Renewable Energy

Inside Climate News: Can Illinois Handle a 2000% Jump in Solar Capacity? We’re About to Find Out

Can Illinois handle a 2000% jump in solar capacity? We’re about to find out

October 30, 2018

By Dan Gearino

Illinois is about to learn what it takes to manage a nearly 20-fold increase in solar power.

A new state law requires utilities to dramatically increase their purchases of renewable energy, with a goal of getting at least 25 percent of the state’s electricity from clean energy by 2025, a large part of it from solar.

For a state starting with very little solar power now—less than 100 megawatts—becoming a Midwest solar leader will mean building an industry infrastructure almost from scratch, and doing it fast.

To ramp up by the deadline, the state needs two things: workers and projects.

People involved in the effort describe an atmosphere of almost chaotic progress. State officials and clean energy advocates want Illinois to be a model for how to expand clean energy in a way that provides targeted help to the local communities.

“The stakes are high,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a Chicago-based consumer advocacy group involved in the process. “I think we have a good plan and we have reasons to be optimistic in general, but there’s no question we’ll face some roadblocks and things we didn’t think of.”

Hundreds of people have enrolled in job-training programs across the state, organized by nonprofit groups as part of the law. Developers are submitting proposals for new solar projects. And some of the established developers are starting to complain that the process for selecting projects—designed to give a wide number of developers a chance—is flawed.

Catapulting Illinois to a Midwest Solar Leader

Illinois ranks 35th in the country in solar power right now, with 98 megawatts, less than 1 percent of its electricity generation. Development has been slow here in part because the state lacks the supportive policies from the government and utilities that have boosted solar elsewhere.

Five years from now, analysts expect to see nearly 2,000 megawatts of solar power in Illinois and the state in 17th place nationally, according to Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association. No other state has Illinois’ combination of starting from so low and being on track to rise so high during that period.

“It’s going to catapult Illinois to the forefront of the solar market, and put our state on the path to the renewable future we need to limit the worst impacts of climate change,” said MeLena Hessel, policy advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

This boom in renewable energy stems from the state’s Future Energy Jobs Act, a 2016 law that provided subsidies for two nuclear power plants and also set the target to get 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2025, among other requirements. The renewable energy provisions were part of a legislative compromise to get enough votes to approve the nuclear power subsidies. (The law was upheld by a federal court in September.)

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News-Press Now: Energy Efficiency, Spending Headed for Big Drop

September, 23 2018
Energy Efficiency, Spending Headed for Big Drop
by Erin Murphy

DES MOINES — Proposed energy efficiency plans offered by Iowa utility companies would be a shell of what they had been in recent years.

The new and scaled-back energy efficiency plans are a result of legislation passed this spring and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds. The new law caps the percentage of a customer’s utility bill that can be put toward energy efficiency programs.

Iowa’s utility companies this summer detailed to the state’s regulatory board new 5-year energy efficiency plans starting with 2019. Some of the proposals show a dramatic reduction in energy efficiency program spending and energy savings.

The utility companies say the new plans will result in lower bills for customers, which they can use to invest in energy efficiency if and in any way they choose, and that advancements in technology have rendered some programs unnecessary.

Critics say it is just as they warned during debate over the legislation: that it would gut the state’s energy efficiency programs, and that customers will pay more in the long run.

The state board must act on the proposals by March 31.

“It’s a huge cut and we’re really disappointed,” said Kerri Johannsen, energy program director with the Iowa Environmental Council, a nonpartisan coalition of organizations dedicated to preserving Iowa’s environment.

“The Iowa Environmental Council has a vision of 100 percent renewable energy for the state of Iowa, and we think that that goal is entirely achievable. But we need a wide variety of resources to get there,” Johannsen said. “We just think (the new law and new energy efficiency plans are) a deviation from the path that Iowa has been on toward a really clean energy grid.”

MidAmerican Energy, the Des Moines-based utility company that serves more than 750,000 customers in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and South Dakota, in 2018 spent nearly $80 million on electric energy efficiency programs and nearly $31 million on gas energy efficiency programs.

Under their new proposal, MidAmerican in 2019 would spend less than $43 million on electric energy efficiency programs, a cut nearly in half, and just more than $6 million on gas energy efficiency programs, a drop by more than 85 percent.

