Chicago Tonight: How Healthy is Lake Michigan? A Checkup on the Great Lakes

How Healthy is Lake Michigan? A Checkup on the Great Lakes
By Nicole Cardos

When it comes to the health and maintenance of Lake Michigan, some environmentalists, property owners and even surfers have expressed their concerns.

Some of those concerns: toxins, the Foxconn deal in Kenosha and rising lake levels.

“Last year, the amount of water released from Lake Superior into lakes Michigan and Huron was the highest in 32 years,” the story states.

But that transfer of water is also due to the fact that Lake Superior is geographically higher than lakes Michigan and Huron, said Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. On top of that, Lake Michigan is self-contained.

“Huron has an outlet and water makes its way to Erie,” Learner said. “Michigan is a big bathtub.”


ELPC named the 2018 Regulatory Champion of the Year by Interstate Renewable Energy Council

 (San Francisco, CA) – During an awards ceremony at Intersolar North America, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) today honored its 2018 3iAward recipients, celebrating the nation’s best innovation, ingenuity and inspiration in renewable energy and energy efficiency. The winners are based on a prestigious annual national search.

“Today, we’re proud to recognize our 2018 IREC 3iAward recipients – among the nation’s most extraordinary people, projects and programs making a sustainable energy future a reality,” said IREC Board Chair Larry Shirley.

“Their work is setting new standards – creating solutions to today’s complex renewable energy and energy efficiency challenges – changing communities and our national energy landscape in the process,” added Ken Jurman, IREC board member and chair of the 3iAwards Committee.

“As we honor their achievements, IREC celebrates its 36th year,” Shirley said. “We are more proud than ever of our own history, leading transformative policies and practices that allow millions more Americans to benefit from clean renewable energy.”

Regulatory Champion of the Year
Environmental Law & Policy Center, Chicago IL

Where Midwest regulatory reform issues call for talented public interest environmental entrepreneurs, you’ll find the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Since 1993, ELPC has been improving the quality of life in Midwest communities, now with offices in nine states. Nowhere is ELPC’s handiwork more apparent than in the Illinois Future Energy Jobs bill and the Illinois Power Agency’s Long Term Renewable Resources Procurement Plan, both of which will help usher in new wind and solar projects. ELPC has played a pivotal role advancing community solar and interconnection reform in Illinois, Iowa and most recently Minnesota, where consumers and communities experienced major backlogs, delays and costs to connect community solar projects to the grid. Along with IREC and Fresh Energy, ELPC successfully petitioned the Minnesota Public Utility Commission for more transparent, nationally consistent interconnection standards. New common-sense interconnection standards now lay the foundation for more Midwesterners to benefit from clean energy for years to come.

Chicago Sun-Times: Trump Heading to Wisconsin for Groundbreaking of Controversial Foxconn Factory

June 27, 2018
Trump Heading to Wisconsin for Groundbreaking of Controversial Foxconn Factory
By Stefano Esposito

President Donald Trump is heading just north of the Illinois border Thursday to break ground for a massive Foxconn electronics factory that could bring 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin, but also faces opposition from environmental groups and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan is expected to file a lawsuit in the coming weeks challenging a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule change allowing the Taiwanese manufacturer to skirt air pollution standards for a plant planned for Racine County.


“We are concerned that air quality will get worse rather than better if the Foxconn facility is built as proposed and the EPA allows Wisconsin to weaken the clean air standards,” said Howard Learner, executive director of Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based environmental protection and economic development advocacy organization.



Chicago Tribune: Environmentalists Appeal Ruling on Illiana Toll Road

June 13. 2018
Environmentalists Appeal Ruling on Illiana Toll Road
By Susan DeMar Lafferty

Environmental groups filed a petition to ask the Illinois Appellate Court to reconsider its recent ruling against them regarding the proposed Illiana toll road.

According to the appeal this week, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Illinois Department of Transportation failed to comply with the language of the Illinois Regional Planning Act, which states that the CMAP Board “shall” provide its “prior” “approval” of a transportation project before final approval by the MPO.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, who is representing Openlands and the Sierra Club, cited several other court cases to support their claim that the word “shall” is mandatory, not discretionary, as the court ruled.

The Illiana, a proposed 47-mile toll road connecting I-55 in Wilmington to I-65 near Lowell, Indiana, has been a controversial road project that was shelved by Gov. Bruce Rauner when he took office in January, 2015.

