CLEAN ENERGY

Huffington Post: ELPC’s Learner Discusses Making A Greener Chicago

By Howard Learner

Chicago is becoming a “greener city,” but let’s recognize some key challenges and the need for solutions moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. This Earth Day, we should be proud of what Chicago has accomplished and candid about some important environmental challenges still requiring solutions.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,842 megawatts today. A decade ago, who thought that Illinois would become No. 5 in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 11 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Next Steps: Illinois policymakers should say “no” to Exelon’s opposition and finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard, which helps drive wind power development. Let’s make it work well and advance Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market.

Solar Energy can be our next boom. The city and county are advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Solar panel efficiencies are steadily improving — think about other rapid technological advances in smart phones, digital cameras and computer speeds — and becoming economically competitive. Solar energy is truly a disruptive technology, especially combined with battery technology improvements. It can succeed by installations on residential rooftops and commercial buildings’ spacious flat roofs, and can transform underutilized industrial brownfields into “solar brightfields” in Chicago.

Next Steps: Let’s seize the opportunities to accelerate solar energy by better using Chicago’s many flat rooftops on commercial, industrial and multifamily residential buildings for solar photovoltaic panel installations producing clean electricity? First, the Illinois Commerce Commission should remove regulatory barriers that protect monopoly utilities from competition. Second, the Commission and state legislators should adopt policies that better enable community solar projects for local businesses and neighborhood residents to join together in sharing clean energy resources. Third, if Argonne National Labs’ engineers and scientists achieve their goal of batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost, that’s a game changer.

Energy Efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Chicago’s economy. There’s a quiet revolution occurring with more energy efficient lighting, appliances, cooling and heating equipment, pumps and motors, and other technologies. Commonwealth Edison reports that electricity sales declined (-1.5 percent) in 2015 in Northern Illinois while the Chicago regional economy grew 2.5 – 3.0 percent. Chicago’s economy is growing, more efficiently.

Next Steps: Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits through job-creating retrofits that can reduce electricity and natural gas bills. Electricity waste costs businesses and people money and drains dollars out of the Chicago economy for the part of the utility bills spent on out-of-town uranium, coal and gas fuels. Let’s save money, boost our economy, create more installation jobs and reduce pollution. That’s a winner.

Public Transit: Chicagoans are driving less with fewer cars, but Chicago can’t be a greener “city that works” unless CTA is modernized. Chicago is looking to both innovative financing and new transportation approaches, including Bus Rapid Transit and Divvy bikes, in addition to upgrading the aging Red Line and other transit lines.

Next Steps: Let’s face it — no good public transit, no green city. Chicago’s public transit system must become faster and provide improved, more efficient passenger services. CTA is working on it. Mayor Emanuel, Senators Durbin and Kirk, and Congressmen Lipinski and Quigley are working hard to gain more federal funds for CTA modernization. That’s a priority and necessity.

Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, and the mid-sized cities in-between. Modern higher-speed passenger rail development will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs and spur regional economic growth.

Next Steps: Modernize Union Station so it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development. Let’s accelerate high-speed rail development here.

Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama Administration’s investment of about $2 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities, building green infrastructure, and restoring wetlands and habitat.

Next Steps: Water efficiency is more than 20 years behind energy efficiency. We can’t afford to waste fresh water that the rest of the world craves and values highly. Let’s make Chicago a water efficiency leader among the Great Lakes cities. Let’s also figure out savvy ways of using lower-cost greywater for industrial processes and save fresh water for drinking supply.

Chicago River: It’s our namesake river and should be a gem increasing recreational enjoyment and property values for all. There’s progress as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) finally begins to disinfect its wastewater. The Chicago River, however, is still not “fishable and swimmable,” and there’s more cleanup to be done.

Next Steps: The new Chicago Riverwalk and river-focused development on both the north and south sides highlights and builds support for the importance of cleaning up the river as a safe place for recreational use and community enjoyment. MWRD should continue to step up its pollution reduction actions and equipment investments that pay off in clean water benefits for all.

Clean air, clean water, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Chicagoans. This Earth Day, let’s be proud of our progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance a cleaner, greener and safer community that works for all.

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Learner Op-Ed in Crain’s Chicago Business: Nine Smart Ideas for Making Chicago Greener

As published in the Crain’s Chicago Business on Wednesday, April 20, 2016.

