Illinois

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.

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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.

LISTEN HERE

Press Release: ELPC Collaborates with Ameren Illinois on Commitment to put 300,000 Smart Thermostats in Customer Homes & Businesses

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Ameren Illinois Announces Commitment to put 300,000 Smart Thermostats in Customer Homes and Businesses

Collaboration with leading brands, environmental advocates  Rebates and incentives provided through Ameren Illinois energy efficiency programs 

East St. Louis, IL (May 16, 2018) – Building on its commitment to help customers become more energy efficient, Ameren Illinois announced an initiative to put 300,000 smart thermostats in customer homes and businesses. Ameren Illinois Chairman and President Richard J. Mark was joined by Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) Chairman Brien Sheahan, as well as representatives from the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) and leading manufacturers ecobee and Nest in announcing the plan Wednesday afternoon in East St. Louis.

Ameren Illinois customers can purchase a qualified ENERGY STAR® smart thermostat and apply online to receive a $100 discount in the mail.  An instant smart thermostat rebate and an online marketplace will be available in the next few weeks to make the process even easier for customers to save.  Rebates are being provided to customers through energy efficiency program funding approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission under the landmark Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA).

The initiative also seeks to get smart thermostats into the residences of income-eligible customers. Those qualified can now have one of the devices installed for free as part of the Ameren Illinois Energy Efficiency Program.

“When the Future Energy Jobs Act was passed, we made a bold commitment to ensure that benefits of energy efficiency would be available to all of our customers, especially those with limited financial means,” said Mark. “With today’s announcement, we’re living up to that promise. Putting 300,000 smart thermostats in customer homes and businesses is an ambitious goal, but we’re confident that with the collaboration of our partners we can make that vision a reality.”

Easy to install and operate, use of a smart thermostat can save between 10 and 15 percent on heating and cooling costs. The devices enable customers to adjust settings on the go via smartphone apps. Additionally, many smart thermostats models can sense when the homeowner and/or residents are away from home and automatically modify the temperature, further reducing energy usage.

“Smart thermostats will empower Ameren Illinois residential and business customers to better manage their energy usage, and give them more control over their monthly bill,” said ICC Chairman Brien J. Sheahan.  “On behalf of Governor Bruce Rauner and the ICC, we applaud Ameren Illinois for continuing the state’s more than 100-year tradition of leadership on energy issues by embracing new innovation and technology, like smart thermostats, that help our state reach its energy efficiency goals.”

“Smart thermostats will help consumers to stop cooling and heating empty homes,” said Rob Kelter, Senior Attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “With this initiative, Ameren Illinois is stepping up to help its customers save money and reduce pollution at the same time.”

The initiative is bolstered by the active involvement from leading smart thermostat brands, including Nest and ecobee.  Since 2011, Nest thermostats around the world have helped customers save more than 22 billion kilowatt-hours of energy and their work with Ameren is in service of this mission to bring energy efficiency to more homes across the U.S.

ecobee introduced the world’s first smart wi-fi thermostat to help homeowners save money, conserve energy and live more comfortably.  “We applaud the commitment that Ameren Illinois is making here today and are thrilled to offer the Ameren Illinois customers a better way to save on their energy bill and reduce their carbon footprint,” said Stuart Lombard, president and CEO of ecobee.

Ameren Illinois’ energy efficiency program is recognized as one of the best in the country – rated #12 by ACEEE, an independent energy efficiency organization. Over the past nine years, Ameren Illinois has helped its customers reduce their energy usage by nearly 12 million megawatt-hours, saving them approximately $781 million. This improved energy efficiency has enabled Ameren Illinois customers to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8.3 million metric tons – the equivalent of taking nearly 1.8 million cars off the road for a year.

To learn more about the program or apply for smart thermostat rebates, please visit www.AmerenIllinoisSavings.com. Income-eligible customers can also find the home energy audit application on that website or simply call 866.838.6918.