MidAmerican’s energy savings would drop as well: their gas efficiency plan would save 80 percent less than 2017 and their electricity plan will save nearly 50 percent less, according to calculations made by the Iowa Environmental Council. Spokespeople for the utilities did not dispute the figures.

“Utilities have had really robust energy efficiency programs for many years in Iowa. Since 2009 alone the programs have saved the equivalent of building two-and-a-half baseload power plants,” Johannsen said. “The customers pay for the energy efficiency programs, but they’re paying less (overall). They haven’t had to pay for that generation.”

Johannsen said on the new trajectory under the utilities’ reduced energy efficiency plans, Iowans could have to pay more in the long run because less energy efficiency will lead to a need for more energy production to meet customers’ needs.

“Load growth in Iowa has been pretty flat for a number of years. Electric demand just hasn’t grown because of our efficiency programs,” Johannsen said. “So what we’re going to see is, without doing efficiency we’re going to see load growth and utilities will be forced to invest in new (power) generation.”

Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the reduced programs also could threaten the jobs of more than 20,000 Iowans working in energy efficiency-related jobs across the state.

“In the past, Iowa has been a clean energy leader with strong energy efficiency plans, but this is a major step backward,” Mandelbaum said in a statement.

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WOSU: Bill Would Let Companies Opt Out Of Weaker Renewable Energy Standards

June 26, 2018
Bill Would Let Companies Opt Out Of Weaker Renewable Energy Standards
By Andy Chow

A bill that would overhaul the way Ohio mandates the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency is likely to get a vote in the Senate this week.

The bill would take the amount of renewable energy the state requires to be on the grid, and cut it by a third.

The measure gives more companies the ability to opt out of energy efficiency standards.

Robert Kelter with the Environmental Law and Policy Center says companies that opt out will end up spending more money on their electric bills which will have a ripple effect on all Ohioans.

“It would allow energy customers who really don’t have the knowledge or the expertise about energy efficiency to make the efficiency investments that they should be making,” Kelter said.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce defends the opt out provision arguing that it allows companies to make energy decisions based on marketplace demands.

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Michigan Radio: Environmentalists ask MPSC to Reconsider DTE’s Billion-Dollar Natural Gas Plant

June 21, 2018
Environmentalists ask MPSC to Reconsider DTE’s Billion-Dollar Natural Gas Plant
By Tracy Samilton

Environmental groups haven’t given up trying to stop DTE Energy from building a $1 billion natural gas plant.

The groups are asking the Michigan Public Service Commission to reconsider the permit it approved for the plant.

Margrethe Kearney is with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. She says renewable energy becomes cheaper and more reliable every year.

“And it just doesn’t make sense for Michigan to say we’re going to build a huge natural gas plant, which means of course we won’t be building any of that other stuff,” she says.

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Energywire: Ohio Senate Looks for Compromise in Energy Stalemate

June 20, 2018
Ohio Senate looks for compromise in energy stalemate 
By Jeffrey Tomich

As its Great Lakes neighbors Illinois and Michigan firm up plans to add thousands of megawatts of new wind and solar energy in the coming years, a stalemate over clean energy policy drags on in the Buckeye State.

The Ohio Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will try to move the debate forward this afternoon as it holds another hearing on a substitute version of a bill that passed the House mostly along party lines in March 2017.

Unlike H.B. 114, which would have ended renewable energy mandates, the substitute bill lowers renewable energy targets. It would also make other key changes, including easing wind turbine setback requirements put in place in 2014.

The proposal to relax wind setback requirements has support from legislators in both parties, as well as wind developers like EDP Renewables and Apex Clean Energy.

Some clean energy advocates, too, have signaled that they’re willing to live with lower clean energy targets to help jump-start wind development and provide certainty in the market.

But sharp divisions remain on certain provisions in the substitute bill, especially around energy efficiency, and it’s less than clear whether the bill will appear before the Legislature before it adjourns next Wednesday.

Environmental and consumer groups will testify in opposition to the H.B. 114 substitute bill.

Among the key sticking points for environmental advocates is an opt-out provision for so-called mercantile customers, or commercial and industrial customers that use at least 700,000 kilowatt-hours of energy a year. Another provision would allow utilities to carry over energy savings from one year to the next for the purpose of earning financial incentives.

“If we can fix some of the critical elements of the bill, it will be a compromise we can live with,” said Robert Kelter, an attorney for the Chicago-based Environmental Policy & Law Center, a Midwestern advocacy group.