Chicago is becoming a “greener city,” but let’s be candid about some key challenges and the need for solutions moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,842 megawatts today. A decade ago, who thought that Illinois would become #5 in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would be now be home to 11 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Next: Illinois policymakers should say “no” to Exelon’s opposition and finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard, which helps drive wind power development. Let’s make it work well and advance Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market.

Solar Energy: Our next boom. The City and County are advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Solar energy is truly an improving disruptive technology, especially combined with battery technology improvements.

Next: How we can accelerate solar energy by better using Chicago’s many flat rooftops?  First, remove regulatory barriers that protect monopoly utilities from competition. Second, the Illinois Commerce Commission and Springfield legislators should adopt policies that better enable community solar projects for local businesses and neighborhood residents. Third, support Argonne National Labs’ goal of making batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost. That’s a game changer.

Energy Efficiency:  There’s a quiet revolution occurring with more energy efficient lighting, appliances, cooling and heating equipment, pumps and motors, and other technologies.  Commonwealth Edison reports that electricity sales declined (-1.5%) in 2015 in Northern Illinois while the Chicago regional economy grew about 3.0%. Our economy is growing—efficiently.

Next:  Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits through job-creating retrofits that can reduce electricity and natural gas bills.

Public Transit: Chicago can’t be a greener “city that works” unless the CTA is modernized.

Next: Let’s face it—no good public transit, no green city. Chicago’s public transit system must become faster and provide improved, more efficient passenger services. CTA is working on it. Mayor Emanuel, Senators Durbin and Kirk, and Congressmen Lipinski and Quigley are trying to gain more federal funds for CTA modernization. That’s a priority and necessity.

Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, and the mid-sized cities in-between.

Next: Modernize Union Station so it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development.

Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy.  The Obama Administration’s investment of about $2 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off.  Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities, building green infrastructure, and restoring wetlands and habitat.

Next: Water efficiency is more than 20 years behind energy efficiency. We can’t afford to waste fresh water that the rest of the world craves and values highly.  Let’s figure out savvy ways of using lower-cost greywater for industrial processes and save fresh water for drinking. Let’s make Chicago a water efficiency leader among the Great Lakes cities.

Chicago River: Our namesake river should be a gem that increases recreational enjoyment and property values for all. There’s progress as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District finally begins to disinfect wastewater.  The Chicago River, however, is still not “fishable and swimmable.”

Next: The new Riverwalk and river-focused development is helping build support for the importance of cleaning up the river. MWRD should continue to step up its pollution reduction actions and equipment investments that pay off in clean water benefits.

Clean air, clean water, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Chicagoans. This Earth Day, let’s be proud of our progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance a cleaner, greener and safer community that works for all.

Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest’s leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization.

 

Press Release: Clean Energy Advocates Applaud MidAmerican Wind Announcement

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 14, 2016

Contact: David Jakubiak

Clean Energy Advocates Applaud MidAmerican Wind Announcement
ELPC, Iowa Environmental Council Commend MidAmerican Energy Plan for New Wind 

DES MOINES – Two of Iowa’s leading environmental policy groups have expressed strong support for a proposal announced by MidAmerican Energy on Thursday that would add 2,000 megawatts (MW) of wind energy to Iowa’s energy mix. The proposed project, Wind XI, would be the single largest wind energy project in Iowa to date.

“Wind XI can put Iowa above 40 percent wind energy before 2020, and sets the state on course to reach 10,000 MW of installed wind by 2020,” said Nathaniel Baer, energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC). “We applaud this strong showing of clean energy leadership, and welcome the opportunities this proposal presents to strengthen Iowa’s economy, communities and environment.”

MidAmerican will work to finalize project sites, which would be spread across the utility’s service area, while the Iowa Utilities Board considers the project filing request.

“MidAmerican’s announcement reaffirms that wind energy is affordable, reliable, and strengthens our energy independence,” said Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). “This project further cements Iowa’s position as a national renewable energy leader, and MidAmerican as a wind energy leader among utilities.”

The recent extension of the federal wind energy production tax credit was as a significant factor in MidAmerican’s timing of this project. By moving quickly to develop wind projects, MidAmerican can capture the full value of this important tax incentive. Both the Council and ELPC supported long-term extensions of the federal PTC.

“This is exactly the kind of wind energy project we hoped would be announced with the extension of the federal PTC,” said Baer.