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Rauner finally moves on Asian carp—and gets some praise

by Greg Hinz

It’s been a while since the last round of scary headlines about voracious Asian carp potentially making their way to Lake Michigan and gobbling up everything but your wading toddler. But environmentalists, fishermen and those who use the Great Lakes for commerce sure haven’t forgotten.

Now, there’s a new development that ought to help keep both the fish and headlines at bay.

Gov. Bruce Rauner this weekend announced that the state is willing to take the lead as the non-federal sponsor on a program with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to install new locks at Brandon Road, on the Illinois River near Joliet.

Specifically, Rauner released a copy of a letter he has sent to other Great Lakes governors, which says Illinois will serve as sponsor and which expresses Rauner’s “hope that we can come together as a regional coalition of Great Lakes states to protect our lakes, our economy, and our ecosystems.”

The letter and an accompanying statement did not explain if earlier Illinois concerns have been resolved, including who would pay $100 million in capital and $10 million in annual operating costs. But according to Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, chairman of the Illinois River Coordinating Council, “If the corps can address our economic, transportation, environmental, and cost concerns in partnership with Illinois—we have no problem working with other states to enhance our efforts at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam.”

The action is being hailed as good news by Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“Gov. Rauner is recognizing the reality that Illinois voters care deeply about protecting the Great Lakes, and that it’s time to step up with serious actions to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan where they would create economic and ecological havoc,” Learner said in an email. “Investing in protections at Brandon Road to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is more sensible and cost-effective than trying later to treat the disease.”

Apparently at least one area of disagreement remains: whether to widen the locks to roughly 150 feet in width, twice their current size. Barge industry officials favor that, but Learner’s group opposes it on the grounds that wider locks give carp more room to maneuver up stream.

Read full article here. 

 

Chicago Sun-Times: Rauner, Lawmakers in Showdown Over How and How Fast to Spend VW Settlement

 

April 30, 2018
Rauner, Lawmakers in Showdown Over How and How Fast to Spend VW Settlement
By Brett Chase 

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s top environmental official is pressing to spend an anti-pollution windfall in the coming months, but critics say the rushed timetable is dictated not by sound policy but by the fall election.

Alec Messina, the Rauner-appointed director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, wants to speed the handout of $109 million in legal settlement money — part of a $2.9 billion multi-state settlement with Volkswagen over an emissions-cheating scandal involving the German automaker’s diesel vehicles.

Messina says he wants to submit a final plan within a month to a national trustee and, as soon as August, start funding projects aimed at reducing air pollution in Illinois.

That timing could give Rauner good news to announce close to the November election — and help him in his tough re-election battle with Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker.

Democratic lawmakers are trying to slow down and possibly alter Messina’s plans for distributing the money — plans that environmental advocates complain appear skewed toward helping big diesel-engine manufacturers while largely ignoring efforts to reduce the type of vehicle emissions central to the VW scandal.

The Illinois Senate passed a bill Thursday to require six public hearings on how to spend the money — and that a task force be appointed to decide on a plan.

Last week, Messina called it “frustrating” to be accused of playing politics with the settlement and argued the Senate legislation, if implemented, would delay distribution by up to a year.

“This is an important opportunity to make strides toward improvement in air quality,” he said.

Bill sponsor state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, and others criticized Messina for holding private meetings with business leaders, including some from construction equipment manufacturing giant Caterpillar, while shutting out public input. Other states getting VW settlement cash, including Indiana and Ohio, have held public meetings on how to spend the money.

A number of health, environmental and clean energy groups have asked the state EPA to put the brakes on its high-speed spending plan and make the process more transparent to taxpayers.

“Clearly, they’re in a hurry to spend the money,” said Al Grosboll, legislative director for the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center. “We certainly appreciate the administration wants to begin moving money out the door but it’s really important that we get this right.”

Others are more pointed about the politics.

“They realize this is a fall election opportunity,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, a coalition of dozens of advocacy organizations.