“We’re willing to make trade-offs in return for certainty,” he said. “But those trade-offs can’t include killing energy efficiency.”

Currently, only the largest industrial energy users are allowed to opt out of utility efficiency programs — a policy compromise agreed to during an earlier debate over Ohio’s clean energy standards in 2013.

Trish Demeter, vice president for energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said the provision predictably led to an outcry from business customers that narrowly missed qualifying for the opt-out.

“Opt-outs are an inherently unfair policy,” Demeter said. “Where do you draw the line?”

 

Opt-Out Option

Under the proposal in the Senate substitute bill, a wide range of commercial customers would be allowed to opt out of paying into efficiency and peak demand reduction programs, including smaller businesses that still rely on utilities to help them identify energy savings opportunities, she said.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce singled out the efficiency opt-out provision as a reason it supports the bill. The business group also favors changes to the wind setback rule.

“Energy efficiency helps businesses compete best when free enterprise drives investment decisions rather than government mandates,” Zack Frymier, the chamber’s director of energy and environmental policy, said last month in testimony.

The Senate substitute would lower Ohio’s renewable energy standard to 8.5 percent of sales from 12.5 percent by 2027. The bill would similarly reduce a 0.5 percent carve-out for solar energy.

The substitute version of H.B. 114 would lower energy savings benchmarks of 2 percent starting in 2021 to 1.5 percent and reduce cumulative savings to 17.2 percent from the 22.2 percent in the existing law.

Ohio’s renewable and efficiency standards have been a constant source of debate since they were adopted a decade ago.

S.B. 310 in 2014, a measure that froze the standards for two years, was approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Kasich (R). But the governor vetoed a subsequent bill, H.B. 554, in 2016 that would have extended the freeze.

A Kasich spokesperson didn’t respond to questions seeking the governor’s stance on the Senate substitute bill.

Clean energy advocates, meanwhile, say Ohio has other policies in place to support renewable energy development, including net metering for rooftop solar and a competitive energy market that lets businesses enter power purchase agreements for wind and solar energy.

And utilities so far are having no trouble meeting or exceeding renewable targets under the existing law.

Meanwhile, both of Michigan’s large investor-owned utilities this month committed to getting at least 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030. And one of those utilities, Consumers Energy, filed plans with Michigan regulators last week to far exceed that goal and get 37 percent of its energy from renewables by the end of next decade (Energywire, June 14).

Said Demeter: “It’s just kind of silly that they’re proposing to roll it back. It’s just kind of bad optics.”

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

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Michigan Radio, NPR: What Will Replace Coal?

Michigan Radio, NPR
What Will Replace Coal?
By Tracy Samilton

The President of the United States says coal is coming back, but in reality coal is going away.

The fight is over what will replace it.

Even utilities are dumping coal. In Michigan, DTE Energy wants to shut down three coal-burning power plants and replace them with a billion dollar natural gas plant.

But environmentalists think there’s a better way.

First of all, there’s no such thing as clean coal.

Even brand new coal plants dump a lot of carbon into the air. Carbon emissions are very bad for the planet, and it’s a fact that renewable energy sources like solar and wind emit zero carbon.

DTE Energy’s Irene Dimitry doesn’t disagree.

“We support renewables and want to make sure that people understand that we do,” Dimitry says. “We just need to do it in a paced, thoughtful, plan-ful way.”

Dimitry says DTE is closing three of its coal-burning plants in five years, but she says it’s not feasible for renewables to take their place. That’s where a plan for a new 1,100 megawatt natural gas plant comes in.

“Because the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine, and because storage is not yet commercial viable at a large scale, we really need a plant that can operate 24-7 and insure reliability for our customers,” Dimitry says.

Right now, natural gas is cheap and plentiful, and it produces about 60% fewer carbon emissions than coal. Still, DTE can’t just build the plant; it needs permission from the Michigan Public Service Commission.

To do that, it has to analyze the alternatives and show the plant is the best choice. So, a fancy computer program ran 50 different simulations. Dimitry says all concluded the plant is necessary.

Not so fast, says Margrethe Kearney of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Kearney says if a fancy computer program is told to maximize renewables, and maximize programs that reduce demand for electricity, the two combined beat out the natural gas plant.

“Everything that our experts ran shows that, yes, it’s feasible, absolutely, it’s cost effective,” Kearney says.