Environmentalists have opposed the toll road project, saying it would harm the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie since the proposed route skirted its southern border, and calling it a “financial boondoggle” for the state.

In 2013 and 2014, IDOT sought to amend the “GO TO 2040” long range transportation plan to include the Illiana Tollway project and it had been debated by both CMAP and MPO at that time, with CMAP twice opposed to including the amendment in its 2040 plan and MPO supporting it.

Environmentalists filed the initial lawsuit in 2014, challenging the approval process for including the Illiana in the “GO TO 2040” plan.

According to the recent court petition, federal law requires that transportation projects must be approved by the MPO before they become eligible for federal funding.

CMAP was created by the Illinois General Assembly in the Illinois Regional Planning Act to ensure that transportation planning for the Chicago area is carried out in conjunction with comprehensive planning for land use, economic development, environmental sustainability and quality-of-life issues, the petition stated.

The act specifically states that the CMAP board “shall” first provide its “prior” “approval” of transportation projects and plans before the final approval by the MPO Policy Committee, according to the court document.

In the petition for a rehearing, Learner cited several cases in which the court ruled that “shall” means mandatory, not discretionary.

The Illinois Supreme Court is now hearing Oswald verse Beard, and that case should also define the meaning of “shall,” according to Learner.

“The Illinois General Assembly clearly intended to create a nondiscretionary, mandatory duty” when it wrote the Regional Planning Act, the petition stated.

On the other hand, the word “may” is used numerous times throughout the act, making the contrast “clear and easily discerned,” the document stated.

The appellate court “misconstrued the relationship” between CMAP Board and MPO and the nature of the GO TO 2040 Plan and the Illiana Tollway, it said.

“The entire purpose of GO TO 2040 as a regional comprehensive plan would be negated” if the MPO were able to push through projects “inconsistent with the other planning purposes of GO TO 2040,” the court document stated.

In the petition, Learner asked for a rehearing, or as an alternative, hold this request for a rehearing until after the state supreme court issues a ruling in Oswald verse Beard.


Energy News Network: How School Buses Could Help Run Your Air Conditioning

June 12, 2018
How School Buses Could Help Run Your Air Conditioning on Hot Summer Days
By Kevin Stark

Schools are letting out, and that means many yellow buses are headed to storage.

But what if instead of sitting idle for much of the summer, school buses had a seasonal job helping to balance the electric grid?

The state of Illinois is about to test that potential with what environmental groups say could be the start of a transformational investment for both air quality and the electric grid.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to spend $10.8 million of its Volkswagen settlement money on electric school buses, a larger carve out than any other state.

The plan has been cheered by environmental advocates who say the money will benefit the state’s power grid and public health — especially for kids exposed to exhaust from diesel buses — even as critics in the natural gas industry say it would be more cost effective to invest in propane buses.

“The electric school bus component of (Illinois EPA’s) proposal is the element promising the most positive transformation,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, speaking at a public comment session hosted by state environmental official in Chicago last month.

She said the money could provide a shot in the arm for electric school buses in Illinois and be enough to bring the buses to several school districts.

As Illinois officials debate how to prepare the grid to transform with electric vehicles, electric school buses present a unique opportunity to strengthen the state’s grid. School buses run on a fixed schedule — children are dropped off at school in the morning and picked up in the afternoon. The rest of the day, buses can be plugged into the grid and serve as batteries.

Aloysius Makalinao, a climate and clean energy fellow for the Natural Resource Defense Council, said that while all electric vehicles offer benefits as grid resources, the case for the buses is unique.

“They can be used as a grid service in times of peaking, especially in the summer when school is out and everyone turns on their air conditioning,” he said.

There are also broad health benefits for children in switching away from diesel buses, which spew nasty exhaust that can accumulate onboard and around nearby schools. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it is a health risk for children, and studies detailing the danger posed by school bus exhaust date back almost 20 years.

Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health policy for Chicago’s Respiratory Health Association, said the group is happy the agency is dedicating money for electric school buses.

“Children whose lungs are still growing process proportionately more air through their lungs than adults. They are more vulnerable to lung damage and will benefit from this dedicated share of money,” he said.

Michelle Hoppe Villegas attended a session at the James Thompson Center Auditorium in Chicago. She described herself as an education advocate and a resident of the Mid-North District of Chicago, where she lives across the street from Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. She said the best way to make an impact with the money is to transition school buses from diesel to electric.