At the end of 2015, Iowa had 6,212 MW of installed wind, which accounted for 31.3 percent of Iowa’s electricity mix – more than any other state in the country according to data released by the American Wind Energy Association. Iowa is expected to have up to 7,000 MW of wind installed before Wind XI is complete per other wind projects currently under development.

Wind XI will provide significant economic and environmental benefits. Iowa wind energy already provides between 6,000 and 7,000 direct jobs, and supports approximately 75 companies in the wind supply chain. Wind energy also provides over $17M annually in land lease payments to rural landowners, generates significant property tax revenue for counties, and attracts additional business to the state. Wind energy is also the lowest cost new source of electricity generation available in Iowa.

 

Press Release: ELPC Statement on Peabody Bankruptcy Filing

Contact:

David Jakubiak, Media Relations

Environmental Law & Policy Center Statement On
Peabody Energy Bankruptcy Filing

STATEMENT BY HOWARD A. LEARNER
Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

“Peabody Energy is in bankruptcy because senior corporate management made poor business decisions. Peabody bet on rapidly expanding coal markets as natural gas prices hit historic lows, energy efficiency slashed demand and China’s robust growth slowed.
“The Environmental Law & Policy Center will move to engage in federal bankruptcy court proceedings to make sure Peabody Energy’s coal mine reclamation and clean-up responsibilities in Illinois and across the Midwest are accomplished to the maximum extent possible, and that coal miners and communities are treated fairly.”

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Utility Dive: ELPC’s Wochos Says RPS Fix Central to Illinois Energy Debate

By Peter Maloney, Utility Dive

An epic budget impasse in Illinois has stalled progress on legislation that is critical to several aspects of the state’s energy economy.

At stake is the status of the state’s nuclear power reactors, efforts to revive renewable energy development in the state, and initiatives to build microgrids, electric vehicle charging stations and energy storage facilities.

In the last session of the Illinois legislature three bills were introduced to address each of those issues. They all failed. Legislators and lobbyists are now working behind the scenes to revive key components of those measures and possibly roll them into a single energy bill.

Among the bills that failed were the Clean Jobs Bill (CJB) (HB 2607/SB1485) — a proposal that would raise efficiency standards and the state RPS — and a bill that would establish a separate clean energy portfolio standard aimed at providing extra income for Exelon’s Illinois nuclear plants (HB 3293).

Also put on hold was a bill backed by Commonwealth Edison (HB 3328/SB1879) that would have revised how consumers’ electric bills are calculated and paved the way for ComEd to build microgrids, electric vehicle charging stations and energy storage facilities.

It may not seem to be a recipe for success to combine bills that incorporate such disparate interests and could have conflicting aims, but from a legislator’s point of view, there is a benefit in reaching some consensus from stakeholders before introducing a bill.

The legislature has said “if you want to pass the Exelon bill, you have to get CJB on board,” Sarah Wochos, co-legislative director at the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), told Utility Dive.

Ending up with a single bill “is the aim of some stakeholders,” said State Senator Don Harmon (D), president pro tempore of the Illinois Senate. But when several issues are rolled up into a single piece of legislation, he added, many are subject to negotiation.

The Nuclear Option

Each of those three bills addressed issues that are critical to major segments of Illinois’ energy industry. The Low Carbon Portfolio Standard bill backed by Exelon would have required the state’s electric utilities to purchase credits from low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear energy, to match 70% of the electricity used on the distribution system.

It was to be funded by an electric bill surcharge of about $2 a month on households served by Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois. That would have created more than $300 million of extra annual revenue that would have been distributed over five years to low-carbon energy sources. Under the provisions of the bill, most of the $300 million would have gone to Exelon’s six nuclear plants in Illinois.

The measure faced stiff opposition, particularly from critics who argued that all of the nuclear plants are not doing as poorly as Exelon says they are.

Four of Exelon’s six Illinois nuclear plants are fully profitable and a fifth is break-even, leaving Clinton as the sole loss making plant, says Dave Lundy, director of the Better Energy Solutions for Tomorrow (BEST) Coalition, an advocacy group formed to oppose the Exelon bill.

“Exelon is looking for a fleetwide fix for a plant specific problem,” Lundy told Utility Dive.

Exelon is still pressing its case, and power sector analysts have noted its fleet continues to be at risk of unprofitability in PJM markets, squeezed by low natural gas prices and high operating costs. But many stakeholders in the legislative process believe any bill that would raise rates for consumers has very little chance of becoming law while the state does not have a budget and basic social services are being curtailed.