Messina’s EPA has put together a draft plan that must be blessed by a national trustee overseeing the VW settlement to make sure the state is spending the money to fight air pollution and not for unrelated purposes.

The draft has led to a philosophical fight with environmental and health groups that argue too much of the money is going toward trains, boats and other so-called off-road projects, and not on cutting air pollution from cars.

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The Times: Bill Passes IL Senate to Help Monarchs, Honeybees

April 27, 2018
Bill Passes Senate to Help Monarchs, Honeybees
By The Times Staff

The Illinois Senate passed legislation that will help stop the loss of monarch butterfly and honeybee habitats.

Senate Bill 3214, filed by State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, creates standards that will allow the Department of Natural Resources to score how friendly a solar site is to pollinators.

The standards will focus on the use of native perennial vegetation and habitat beneficial to pollinators, game birds and songbirds, as well as reducing storm water runoff and erosion at the solar site. The scoring will allow sites that meet the requirements to designate themselves as “pollinator friendly.”

“Increasing the amount of habitat for honeybees and butterflies is good for the environment, for farmers and other growers, and for economic growth,” Barickman said in a press statement. “We have an opportunity to add substantial habitat acres by creating guidelines that will assist interested solar site owners and operators to convert otherwise wasted space into natural habitat.”

A single 10-acre solar site offers more total habitat than 5,000 6-by-12 feet backyard pollinator gardens. As solar generation increases in the state, the total amount of potential pollinator habitat will soon become quite large.

“This is a completely voluntary program. There are no new zoning requirements or mandates placed on anyone,” Barickman said. “We have solar sites that are interested in and have asked for this program. This is a situation where we can offer a boost to our businesses while helping improve our environment. That’s a true win-win.”

The legislation is an initiative of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Proponents believe the new program could also provide a boost to economic development, as site owners purchase seeds, plants and hire workers to develop pollinator habitat, according to a press release issued by Barickman.

Senate Bill 3214 passed the Senate unanimously and is now headed to the Illinois House of Representatives for consideration.

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WGN Radio: ELPC’s Susan Mudd Talks VW Settlement Fund & IL EPA on Earth Day Show

Amy Guth’s Earth Day Extravaganza 

April 22, 2018

In honor of Earth Day, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate Susan Mudd was invited on-air to discuss how ELPC and other  environmental and public health organizations are calling on Illinois EPA to use $108 million in Volkswagen settlement funds for electric vehicles and EV charging infrastucture. Not everyone — including IEPA — agrees that’s the best use of those dollars.

LISTEN HERE begining at minute 35:00.

Chicago Tribune: Solar Farms Set to Sprout Across Illinois

Solar Farms Set to Sprout Across Illinois

by Robert Channick

A new crop is ready to sprout on Illinois farms, with gleaming solar panels supplanting rows of corn and soybeans.

Drawn by new state requirements and incentives, renewable energy developers are staking out turf on the rural fringes of the Chicago area and beyond, looking to build dozens of solar farms to feed the electric grids of Commonwealth Edison and other utilities.

It’s a potential sea change in the Illinois energy landscape that proponents say is long overdue and will provide customers with a green power alternative. But the rise of solar power also has generated opposition from some residents over everything from changing landscapes to toxicity concerns.

The fledgling solar energy boom is driven by the Future Energy Jobs Act, which took effect last year and requires Illinois utilities to get 25 percent of their retail power from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025.

Solar power, which has been growing in other parts of the U.S., has yet to make much of a dent in Illinois. The state is looking to change that with a call to add 2,800 megawatts of new solar energy over the next few years — enough to power about 450,000 homes, experts say.

Earlier this month, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved an update to the state’s plan for utilities to buy renewable energy credits. The plan includes a blueprint that specifies production by new large-scale solar farms, community solar gardens and rooftop solar installations to meet the state’s renewable energy goals.

“This is an inflection point for Illinois where we’re going to start seeing rapid renewable energy growth,” said Brad Klein, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “It’s a huge ramp-up of the amount of solar in the state. It really put Illinois on the map as a leader.”