“I can tell you exactly what it is like to be impacted by diesel school buses,” she said. “The cost of living across the street of the school is exposing my kids to diesel buses idling — it is continuous, long-term exposure.”

In 2016, Volkswagen was ordered to pay a total of $14.7 billion after the company admitted that 11 million of its vehicles were equipped with software programmed to cheat emissions tests. A portion of that money — $108.6 million — was allocated to be spent by the state of Illinois, and the state EPA is the agency charged with crafting a spending plan.

In testimony before the Senate Environment and Conservation Committee of the Illinois General Assembly, Alec Messina, director of the Illinois EPA, explained the decision to invest millions in electric school buses came from a push from environmentalists.

He also said that electric school buses start at $300,000 a piece, which would mean the $10.8 million could buy about three dozen buses, excluding the charging stations, and save the state 2.2 tons of NOx emissions annually.

Last fall, a school district in Minnesota was the first in the Midwest to start using an electric school bus, which cost $325,000 but provided $12,000 in annual savings.

Advocates for propane and natural gas argue that the settlement money should be spent on more cost-effective propane buses. Tony Perkins, chief operating officer of the Propane Education and Research Council, has said that propane powered engines offer the best opportunity to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions at the lowest cost. “The [propane] engine provides the best NOx emissions reduction per dollar spent.”

Makalinao acknowledged that the upfront costs of electric school buses are higher than propane but “in the long term, electric school buses — especially with their grid resource capability — is better overall.”

At least one study by researchers at the University of Delaware found that a fleet of electric school buses with 70-kilowatt on-board chargers could save a suburban school district upwards of $38 million over a typical lifecycle of 14 years.

The Illinois EPA has received at least 1,600 comments and 300 survey responses to its draft plan, and it hosted three public sessions to allow further comment from advocates and residents.

Messina, an appointee of Gov. Bruce Rauner, has said he wants to submit a final plan to the settlement trustee this summer and start funding projects as soon as August, which critics say is rushed in time for the fall election.


Midwest Energy News: Illinois bills for solar on farmland await governor’s signature

by Kari Lyderson

A trio of bills awaiting the governor’s signature in Illinois is the latest development in preparing the state for an expected massive influx of solar energy development sparked by the state’s 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act.

The bills seek to standardize and codify requirements and expectations for large-scale ground-mounted solar installations being built on farmland and other rural parcels by solar developers leasing space from landowners.

A great increase in such developments is expected, as the energy law calls for the construction of 3,000 MW of solar and offers incentives in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Credits.

“There’s always concern when you have a new industry come in,” said Kevin Semlow, state legislation director for the Illinois Farm Bureau, which played a lead role in shaping two of the bills. “Our members just wanted that clarity so there’s a starting place when companies come out talking about signing leases. We’ve already seen that there have been numerous companies throughout the state asking for leases.”

Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Centerwhich helped shape all three bills, said the diverse array of groups participating in the discussions show the widespread support for solar in the state.

“When there were just a couple [large solar] projects here and there, they could be treated as one-offs,” Learner said “So the trio of solar energy bills passed in Illinois by a strong bipartisan majority reflects the growing progress of solar energy development…There’s now sufficient development growing and moving forward that it makes sense to flesh out the policy framework.”


Three Big Wins for Solar Energy in Illinois

Three Big Wins for Solar Energy in Illinois

A trio of solar energy legislation in Illinois reflects the growing progress of solar development in Illinois and ELPC’s leadership work with diverse solar energy businesses, farm groups, conservation groups and municipalities to build out the policy framework.  Kudos to ELPC’s experienced Illinois legislative team led by Al Grosboll, David McEllis and Jonathan Feipel.

ELPC worked closely with the solar industry to successfully advance three important bills to support and encourage solar development.  All three bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly and now await the Governor’s signature.  Each bill, in its own unique way, is important to successful solar energy development in Illinois.