“Exelon, ComEd and the Clean Jobs Coalition are in the midst of ongoing conversations to drive toward a comprehensive energy policy for the General Assembly to consider,” an Exelon spokesman said in an email in response to a request for comment. “Those conversations have been productive and have focused on common interests among the various groups toward an integrated low carbon energy future that fairly serves all customers, encourages economic growth and creates jobs.”

Fixing the RPS                                                                                                                

The Clean Jobs Bill (HB 2607) sought to amend what many critics said was the state’s “broken” renewable portfolio standard. It also would have expanded the RPS by calling for 35% of electric consumption to come from renewable resources by 2030, up from 25% by 2025. It also would have required the state’s utilities to cut demand by 20% by 2025.

Critically, the CJB also would have amended the Illinois Power Agency Act to address factors that have led to a steep decline in renewable energy development in Illinois.

After Illinois implemented its RPS program in 2008, wind power development in the state began to climb. Then, in 2010, Illinois passed the Municipal Aggregation Act, and the mechanisms behind the state’s RPS began to go haywire. The act prompted about 70% of Illinois’ 4.4 million residential customers to leave Ameren Illinois and ComEd and switch to competitive suppliers. It also exposed structural flaws in the RPS.

Under Illinois law utilities and energy suppliers can comply with the RPS either by purchasing renewable energy or by buying renewable energy certificates (RECs).

The alternative suppliers can purchase up to half of their renewable commitment by buying RECs. For the rest, they have to make compliance payments to the Illinois Power Agency (IPA), which can use the funds to buy RECs or renewable energy.

This arrangement has created two problems. Because customers can switch between alternative suppliers and utilities, the purchasing authority, the IPA, only signs short-term power purchase agreements, but bankers want to see long-term PPAs to back up the financing of renewable power projects.

“There is no way to build new capacity under a constantly shifting consumer base,” Kevin Borgia, manager, public policy and membership at the advocacy group Wind on the Wires, said.

The other problem is that the funds collected from consumers served by utilities and alternative energy suppliers are maintained in separate accounts, and the agency can’t spend funds from alternative suppliers unless it is simultaneously acquiring renewable energy for customers who still buy energy at the default rate from utilities.

That has created a growing pool of money – about $117 million currently – for renewable energy procurement that can’t be spent. And, with the state’s budget crisis, there are growing concerns that the funds could be diverted for other needs. Just last year the legislature borrowed $98 million from the fund.

The net effect is that wind power development in Illinois has come to a screeching halt. In 2009, $1.3 billion was invested in wind power and 632 MW of wind turbines were installed in the state. The projects in the pipeline had enough momentum to carry development into 2012 when $1.6 billion was invested and 823 MW of wind power was installed, but since 2013 there has been essentially zero investment and no new wind capacity installed in the state.

That means that Illinois, which once ranked among the top five states for renewable energy growth, is virtually certain to miss its 2016 RPS target of 11.5%, ELPC’s Wochos said.

To rectify the situation, the Clean Jobs Bill proposed amending the Illinois Power Agency Act so that the separate accounts could be joined, creating a larger pool of money that could be used to fund renewable development.

The bill also proposed changing the funding mechanism for the RPS. Under the current arrangement, the RPS is funded by a charge on the generation side of consumers’ bills. The CJB would have switched that to a fixed distribution service charge. That would also mean that the IPA would not take control of funds, only administer them, removing the risk that the funds could be appropriated by other branches of government.

The Future Deferred

A third proposed law, backed by Commonwealth Edison, was billed as the Future Energy Plan (HB 3328 and SB1879). In it, ComEd was seeking modification to Illinois Public Utilities Act to enable it to build six microgrids, up to 5,000 electric vehicle charging stations and provide voltage optimization via modified battery storage installations.

Critics say the real heart of the bill was a proposal to switch how ComEd charges residential customers for electricity service. On current bills, energy, capacity, transmission and distribution are all based on volumetric use. Under ComEd’s proposal, only energy charges would have been volumetric.

Currently residential customers pay about $0.11/kWh for usage, which includes energy, capacity, transmission and distribution charges, and residential solar customers can net meter the whole $0.11. Under ComEd’s proposal, residential customers’ energy charges would remain the same, $0.045/kWh, but all other charges would be based on peak usage.

