Wednesday, August 20, 2014
A closely watched battle over utility policy in Wisconsin could determine the fate of solar development throughout the region, advocates say.
The dispute is over three major rate cases recently filed by We Energies,Madison Gas & Electric andWisconsin Public Service Corporation. The three utilities cover much of the eastern half of the state as well as its largest cities.
If the state Public Service Commission (PSC) approves the cases, solar experts say there will be a massive chill over solar development in these utilities’ service territories. And they expect other utilities in Wisconsin and beyond will file similar requests.
All three cases would significantly restructure the way residential and business customers are charged for electricity, so that all customers pay a higher fixed amount each month while the variable charges based on electricity use are reduced.
This creates an inherent disincentive to reduce energy use – whether through installing solar panels or increasing energy efficiency. RENEW Wisconsin program and policy director Michael Vickerman described it as a “reverse Robin Hood” move that shifts the burden of paying for electricity from large energy consumers to small consumers.
Monday, August 18, 2014
On the shores of Lake Erie, the immediate sense of crisis has passed. Following the toxic algae that bloomed in the lake earlier this month, forcing residents of Toledo, Ohio to rely on bottled water for their drinking supply, authorities now offer assurances that the tap water is safe.
But a gnawing fear remains in communities along the lake. The algal bloom has intensified concerns about its apparent source — pollution washing off surrounding fields in the form of fertilizer and manure. Not without reason, people worry that more outbreaks could emerge at any time.
“I’m still drinking bottled water,” said Jessica Morelli, a nursing mother who skipped showers the weekend of the tap water shutdown, worrying she’d get a skin infection that she could potentially pass on to her 8-month-old daughter. “People are still kind of leery. If it could make you so sick one day, how could it be normal so quickly again?”
Around the nation, similar worries have become a part of everyday life as communities grapple with growing volumes of pollution spilling into waterways from livestock and farming operations. Though talk of industrial pollution may summon images of belching smokestacks, the agricultural expanses producing meat, dairy, grains and vegetables are today so enormous that they can generate quantities of water pollution rivaling cities. Yet the rules governing this pollution still generally treat farming as something other than an industry.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate agricultural runoff, leaving such effluent to be governed by local agencies whose philosophies and standards vary from state to state. State rules and enforcement are often lax, environmental policy experts assert, in part because pushback from agricultural lobbying interests, but also because of limited funding and staffing at regulatory agencies.
“The states to date have had a very ineffective response on what to do about this,” Brad Klein, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Centerin Chicago, told International Business Times. “We’re hoping that situations like Toledo provide a wake-up call that this could happen anywhere, and that it’s happening with increasing frequency.”
Monday, August 18, 2014
CHICAGO – NRG Energy Inc. announced Thursday its plans to close one Illinois coal-fired generating unit in Romeoville and convert a power facility in Joliet to natural gas, a move the company said would reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also eliminate 250 jobs during the next two years.
Environmental groups called it an important step toward greener energy, but one that doesn’t go far enough to reduce the heat-trapping pollutants blamed for global warming.
The New Jersey-based energy company said it will close Will County Unit 3, one of its two coal-fired units in Romeoville, next April. The company plans to convert its Joliet facility to natural gas by mid-2016. The company also said it would install emissions control technology at its plants in Pekin and Waukegan.
The company took over the four Illinois facilities in April when it acquired in a $2.65 billion deal Edison Mission Energy, which had filed for bankruptcy.
The changes represent a $567 million investment for NRG that will reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions by at least 16 million tons annually by 2020, the company said. The reductions would equal more than half of Illinois’ carbon dioxide reduction goal called for by President Barack Obama’s proposed carbon pollution standards, the company said.
NRG plans to offer voluntary severance packages to workers, company spokesman Dave Gaier said. “These aren’t necessarily layoffs,” Gaier said.
Environmental groups gave the announcement a cautious nod, but called on the company to do more to phase out coal and invest in alternative energy.
“This is a step in the transition to much a cleaner energy economy in Illinois,” said Howard Learner, executive director of Environmental Law and Policy Center. Investment in wind and solar power will create jobs, Learner said.
The Sierra Club released a statement calling attention to NRG’s continued coal burning in Waukegan, Pekin and the second unit in Romeoville.
“For a company that describes itself as a trailblazing power producer, we were hoping and expecting a lot more vision, innovation and forward-thinking in NRG’s approach to its Illinois operations,” said Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
Almost 41 percent of Illinois’ power came from coal-fired power plants in 2012, according to federal statistics.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Two years ago, Dorian Breuer waited six months to get permits to install solar panels on his home on the south side of Chicago.
At that same time, Breuer was in the heat of the battle to close Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, as a leader of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.
Today the coal plants are closed and Breuer, along with Jack Ailey, another leader in the campaign, run one of the four companies chosen to implement the city’s Solar Chicago program offering discounted solar installations through a bulk buy.
The program is administered by the organization Vote Solar, in partnership with theEnvironmental Law and Policy Center and World Wildlife Fund. It is meant to jumpstart residential rooftop solar energy in Chicago, and if projections go as planned it will mean a raft of new orders for Ailey Solar, founded by Breuer and Ailey two years ago.
