation (ClimateWire, May 17, 2011).
“I think we all hold out hope that there is the old Mark Kirk from the House — who was really a moderate Republican,” said Melinda Pierce, the policy director at the Sierra Club, who said she was caught off-guard by his remarks given his earlier work. “If he’s pointing to Viking explorers from the 10th century as a justification for climate denial, does he also believe the world is flat?”
Steve Frenkel, who directs the Midwest office for the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed that it was surprising to learn of Kirk’s comments, but he noted that other lawmakers have questioned the link between human activity and climate change while still supporting policies related to clean energy or environmental protection. Frenkel noted that Kirk has supported renewable energy development — especially wind, which has had success in Illinois — and protection of the Great Lakes.
“Politically, it’s hard to say why Sen. Kirk would want to question climate change. It’s unfortunate that there’s any political division on climate science, but obviously that’s what we’re dealing with. Scientifically, of course, the evidence that climate change is human-induced is clearer than ever,” he said in an email yesterday.
“Scientists are as certain that human activities cause climate change as they are that smoking causes lung disease,” Frenkel added. “And regardless of what the climate looked like in the past — or in Greenland — it’s the rapid rate of climate change today that presents the biggest risks to our homes and businesses.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: David Jakubiak
In a news report, Senator Mark Kirk is quoted as dismissing scientists’ views that industrial greenhouse gas pollution causes climate change problems. In response, Howard A. Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, issued the following statement:
“Senator Kirk’s reported comments are disappointing. We will be working with leading Illinois scientists and business leaders to brief Senator Kirk on the most recent compelling scientific data on the realities of climate change and the necessity of solution-driven actions that are good for both Illinois jobs and global health. Most Midwesterners understand why it’s important to reduce carbon pollution from coal plants to help protect public health and our Great Lakes from climate change impacts.”
Illinois governmental agencies Wednesday issued a report proposing ways to prop up Exelon’s ailing nuclear power plants, citing the economic and environmental impact that closing those plants could have on the state.
The agencies suggested programs and taxes that would punish electric generators that burn carbon-based fuels and produce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Exelon’s nuclear plants don’t emit greenhouse gases.
Regardless of whether Exelon’s plants continue to operate or are shuttered, Illinois ratepayers will see higher electricity bills, according to the report.
For instance, if the state legislature decides to tax carbon dioxide emissions to help Exelon, the move would drive up electricity prices 17 to 21 percent over 28 years, the report said.
Closing nuclear plants; however, would also cost “hundreds of millions of dollars or more” in upgrades to transmission lines needed to bring in new forms of power to the state, the report said.
The Illinois Power Agency, which purchases power on behalf of utility customers, said there would be no threat of outages in the state because much of the power generated by Exelon’s nuclear plants is shipped out of Illinois.
Exelon has said three of its six plants in the state face possible closing. The impact of closing those plants, according to the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity: 2,500 direct jobs lost, $1.8 billion in lost economic activity to the state and a 10 percent to 16 percent increase in wholesale power prices.
Increased spending on renewable energy, however, could mitigate those costs, according to the report, adding 9,600 jobs by 2019 and producing $120 million in energy savings.
Has Exelon been crying wolf?
Or should the state intervene to help the Chicago-based corporation’s nuclear plants prevent closures that could hurt the economy and endanger the electric supply?
A 269-page report created by four Illinois state agencies and released Wednesday sheds light on these questions. The multi-faceted findings defy clear conclusions, but they generally support the idea that Illinois can weather nuclear plant closures; and such shut-downs could even bolster clean energy generation and jobs.
Illinois is the country’s top producer of nuclear energy, with six nuclear plants housing 11 reactors run by Exelon, which had $25 billion in operating revenues in FY2013. Nuclear plants emit no carbon dioxide and are highly reliable, as made clear during the polar vortex a year ago when frigid temperatures meant disabled coal plants and interrupted natural gas supplies.
But in a deregulated competitive power market flooded with cheap natural gas, costly nuclear plants are much less profitable. Exelon has said their nuclear plants in Byron, Quad Cities andClinton are unprofitable and could close soon without state policies that bolster their fortunes. Changes to energy market auctions and policies that put a price on carbon would help Exelon’s troubled plants, which have been operating for 28, 41 and 26 years, respectively.