Kearney thinks DTE is stuck in an old mind set, one that viewed natural gas as a necessary bridge to replace coal until renewables are ready for prime time.

“Renewables are a legitimate available resource, and by not recognizing that, we’re keeping Michigan in the dark ages,” says Kearney.

She adds that, at the very least, DTE could build a smaller plant or defer building one to give alternatives time to develop.

But she thinks there’s a disincentive for DTE Energy to do that, because the utility doesn’t pay for the plant; rather, its customers do.

“It’s not just that the customers pay for it,” Kearney says. “Part of what the customers are paying is a return on that investment, so DTE is going to make around 10% in profit on that investment, DTE shareholders.”

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Curbed: ELPC’s Andy Olsen Emphasizes the Importance of Solar Energy for Rural America’s Development

The Rural Renewable Power Renaissance
Solar and wind have made great strides across the country. Will Trump’s budget halt progress toward a greener heartland?
April 4, 2017
By Patrick Sisson

Abita Springs, Louisiana, a bedroom community of 2,365 about an hour north of New Orleans, is the picture of a small Southern town. The fifth-largest city in St. Tammany Parish, it’s best known for the local microbrewery Abita Brewing Company. Late last month, it also made news as the latest municipality in the country to commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

“I hope we’re setting an example for other small communities across the country,” says Mayor Greg Lemons, who made it a point to lead by example and add solar panels to his boat on Lake Pontchartrain. “I want people to say, ‘Look at Abita Springs, a small town with a $3 million budget. They’re doing something.’”

So far, the Abita Springs effort is in its preliminary stage. The town is already replacing regular bulbs with LED lights, but is also examining how to add solar panels to all municipal buildings and, eventually, include electric vehicle charging stations. It’s just a plan and a promise, but the gesture is also a symbol of the growth of renewable energy in the U.S., especially in rural areas of the country.

”I’m a Republican, but I’m not a Republican that says ‘business at any cost,’” says Lemons. “We need to be concerned about our environment and invest in our environment.”

Increasingly, Lemons isn’t a outlier. As the new administration begins to enact its energy policy, including support for the coal industry, the conventional wisdom says that support for fossil fuels is a play by Trump to appeal to his base of rural voters. But like any cross-section of the country, rural America isn’t easily stereotyped. Renewable power has made significant strides across this part of the country as wind and solar take root in farm country, as well as more sparsely populated parts of the United States.

It’s not just that renewable power is providing more jobs than the coal industry—roughly 300,000 U.S. workers are employed by wind and solar, compared to the 65,971 who work in coal mining—it’s also having an outsized impact on rural communities. The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 Campaign, which features municipalities that have, like Abita Springs, committed to a renewable energy future, includes rural towns such as Greensburg, Kansas.

According to Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, significant advances have been made in rural wind and solar power in the last decade, and the growth of these energy sources is helping rural America.

“There is a lot of talk about the gulf between urban and rural Americans,” he says. “There’s a lot less of a gulf than we think. There are a lot of rural people interested in seeing these renewable energy programs work, who are very passionate about natural resource conservation.”

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(IL) Journal State-Register: ELPC’s Andy Olsen says solar energy, wind power are economically competitive to coal

No Quick Fixes for Struggling Illinois Coal Industry
March 28, 2017
By Tim Landis

City Water, Light and Power of Springfield is one of only three power plants in Illinois that still burn Illinois coal.

Even if an executive order signed Tuesday by President Donald Trump withstands anticipated legal challenges, little is expected to change in the short term for an industry that has watched production and jobs steadily decline as a result of stricter clean-air rules, fuel switching by utilities and competition from cheaper natural gas. Illinois coal production fell for the second year in a row in 2016, to 43.3 million tons.

Industry employment in Illinois last year of 3,600 was the lowest since 2010 and far below the 10,000 employed the year the federal Clean Air Act took effect in 1990. Arch Coal Co. and Peabody Energy Corp., both based in St. Louis, filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Arch, owner of the Viper Mine near Elkhart, completed bankruptcy reorganization in October.

“We very much welcome this, but it’s not going to bring coal back to where it was,” Illinois Coal Association president Phil Gonet said Tuesday. “At least it stops the bleeding.”

Gonet said Obama-era climate rules have been the biggest factor in the decline of Illinois coal, though natural gas competition has hurt, too.