For a homeowner, there is no guarantee that peak usage will coincide with solar production, so it is harder to project cost savings. In some cases, payback time for a solar installation could more than double. “That would make it harder for distributed resources to flourish,” Wochos said.

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EnergyWire: Hope for solar awakening in Chicago runs into utility backlash

Nearly a decade after the Illinois Legislature adopted a provision enabling development of community solar projects, not a single megawatt exists in areas served by investor-owned utilities.

For that reason, Illinois regulators spent more than two years taking a second look at the law. And last fall, they went ahead and approved a rule meant to boost solar development — including projects that could be shared by apartment dwellers and high-rise occupants in Chicago who don’t own a roof for solar panels.

But in Springfield, where lobbyists for the utilities roam the wide Capitol corridors, Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison Co. and St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. have pushed legislators to block the changes, arguing that the rule would create unfair subsidies borne by their customers. For their part, solar advocates warn that if the state’s major electric utilities get their way, it will mean a setback for the state’s nascent solar market.

“The utilities are aggressively trying to kill this,” said Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Chicago-based Environmental Policy & Law Center. “They continue to dig in their heels and oppose anything from getting started.”

The Illinois Commerce Commission’s rule adopted Nov. 12 has support not only from clean energy groups, but also from the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, the Citizens Utility Board, the city of Chicago and others.

On Tuesday, the rule goes before the 12-member Illinois Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR). The obscure, bipartisan committee is tasked with ensuring that administrative rules are consistent with legislative intent.

Illinois’ original net-metering law goes back to 2007. The agreements, which allow the owners of small solar systems to receive credits for the excess energy they produce and return to the grid, are essential to the economics of small, customer-owned solar projects. Credits can be carried for months and help offset charges when the systems don’t produce enough energy to meet demand.

The 2007 law included a provision for so-called meter aggregation to enable participation by renters and condo owners to take part in projects and tap the benefits of solar energy in the same way as individual homeowners with rooftop systems.

Community solar — a concept gaining popularity in other Midwestern states like Minnesota, where hundreds of megawatts are being developed — is viewed as an increasingly important option for people in Chicago, where hundreds of thousands of energy consumers don’t own their rooftops.

The concept could also be appealing to cities and counties across the state, many of which have taken advantage of a state law enabling municipalities to pool their electric load and shop for lower electricity prices. Some cities have chosen “green” power programs, but those programs frequently rely on the purchase of renewable energy credits from out-of-state wind farms.

Costs vs. benefits

Illinois initial net-metering law put a cap on total participation in net-metering programs at 1 percent of utility peak load. ComEd agreed to raise the cap to 5 percent of peak load in an effort to win support for a bill it pushed to overhaul how rates are set and paved the way for billions of dollars in spending for grid modernization and smart meters.

Among other benefits, ComEd said the grid investments would help enable more distributed generation.

Years later, however, fewer than 500 customers in ComEd’s northern Illinois service area — a group representing less than one-tenth of a percent of the utility’s peak load — have net-metering agreements.

Renewable energy supporters say among the reasons why solar has yet to take off in Illinois are the barriers prohibiting development of community solar projects.

In its unanimous Nov. 12 order, the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) agreed that changes to the net-metering rule were needed. The rule requires utilities to provide “virtual net metering” credits for customers who subscribe to a community solar project developed by other electric suppliers.

It would also require energy suppliers to consider net-metering applications individually and provide written explanations within 30 days if it rejects them.

In approving the change, the commission didn’t buy utility arguments about subsidies. “To essentially ignore these applications based upon a blanket policy of disallowing meter aggregation, without explanation, distorts the purpose of [the law] and is fundamentally unfair to customers,” ICC said.

It is unclear whether meter aggregation increases costs for utility customers, ICC said. What’s more, ICC said, it is unclear whether it “outweighs the potential benefits” of aggregation.

Commissioner Miguel del Valle went further. The pushback from ComEd runs counter to statements by the utility’s chief executive, Anne Pramaggiore, who said consumers should be provided expanded choices and more clean energy solutions.

“Yet ComEd’s position in this docket was to block this clean energy option and customer choice,” del Valle said, according to minutes of the meeting. “The company’s reasons for trying to reject the ability for anyone to participate in these programs are vague, unsupported by any evidence and seem to fundamentally misunderstand the benefits of distributed generation.”

