Illinois Public Media News
A utility watchdog group believes it can gather enough opposition to turn Ameren's request for a rate hike into a rate cut.
The Citizens Utility Board is urging the public to submit comments against the utility's call for a 90-million dollar increase in delivery charges. Next week, the Illinois Commerce Commission conducts its only hearing on the request. It's scheduled for Tuesday in Springfield.
In Champaign Thursday, CUB Executive Director David Kolata noted that Ameren earned 650-million dollars in profits last year, and that they're up over 60-percent in Illinois alone.
"I think they have a hard time justifying a rate increase when our experts the Illinois Attorney General's office hired looked at this, they found that they couldn't justify it." he said. "Ameren has very clear that they're going to come in every year for five, six, seven, years in a row and try to raise rates. That's their business strategy."
Regulators reduced Ameren's original rate hike request from $111-million to $90-million.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris contends the rate hike request is needed for safe, reliable power delivery, and for higher operating costs. And he says delivery costs have skyrocketed, and that's solely what this rate hike is for.
"It's designed to allow us to recover our cost of providing safe and reliable service.." said Morris, "...and to earn a reasonable rate of return, which is necessary for any for-profit company, which Ameren is."
Morris says Illinois' corporate income tax increase has cost Ameren an additional $41-million dollars. Both CUB and the ICC are taking comments on the proposed rate hike.
CUB also used the Champaign news conference to oppose a measure that passed the legislature last spring that would allow for 'smart grid' investments for utilities. But Kolata says it would also make it easier for utilities to pass off rate increases. Speaking in Chicago Thursday, Governor Pat Quinn vowed to veto that measure, and for legislators make improvements to the bill this fall.
Construction on a center dedicated to capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide began Wednesday at Richland Community College in Decatur. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas linked to climate change.
The new facility, known as the National Sequestration Education Center, will be used as a teaching lab to train Richland students on how to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. The center, which is the only one of its kind, is being funded by the U.S. Energy Department. David Larrick, director of sequestration at Richland Community College, said he expects the new center will garner additional interest in renewable energy.
"I am in favorable of renewable energy resources, but we're not moving there fast enough," Larrick said. "Carbon capture sequestration can be used now to reduce atmospheric CO2 emissions. We can't wait for decades for wind and solar to be our primary energy resources."
The actual carbon sequestration won't happen at the new center, but rather in a well on the grounds of Archer Daniels Midland Company in Decatur.
"So, they'll be able to monitor the wells, groundwater, soils, atmospheric conditions, CO2 levels, maybe even do some seismic surveys," Larrick explained. "There will be a lot of real world data that they can use. It's not just going to be learned in a textbook."
Larrick said the facility should be open by next spring. He said officials with Richland Community College plan to revise the school's curriculum by adding a degree for students who want to learn about capturing and storing carbon dioxide. He said the degree could be available by January 2012.
"We're going to have to my knowledge the first associate of applied sciences degree in the nation in sequestration technology," Larrick added.
The new center won't just be available to students attending Richland Community College. The Illinois State Geological Survey also said it plans to also use the center to offer a series of courses to the public on energy conservation.
"Understanding and researching technology that will help us balance our environmental and our energy needs is essential to society," said Sally Greenberg, assistant director of the Advanced Energy Technology Initiative at the Illinois State Geological Survey. "We will look to what the best educational opportunities are and how to work with those."
Greenberg said the courses could last from anywhere between a week to an entire semester. The discussions could focus on topics like developing a carbon capture sequestration project, researching carbon capture sequestration, and implementing that research to other areas of science.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Department said construction has begun on a $207 million project at Archer Daniels Midland. The goal is to capture one million tons of carbon dioxide a year and store it more than a mile underground starting in 2013.
The government has provided $141 million in financial support. The rest of the financing is private.
ADM also has a smaller, existing carbon-capture project at the site. The new project is one of several other government-backed carbon-capture projects being planned or built around the country.
Faculty at the University of Illinois will spend three years developing material for nuclear plants that sustain great levels of heat and run more efficiently.
The National Science Foundation is funding the project through a grant of more than $530,000. The grant will allow U of I researchers to see how resistant new materials used in reactors are to fracture and fatigue, as well as corrosion.
The principal investigator and U of I engineering professor James Stubbins said he and five other faculty members on campus will work to develop a system that is cooled with helium rather than water.
"You're not relying on making the steam," he said. "You're just relying on heating a gas to extremely high temperatures. And if you do that, you can run the helium through an engine that looks like a jet engine and extracts electricity that way, getting the efficiency of the system from the heat to the electricity from 30 or 35 percent up to maybe 60 percent."