“Most of it has been power plants shutting down, but the price of natural gas has had an effect,” said Gonet. “We can compete with natural gas, if we’re given a level playing field.”

More Coal, Fewer Miners

Even if coal sales improve, mining techniques require ever fewer miners for increased production. The 3,600 miners required to produce 43.3 million tons of Illinois coal in 2016 was approximately the same number required to produce 33.4 million tons in 2010, according to coal association figures.

Federal statistics indicate that U.S. production of 739 million tons last year was the lowest in four decades. Employment fell by 60,000 from 2011 to 2016, to approximately 77,000.

The Illinois Sierra Club pointed out Tuesday that the president’s action was taken on the same day the Solar Foundation released an annual employment census showing the solar industry employs more state workers than coal. The 3,700 solar jobs in Illinois last year was up 7 percent from 2015, according to the report.

“Illinois is on course to become the national leader in wind power, solar energy and conservation programs, and we should not let President Trump’s crusade against science, and our legal and moral obligation to act on climate change, determine our future,” Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “States that continue with efforts to limit carbon pollution will now be more likely to attract the jobs, economic investment and cleaner air offered by the steadily growing clean energy economy.”

CWLP, the Prairie State Energy Campus in southwest Illinois and a Southern Illinois Power Cooperative plant near Marion are the only remaining in-state customers for Illinois coal.

Many Alternatives

Traditionally coal-reliant rural electric cooperatives expect nationwide solar-energy capacity at the end of 2017 to be five times the capacity of 2012, according to a report released earlier this month by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. A group of Midwest cooperatives recently launched ruralsolarstories.org to highlight the shift toward renewable power.

“The marketplace has changed to the point that there are many alternatives in natural gas, solar, wind and energy efficiency, which are economically competitive,” said Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a renewable-energy advocacy group based in Chicago.

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ELPC’s Rob Kelter Critical Of Renewed Attacks On Clean Energy In Ohio

GOP State Legislators Trying Again to Weaken Renewable-Energy Standards
March 7, 2017
By Dan Gearino

Republican state legislators are trying again to weaken clean-energy standards, hoping to pass a measure similar to one that Gov. John Kasich vetoed in December.

The 73-page bill would change state rules that require electricity utilities to invest in renewable energy and help customers to reduce energy use.

House Bill 114, introduced Tuesday, has more than 50 co-sponsors, including all of the Republican leadership, in a chamber with 99 members.

“We just wanted to have a strong showing of support,” said Rep. Louis Blessing, R-Cincinnati, the lead sponsor.

Meanwhile, environmentalists, clean-energy businesses and others say that they are ready to fight this proposal just as they did previous ones.

The question for legislators is whether there is enough support to override another veto. Republicans added to their House and Senate majorities in the November election, but it is not clear whether leaders can win the votes of two-thirds of each chamber, the minimum needed to override a veto by Kasich, a fellow Republican.

“I know a lot of people will interpret (the bill) as being hostile to the governor … but that’s not the intent,” Blessing said.

Emmalee Kalmbach, a Kasich spokeswoman, had this statement:

“The governor has been clear regarding the need to work with the General Assembly to craft a bill that supports a diverse mix of reliable, low-cost energy sources while preserving the gains we have made in the state’s economy,” she said.

Among the proposed changes in the bill:

  • Utilities would no longer face penalties for not meeting annual benchmarks for purchases of renewable energy. Instead, the companies would have optional goals.
  • The rules for energy savings would go through several changes, reducing the amount required while also expanding the definition of what types of savings can be counted.
  • Many businesses would be able to opt out of electricity-bill charges that pay for utilities’ clean-energy programs.

Blessing said utilities have indicated to him that they would continue clean-energy programs even without mandates and would like the flexibility of no longer facing penalties for not meeting the standards.

“The mandates at this point are just unnecessary,” he said.

Indeed, Columbus-based American Electric Power has a plan to dramatically expand its spending on wind and solar power.

“We are still reviewing the legislation, but we think there needs to be a broader policy discussion about Ohio’s energy future,” said Scott Blake, an AEP spokesman. “We’ve made significant investments to comply with the renewable and energy efficiency standards that are in place and have run very successful programs for our customers.”

Opponents of the bill say there is no good reason to tinker with a law that has been good for the state.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Rob Kelter, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Ohio’s energy policy is in a good place right now, and we should leave it alone.”

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