Meanwhile, the long wait for a solar permit that Breuer endured has been cut to one day thanks to the city’s Solar Express program launched in October. Between these and other initiatives and developments, Chicago officials and clean energy boosters say things are looking bright for solar in Chicago.
Monday, August 18, 2014
For Immediate Release
August 8, 2014
Contact: David Jakubiak, ELPC
Bismarck, ND – North Dakota’s oil-fueled economic boom should not stifle development of a diverse energy mix, mask the losses of wasteful resource flaring, or place North Dakota’s unique special places at risk, the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s Mindi Schmitz told state, federal and business leaders Friday at the state’s Quadrennial Energy Review.
“This boom is primarily focused on Bakken oil, but there are other energy development opportunities here to diversify the state’s energy mix and broaden the economic expansion,” said Schmitz, North Dakota governmental relations specialist with ELPC.
The Review held at Bismarck State College was attended by a who’s who of federal, state and business leaders from the energy and transportation sector. Gov. Jack Dalrymple was joined U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer. Others on hand included Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council; Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF; and Robert Steede, director of Enbridge North Dakota.
Schmitz noted that North Dakota has the sixth most wind resource in the nation, yet ranks 11th in wind energy production. “There is a substantial and costly gap between the potential represented in the size of the resource and the actual represented by on-the-ground wind development.”
Additionally, she called for continued efforts to end the wasteful venting and flaring of North Dakota’s natural gas resource. While steps have been made, she said, about 1/3rd of the natural gas extracted in the state is still flared. As the number of wells grow, the amount of gas rises as well.
“In May 2014 alone, operators flared nearly 10 billion cubic feet of gas. That’s enough to heat around 100,000 average homes for a year,” she said.
Flaring, Schmitz said, is taking money out of the pockets of landowners and is costing the local, state and federal government millions in lost tax revenue. “In May 2013, gas flaring cost the state about $3.6 million in lost tax revenue per day.”
Flaring also pollutes, she said, producing huge amounts of harmful, smog-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds; greenhouse gas pollution, including carbon dioxide and methane.
Of particular concern, Schmitz argued are special places on North Dakota that are irreplaceable.
“Flames from flaring obscure what were once pristine, starry night skies and pollution from flaring harms the park’s plants and animals,” she said. “We should not be fracking and flaring within view of Teddy Roosevelt National Park or any other special place.”
Schmitz offered 5 recommendations to reduce risks posed by oil developemt:
- Adopt standards to minimize flaring from oil/mixed oil-and-gas wells;
- Promulgate requirements to minimize methane leakage from wells, pipes and associated gas production and transport equipment;
- Pass more stringent rules for pipelines, railcars and trucks to minimize oil/wastewater spills, and strictly enforce those rules;
- Require that, where possible, fracking wastewater be recycled, and fund research to increase wastewater recycling; and
- Bolster protections for special places under federal control, including Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the Dakota Grasslands, and other sites with historical, archaeological and natural resource assets.
“We can have responsible energy development with immense benefits, and provide greater protection for North Dakota air, water and special places,” she said.
Monday, August 11, 2014
Standing deep in prairie brightly colored by yellow cornflower, sweet black-eyed Susans and Canada tick trefoil, Gary Sullivan pulled up a small mystery, the bluejoint leafhopper.
‘‘No one knows how it turned up here,’’ said Sullivan, senior restoration biologist for The Wetlands Initiative, one group helping with restorations at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
The appearance of the bluejoint leafhopper is one of hundreds of big and small mysteries popping up at the 20,000-acre U.S. Forest Service site near Wilmington.
A bigger mystery will come in a few months when bison are restored at Midewin in an area that should be open to the public by spring.
So there was no mystery why a collection of heavy hitters in conservation gathered Monday to give an update in the legal battles against the proposed Illiana Tollway.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
We’re numbers guys. Climate science is all about observations and data. They reveal the past and help us plan the future. In meteorology, observations and data are the backbone of forecasts and statistics are the vertebrae of narratives. We’re also fans of baseball, which offers us lots of opportunities to dig into numbers. In baseball, numbers can make goats and legends. In climate and weather, they show we’re in a whole new ballgame.
Our planet is on a record-shattering streak. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now over 400 parts per million. This is the first time in more than 800,000 years that there has been this much carbon in the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, carbon dioxide concentrations were around 280 ppm. That’s a jump of more than 43 percent, and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are likely to get much higher.
Carbon isn’t the only thing rising. Globally, June was the hottest month on record. It broke a temperature record set just a month earlier. The hot streak prompted Derek Arndt, climate monitoring chief at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to declare: “We are living in the steroid era of the climate system.”
A rainbow arcs over Minneapolis after a Home Run Derby rain delay in All‐Star activities last month. (Brian Mark Peterson, McClatchy‐Tribune) Between the 1980s and the 2000s, baseball saw the average season-leading total for home runs jump to almost 50 home runs from 36. Even casual observers knew something was up.