  • SB 3214 (Solar Pollinators)ELPC drafted this legislation after reviewing similar efforts in Minnesota and Maryland.  SB 3214 will lead to increased pollinator-friendly habitat on solar energy project sites in Illinois.  ELPC worked closely with the solar industry and conservation advocates to get buy-in; we also negotiated with the Illinois Farm Bureau to avoid confusion or opposition.  This legislation provides that if a solar company intends to present its project as “pollinator friendly,” then the solar company must meet a pollinator standard.  The University of Illinois Department of Entomology will prepare a scorecard to define a pollinator-friendly project.
  • SB 486 (Solar Project Uniform Assessments)Illinois does not have a statewide uniform standard for assessing the value of solar energy projects.  Currently, 102 county assessors determine solar project values, and each can reach a different result, creating uncertainty within the solar industry.  Solar developers, like other businesses, desire stability and certainty.  ELPC supported the solar industry’s efforts to negotiate a uniform standard to be used by the state’s county assessors.  This is similar to the legislative work ten years ago to establish a uniform statewide standard for assessing wind power projects.
  • SB 2591 (Solar Agricultural Impact Mitigation Act) The solar industry negotiated with the Illinois Farm Bureau to develop mitigation legislation to protect agricultural interests.  A comparable “AIM Act” is in place for wind power projects, and the Farm Bureau sought similar requirements for solar energy projects.  The initial draft legislation was problematic, but it was amended and is acceptable to the solar industry and to ELPC.  This bill is a good compromise that sets reasonable standards for solar energy projects.

PRESS RELEASE: Illinois Pollinator-Friendly Solar Energy Bill Passes, Adds Momentum to Solar Energy Development

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                       

Illinois Pollinator-Friendly Solar Energy Bill Passes, Adds Momentum to Solar Energy Development

Legislation is good for habitats, good for the environment, good for communities

SPRINGFIELD, IL – The Illinois General Assembly passed a pollinator friendly solar energy bill late Monday that gives an extra boost to the vigorous solar energy development already underway in the state and offers benefits to multiple stakeholders. Senate Bill 3214 was sponsored by Senator Jason Barickman (R – Bloomington) and Representative Tom Bennett (R – Gibson City).

The legislation will encourage solar developers to create habitats for bees, monarchs and other pollinators within their solar sites. These projects will create job opportunities for seed growers and landscape companies. Additionally, these plants will help reduce soil erosion and minimize fertilizer runoff into nearby waterways.

This bill is an initiative of the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) with support from conservation interests and solar energy businesses. The bill follows similar legislation passed in Minnesota and Maryland with coordination from the Center for Pollinators and Energy, a national catalyst and clearinghouse for state-based initiatives and best practices, located at Minnesota-based Fresh Energy.

“ELPC is working to set the stage for robust growth of solar energy in Illinois,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “SB 3214 is a win-win that promotes solar energy development and encourages smart conservation practices that make sense for farmers and our environment.”

“This legislation will help the environment by creating more habitats for bees and butterflies,” said Rep. Bennett. ”It is good for agriculture and growers and should increase the number of pollinating insects and birds in Illinois.”

Sen. Barickman said, “SB 3214 will encourage solar site owners to convert otherwise wasted space into natural habitats. In addition to increasing habitat acres, this legislation is good for farmers and other growers and for local economic growth.”

The legislation creates a scorecard to set minimum standards that solar developers must fulfill if they want to call their project “pollinator-friendly.” The scorecard will be designed jointly by University of Illinois Extension at Urbana-Champaign and Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources.

“The scorecard will provide a fair, flexible and science-based method for solar developers who choose to promote their projects as beneficial to pollinators,” said Adam Dolezal, PhD., an Assistant Professor of Entomology at University of Illinois who will be involved in the scorecard’s design.

The bill also ensures that solar arrays will be managed to prevent propagation of noxious and invasive weed species.

Agricultural sector stakeholders were encouraged by the legislation.

“Most farmers understand the preservation and health of pollinators, and their habitat, is important to agriculture,” said James Young, a farmer and property manager in Douglas County who signed an agreement with U.S. Solar to have a pollinator friendly solar array on his land. “The concept of co-locating pollinator habitat, and a solar facility on the same parcel, is a win-win and an excellent use of the available space.”

“It is greatly encouraging to hear about private sector investments from the solar industry that can help bees,” said Tim May, President of the American Beekeeping Federation and CEO of Sunny Hill Apiaries, a leading Chicagoland honey producer and packer. “Populations of honey bees and all pollinators are in crisis and urgently need flowering landscapes that provide food and nutrition. Pollinator-friendly plants under and around ground-mounted solar can play an important role in helping protect Illinois pollinators for the next generation of farmers.”

Read the bill here. SB 3214 passed the Illinois House 114-0 and now goes to Governor Bruce Rauner for final approval.


Chicago Tribune: EPA Deal Marks Dramatic Shift Away From Dirty Coal Power in Chicago Area

May 24, 2018
EPA Deal Marks Dramatic Shift Away From Dirty Coal Power in Chicago Area
By Michael Hawthorne

Despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring back the days when coal power dominated the nation, his administration quietly settled a lawsuit this month that highlights how the lung-damaging, climate-changing source of electricity has largely disappeared from the Chicago area.