Net metering on trial

A key issue raised by the utilities is who is the appropriate party to approve meter aggregation agreements.

In letters to JCAR, the utilities maintain that changes approved by ICC go too far in giving that power to competing electric suppliers. The utilities say they, the managers of the local delivery grid, should have the final word.

What’s more, ComEd argues that there’s an important distinction between a solar array mounted on the rooftop of a home and a community solar project that serves a multi-unit apartment building and still relies fully on the distribution grid.

“Consequently, there is no reasonable basis to offer such a customer a credit for ‘avoided’ delivery service use,” ComEd said in its letter to the legislative committee.

ComEd said in a statement to EnergyWire yesterday, “We are committed to integrating renewable energy sources, including responsible and equitable solar, into Illinois’ existing energy system.”

The Illinois Competitive Energy Association, which represents alternative electric suppliers, also raised concerns in a letter to JCAR. While the group supports meter aggregation, it has concerns about how the agreements are implemented and filed briefs with the commission supporting the utilities’ position.

Solar advocates, meanwhile, say the utilities’ argument ignores the benefits to the grid, and that net metering for community solar projects should work the same as it does for individual customers. Giving utilities broad discretion to veto projects goes against what lawmakers originally intended, they said.

“They are really trying to put net metering on trial,” Klein said. “That’s not to say we shouldn’t have a broader conversation about net metering. But that’s not the appropriate role for the commission. They’re not there to make new policy.”

The Illinois solar industry believes there’s ample pent-up demand among Illinois customers and solar developers that are waiting to pursue projects once they can take advantage of the state’s net-metering law.

For instance, the city and Cook County were selected by U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative last year for a $1.2 million grant to pursue community solar pilot projects and make community solar available to 30,000 people in the area within the next eight years.

“There are a lot of great pilot sites that are ready to go and move forward,” Klein said. “This new rule could be a vehicle for translating that interest and enthusiasm into some real projects.”

Chicago Tribune: Debate over future of Waukegan’s lakefront coal plant continues

The environmental-activist group Clean Power Lake County (CPLC) met with county and Waukegan city officials on Thursday seeking support for the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill and the city’s transition to renewable energy.

During a presentation by speakers from the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the CPLC touted results from a poll conducted in December 2015 by the New York-based research firm Global Strategy Group.

The survey findings reported 70 percent support locally for the retirement of the lakefront’s coal-fired power plant.

Of the polled supporters, 64 percent are white, 73 percent are Hispanic and 78 percent are black, said Andrew Baumann, vice president of Global Strategy Group.

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WaPo: Can coal companies afford to clean up coal country?

A worsening financial crisis for the nation’s biggest coal companies is sparking concerns that U.S. taxpayers could be stuck with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in cleanup costs across a landscape of shuttered mines stretching from Appalachia to the northern Plains.

Worries about huge liabilities associated with hundreds of polluted mine sites have mounted as Peabody Energy, the world’s largest publicly traded coal company, was forced to appeal to creditors for an extra 30 days to pay its debts. Two of the four other biggest U.S. coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the past six months.

Under a 1977 federal law, coal companies are required to clean up mining sites when they’re shut down. But the industry’s plummeting fortunes have raised questions about whether companies can fulfill their obligations to rehabilitate vast strip mines in Western states — many of which are on federally owned property — as well as mountaintop-removal mining sites in the East.

A number of smaller companies have defaulted or skimped on cleanup obligations, leaving behind abandoned strip mines and denuded mountains. Some are simply eyesores, unhealed scars on the landscape that can be seen for miles. Others are perpetual sources of water pollution, slowly leaking acidic and otherwise toxic wastes into streams and groundwater supplies.

Now coal giants are facing outcomes similar to those experienced by some of the smaller companies. Several are struggling to make payments on debts for ill-timed multibillion-dollar acquisitions of their rivals in recent years. On top of that, they have been financially squeezed by competition from cheap natural gas and declining U.S. and Chinese demand for coal.

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Bloomberg: Harvesting Sunshine More Lucrative Than Crops at Some U.S. Farms

For more than a century, Dawson Singletary’s family has grown tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a 530-acre farm amid the coastal flatlands of North Carolina. Now he’s making money from a different crop: solar panels.

Singletary has leased 34 acres of his Bladen County farm to Strata Solar LLC for a 7-megawatt array, part of a growing wave of solar deals that are transforming U.S. farmland and boosting income for farmers.