Congress and Major League Baseball took action. But when it comes to carbon dioxide, the stakes are far higher than peanuts and Cracker Jack. Earth’s atmosphere is a dynamic system affected by things we can and can’t see. Disturbances to this complex system, such as those caused by increased amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, can cause dramatic shifts in local weather patterns. Climate is the long-term statistics of weather but it is not weather itself. However, changes in climatic conditions have a real impact on the weather we experience.
For decades, data analyses and climate modeling indicated that increasing levels of carbon dioxide would change weather patterns in the Midwest. Some changes, like longer growing seasons, offer short-term benefits. Other impacts, like more intense heat waves, more downpours and more allergy-causing pollen, reveal that we have more to lose than gain from climate change.
Climate change is here. With the intense heat and drought of 2012, our state and region experienced one of its hottest, driest years on record. We experienced significant agricultural losses, and Lake Michigan and Mississippi River water levels fell to historic lows.
In recent years, the intensity of our rainfall has been impressive. Four of Chicago’s 10 wettest summers have occurred since 2001. This summer is already in sixth place and inches upward with every downpour.
When baseball got out of whack, congressional hearings led to modifications to America’s national pastime.
However, it has become apparent that Congress is not inclined to act on stemming the pollution that leads to the extreme weather-causing climate change that we’re experiencing.
Almost 40 percent of that pollution comes from power plants that spew large amounts of pollutants into the air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft rule that would require Illinois to cut carbon pollution by 33 percent by 2030. Now we need strong state leadership to cut carbon pollution by boosting renewable energy resources and cutting waste by increasing energy efficiency.
Several steps are already underway. From 2005 through 2011, Illinois cut its carbon pollution by 2 percent. In the next three years, it’s estimated that energy efficiency will cut enough electricity demand to power 450,000 Illinois homes for a year. And we’re growing our economy too. More than 60,000 Illinoisans work in energy-efficiency related jobs and more than 20,000 are employed in renewable energy fields.
Last month, Major League Baseball held its annual All-Star festivities in Minnesota and a spectacular image of rainbows was captured after a Home Run Derby rain delay. Climate change is not a game, but if it were, the box score would be clear. We need a rally.
Thanks to data, we know exactly what’s coming. Let’s not the take our eyes off the ball.
Tom Skilling, chief meteorologist at WGN-TV, is a member of the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association.
Donald J. Wuebbles is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
NRG Energy Inc. announced Thursday a pollution reduction plan for its four Illinois coal-fired generating plants that pushed the state more than halfway toward meeting new proposed federal limits for reducing carbon dioxide pollution.
NRG Energy officials told the Tribune on Wednesday that it will cease coal operations at one generating unit in Romeoville (the Will County plant), convert its Joliet plant to burn natural gas and upgrade its two other coal plants in Pekin and Waukegan to comply with environmental regulations.
The jobs of about 250 people will be eliminated, the company said.
The largest job reductions are expected in Romeoville and Joliet. Coal plants converted to natural gas typically need less than half the staffing levels because a large part of coal plant operations consists of handling, transporting and cleaning up coal.
NRG said its environmental actions will remove 16 million tons of carbon dioxide from the air yearly by 2020 when compared with 2013. The figure is equivalent to what 4 million cars would produce yearly. The company added that its efforts also would slash lung-damaging sulfur dioxide emissions by 90 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 65 percent from 2013 levels.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
The drinking-water crisis in one of Ohio’s largest cities is drawing attention to a new requirement for farmers in the state: a license to fertilize.
The certification is the biggest step Ohio has taken to control nutrient runoff from farms, seen as a key cause of algae blooms in Lake Erie. Those blooms are blamed for a two-day “do-not-drink” advisory in Toledo and its suburbs that ended Monday.
Regulators say the new licenses that become mandatory in 2017 will require farmers to take a one-day class. They say it will help cut fertilizer use by showing farmers how they can apply less nutrients without negatively affecting their crop yields. The law also allows regulators to revoke such certifications if problems are found on a farm.
State officials and farm leaders point to the certification as a sign of the growing steps Ohio is taking to tackle the blooms, with such efforts expected to increase in the years ahead. But environmentalists argue much more aggressive steps are needed to prevent repeat occurrences of what happened in Toledo.
“This isn’t a matter of farmers fine-tuning what they’re doing,” said Howard Learner, president of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest advocacy group. “This requires a substantial rethinking of how nitrogen and phosphorus is used in the agriculture sector.”
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
From atop a small ridge, the prairie and open space extend as far as the eyes can see.
The showy yellow partridge pea plants and round-headed bush clovers dot the landscape, with a few remaining bunkers from the land’s previous life as the Joliet Arsenal.
The activity of the World War II arsenal has given way to the much more peaceful Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. And at 18 years of age, Midewin still is in its infancy as a restored Illinois prairie.
Even standing in the midst of it, it is hard to grasp the magnitude of this 19,000-acre project.
That’s what officials from Openlands, The Wetlands Initiative, Chicago Wilderness and the Environmental Law and Policy Center tried to do Monday as they conducted a behind-the-scenes media tour led by Midewin’s senior ecologist, Gary Sullivan.