Six coal-fired power plants at issue in the nearly decade-old case have been shut down, cleaned up or converted to burn natural gas — dramatically improving air quality without affecting residential electric bills or the stability of the regional power grid.

All that remained was a federal lawsuit accusing former plant owners of evading clean air laws for years. The case lingered in federal courts until the current operator, New Jersey-based NRG, tentatively agreed this year to pay fines of $500,000 each to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Illinois.

The legal settlement, made official on May 10, adds the weight of a federal court order to ensure the shuttered coal plants stay closed and pollution-control equipment installed at the others is kept in place.

As the Trump administration rolls back environmental regulations and attempts to resurrect the coal industry, the NRG settlement is a reminder of economic, legal and political forces that began shifting the country away from the fossil fuel well before the president and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, took office.

It also is a remarkable victory for a small group of Will County watchdogs and their attorney from a nonprofit legal aid clinic, who kept the case alive after regional and national environmental organizations backed out as part of a separate settlement.

“People thought, or maybe they hoped, we would just go away,” said Ellen Meeks Rendulich, one of the organizers of a grass-roots group dubbed Citizens Against Ruining the Environment. “We didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted, but what’s coming out of those smokestacks now is nothing compared to what it used to be like.”

Normally a settlement of this magnitude would be trumpeted in news releases from the EPA and the Department of Justice. In this case, neither agency announced the resolution of an enforcement action initiated by the Obama administration, even though changes outlined in the government’s agreement with NRG have already had significant effects.

Emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — pollution that forms smog, soot and acid rain — dropped by about 90 percent at the power plants between 2009 and 2017, according to a Tribune review of federal records. The amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by the fleet declined by about 75 percent during the period — equivalent to taking 5.5 million cars off the roads.

When combined with other coal-plant shutdowns in the state, the overhaul put Illinois on a fast track to meet targets in the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, an Obama initiative to reduce climate change pollution that the Trump administration and coal companies are attempting to overturn.

The settlement with NRG “is really a capstone to a long fight for environmental justice,” said Keith Harley, the Chicago Legal Clinic attorney who represented the Will County group. Power companies warned that closing coal-fired plants would disrupt the smooth delivery of electricity, Harley said, but none of their ominous predictions came true.

“The lights are still on,” he said. “We still have a glut of electricity.”

Built by ComEd between the early 1900s and the 1960s, the coal plants were among dozens nationwide that started generating electricity before Congress passed the 1970 Clean Air Act. For years the plants were exempted from the toughest provisions of the law because utilities vowed they wouldn’t be running much longer.

A company called Midwest Generation bought the ComEd plants in 1999 and kept them running as a growing number of scientific studies found that coal plant pollution triggers asthma attacks, causes heart disease and shaves years off of lives. Unlike newer power plants, the ComEd/Midwest Generation facilities were not equipped with advanced pollution controls that sharply reduce lung-damaging soot and other harmful air pollution.

In 2010, a year after the EPA and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Midwest Generation, the National Research Council, the government’s main scientific advisory body, estimated that pollution from one of the company’s coal plants in Romeoville had cost surrounding areas $187 million a year in hidden health costs.


WSIU Radio: Ameren Illinois Announces Money-Saving Program For Customers

May 17, 2018
Ameren Illinois Announces Money-Saving Program For Customers
By Kevin Boucher

A major power supplier is working to save customers 10 to 15 percent on their electric bill.  Ameren Illinois held a news conference on Thursday, May 17th, 2018 in Marion to unveil a new initiative designed to put 300–thousand new smart thermostats in Illinois homes over the next decade.  According to the press release, current Ameren Illinois customers can buy a qualified smart thermostat and then go online to apply for a 100 dollar rebate. Ameren’s John Carol says the new devices can easily replace an existing thermostat.  He adds these new smart thermostats work by recording user settings and using that information to heat and cool the home when the home is not occupied.

Kelly Hendrickson, Communications Executive with Ameren, has been using one for several months and says it adds convenience to people with busy schedules.  She says she can be at a little league baseball game  and use her smartphone app to turn the air down so when the family returns home  the house will be comfortable.

Rob Kelter, Senior Attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center says the new thermostats will help consumers to stop cooling and heating empty homes.


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