Just outside the Chicago metro area, Kankakee County is becoming a hotbed of solar development thanks to its relatively inexpensive farmland and ready access to the ComEd grid. There are 25 proposed solar farms in the pipeline, said Delbert Skimerhorn, the county’s planning department manager.

“It seems like we’re going to become the renewable energy capital of Illinois,” Skimerhorn said.

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WBEZ Chicago: MeLena Hessel Discusses Renewable Energy in Illinois

April 6, 2018
Illinois Steps Up As A Leader On Renewable Energy
By Daniel Tucker

The Illinois Commerce Commission signed off on a long term plan this week that clean energy advocates say will increase the installation and use of renewables like solar energy and wind power across the state. The new changes mean Illinois is on track to have renewables account for 25 percent of its overall energy by 2025. That would put Illinois among the top states for renewable energy. Morning Shift discusses what this means for businesses and the average consumer with MeLena Hessel, Clean Energy and Sustainable Business Policy Advocate at Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center.

GUESTS:

MeLena Hessel, Clean Energy and Sustainable Business Policy Advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center

LISTEN HERE

Chronicle Media: Environmental Groups Say IEPA Plan Leaves State, Residents Behind

April 10, 2018
Environmental Groups: IEPA Plan Leaves State, Residents Behind
By Kevin Beese

If you won a lottery jackpot, it is likely that creating electric car charging stations would not be high on your list of priorities.

The same can be said for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which has come into a lottery-type windfall as part of the Volkswagen lawsuit settlement.

While the national settlement allows for as much as 15 percent of a state’s allocated funds to go to electric vehicle infrastructure, the IEPA has opted to go a different route with the $108 million the state is getting from the Clean Air Act civil settlement, much to the chagrin of state-wide environmental groups.

Rebecca Judd, clean energy advocate for the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter, noted that Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio are all putting the maximum 15 percent of settlement funds into electric vehicle infrastructure.

“Sierra Club urges Illinois not to get left behind investing in a clean transportation future,” Judd said at a state Senate Environment and Conservation Committee hearing on the settlement funds last week. “The maximum 15 percent of the VW funds should be dedicated to light-duty EV infrastructure, along with additional pollution reduction through electrification of the transportation and public transit sector.

“Illinois EPA must ensure the VW funds are used to protect vulnerable populations and environmental justice communities from the impacts of air pollution by investing in transit agencies and a rapid transition to clean, zero-emission technology.”

The IEPA has proposed that 65 percent of the VW funds go to off-road efforts to reduce air pollution, such as new engines for Metra trains.

The $108 million windfall stems from Volkswagen AG and certain of its North American subsidiaries entering into a multi-billion settlement with the federal government for violations of the Clean Air Act. VW publicly admitted to installing “defeat devices” in certain diesel vehicles causing the vehicles to operate differently during emission testing compared to normal operation, circumventing federal vehicle emission standards.

In its plan for settlement funds, the IEPA proposes:

    • 20 percent of money ($21.7 million) going to on-road projects, such as replacing and repowering trucks and buses with diesel, alternative fuel or electric engines.
    • 10 percent ($10.8 million) for all-electric school buses, replacing diesel buses.
    • 65 percent ($70.6 million) to off-road projects, such as locomotives, ferries and tugs.
    • 5 percent ($5.4 million) for IEPA administrative expenses.

 

Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the IEPA plan does not commit a single dollar to electric vehicle infrastructure. She said the mitigation plan puts short-term gains at the forefront.

“IEPA does not appear to have considered long-term benefits,” Mudd said.

She said by focusing so much money on off-road projects, the IEPA is missing the “immense on-road needs of urban transit riders in Chicago, Metro East and Downstate Illinois.”

“Many of our most vulnerable residents live in the state’s ozone non-attainment areas — Chicago and Metro East,” Mudd said. “IEPA has ignored, predominantly, their transit needs.”

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