Farmland has become fertile territory for clean energy, as solar and wind developers in North America, Europe and Asia seek more flat, treeless expanses to build. That’s also been a boon for struggling U.S. family farms that must contend with floundering commodity prices.

“There is not a single crop that we could have grown on that land that would generate the income that we get from the solar farm,” said Singletary, 65.

The rise in solar comes as the value of crops in the Southeast — with the exception of tobacco — has dropped. Cotton prices have fallen 71 percent in the last five years. Soybeans are down 33 percent and peanuts have slipped 16 percent.

Solar companies, meanwhile, are paying top dollar, offering annual rents of $300 to $700 an acre, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. That’s more than triple the average rent for crop and pasture land in the state, which ranges from $27 to $102 an acre, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The economic incentives spurring solar will be discussed at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York starting April 4.

“Solar developers want to find the cheapest land near substations where they can connect,” said Brion Fitzpatrick, director of project development for Inman Solar Inc. of Atlanta. “That’s often farmland.”

Developers have installed solar panels on about 7,000 acres of North Carolina pasture and cropland since 2013, adding almost a gigawatt of generating capacity, according to the NC Sustainable Energy Association. Georgia has added 200 megawatts on fields and cleared forests over the same period, much of it farmland, according to the Southface Energy Institute of Atlanta.

The number of megawatts developers can generate per acre of farmland varies, based on weather patterns, size of the panels and contours of the land. On Singletary’s farm, Strata Solar installed 21,600 panels, each about 6 feet by 3 feet (1.8 meters by 914 centimeters). Combined, they can power as many as 5,000 local homes.

Long-Term Contracts

Farmers typically lease a portion of their land, signing 15- to 20-year contracts with developers who install the panels and sell the power to local utilities. In rare cases, farmers have leased their entire property to solar companies.

Singletary signed a 15-year lease in 2013, with two 10-year extension options, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based Strata sells the power to Duke Energy Corp. He declined to disclose financial terms.

Government incentives have played a key role in the spread of solar farms built on real farms. North Carolina granted developers tax credits equal to 35 percent of their projects’ costs though a program that expired at the end of 2015, helping make the state the third-biggest U.S. solar market. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission passed a bill in 2013 requiring the state’s largest utility, Southern Co.’s Georgia Power, to buy 525 megawatts of solar by 2016. Both policies sent companies scouring for open space to build.

Solar panels have buoyed tax bases in impoverished rural counties, said Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission. They also let farmers diversify their income with revenue that’s not subject to markets or unpredictable weather patterns.

‘Stable Income’

“Solar and wind farms have become a new stable income stream for farmers — and they don’t fluctuate with commodity prices,” said Andy Olsen, who promotes clean energy projects in rural areas for the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center.

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Press Release: Iowa Electric Co-op Sets Standard for Rural Solar

Contact: Katie Coleman, (312) 795-3710

Solar Shines for Rural Electric Co-Ops
Announcement Sets New Iowa Record for Solar from Rural Electric Co-ops

Iowa’s Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO) and its member cooperatives announced a major investment in solar energy today, unveiling plans to build 5.5 megawatts of new solar energy at six locations across its service territory. This will be Iowa’s largest solar project from a rural electric co-op, and it represents a 20% increase in Iowa’s total solar capacity (27 MW as of 2015, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association).

CIPCO is Iowa’s largest cooperative energy provider, serving nearly 300,000 residents and about 12,000 commercial/industrial accounts in its 300-mile territory stretching diagonally across Iowa and touching Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

The announced projects will be built by Azimuth Energy LLC of St. Louis, MO.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Iowa installed a total of 6 MW of solar energy in 2015.  That means this project alone is just shy of that annual total.

“CIPCO has taken a great step forward in providing their members access to solar energy,” said Josh Mandelbaum, Staff Attorney of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines. “CIPCO was clear that this effort is just the first phase of the rural electric cooperative’s long-term plan to incorporate solar as an additional pollution-free resource within its energy portfolio.”

Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said the CIPCO announcement sends a strong signal to rural electric cooperatives across the Midwest. “The enormous potential for solar energy in states like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin is just now beginning to be realized, and rural electric cooperatives, which have strong relationships with their members, have an opportunity to lead the way.”

To learn more about the CIPCO announcement visit: http://www.cipco.net/content/cipco-launches-iowas-largest-utility-based-solar-project

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