Stubbins said nuclear reactors made by a material resembling stainless steel would make it easier to remove heat in the event of a disaster, like what occurred earlier this year at the Japan Fukushima nuclear plant.
"In these kinds of reactors, you have a much different problem in removing the heat if there's an accident than the Fukushima-type of reactor," he said. "This type of reactor is much more resistant to these kind of problems, with the inability of the potential inability to remove the heat from the reactor core itself if they have to shut down suddenly."
Stubbins said Japan is starting to develop the kind of material that is less susceptible to corrosion, but he said the US is on the verge of developing such a reactor. He said one being designed in Idaho is intended to reach these high temperatures, but there are no such projects underway in Illinois.
The White House has announced new fuel standards for trucks and buses. They will require trucks built between 2014 and 2018 to drastically reduce fuel consumption.
The new standards mean big changes for companies like Illinois-based truck manufacturer Navistar International Corporation, said Basili Alukos, an equity analyst with Morningstar.
According to Alukos, trucks have mostly removed their dangerous emissions. Now, 18-wheelers at Navistar will get their turn at better gas mileage.
"They typically do about a 150,000 miles a year and they get roughly six miles a gallon," Alukos said. "So I mean, it's ridiculous. If your car got that it'd basically make you broke."
Certain big-rigs will be required to cut fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2018. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transporation, this would save four gallons of fuel for every 100 miles traveled.
Navistar has not yet announced what changes they will be making to their new trucks.
Commonwealth Edison says smart grid technology could save customers more than $2.8 billion over the next 20 years.
ComEd released an analysis Monday from Black & Veatch that puts the cost of installing smart grid as less than or equal to the savings.
Mike McMahan, vice president of Smart Grid and Technology for ComEd, said a rate hike of $3 per customer would cover the cost of the technology, and it would be made up soon after the smart grid was installed.
"We estimate at least $2 of that would be returned to the customer on their bills at the end of the deployment period and there would be an additional $1 in savings associated with fewer outages," he said. "So benefit to the consumer that doesn't pass through the utility."
McMahan said the savings identified in the analysis would come from three major changes. First, the smart grid technology would eliminate manual meter reading, and thus meter reading jobs, because the smart meters would send information directly to ComEd. This would also mean, according to ComEd, more accurate bills and fewer service visits. Secondly, McMahan said smart meters would detect electricity theft and therefore cut down on energy losses. Lastly, McMahan said the new technology would bring enhanced disconnection and reconnection of services, minimizing collection costs during storms, power outages or even when a renter is ending their ComEd service.
Yet all of this rests on the signature of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. Earlier this year, legislators in Springfield passed the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act that would authorize rate hikes for both ComEd and Ameren customers to foot the smart grid bill. Quinn has said he would not sign the measure, as he wants power companies, rather than consumers, to pay for smart grid.
The bill doesn't sit well with members of the Citizens Utility Board. Executive Director David Kolata said he supports installing smart grid, but he does not think this bill is the way to do it.
"I think this analysis is further evidence that smart grid would be good investment for consumers -- we do think it's something that will save consumers money in medium and long term," Kolata said. "It's the other parts, though, that are problematic. You have to make sure you get those right. It's serving as Trojan horse for significant regulatory changes that apply to all ComEd's costs -- if it was just smart grid, it would have passed already."
The bill is currently on Gov. Quinn's desk.
The electric utility serving most of central and southern Illinois says it churned out a record amount of power this week.
Ameren says consumers used more than 9600 megawatts of electricity at one point Thursday, breaking a record that was just set on Tuesday. The old record was set four summers ago, in August 0f 2007.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris said as long as there are heat advisories in place for the area, no one's power will be deliberately shut off, even those who are haven't paid their bills. But they will not be safe once the weather cools, and Morris said they have had plenty of warning.
"They have received many many notices advising them that they are falling behind in their bill," Morris said. "Eventually they will receive what is called a disconnection notice. However again they are encouraged to contact us to set up a payment plan because we don't want to disconnect them."
Morris said Ameren has not had any heat-related outages, and it has been able to handle the high demand without calls to cut back on power use.
More than 50 graduate students and young scientists from all over the world are at the University of Illinois this week to study efforts in cutting down on greenhouse gases.
They are taking part in a summer school program put on by the IEA Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme, a group created under an Implementing Agreement with the International Energy Agency.
Robert Finley, the director of the Advanced Energy Technology Initiative with the U of I's Prairie Research Institute, said Illinois is home to significant research in carbon sequestration. He said part of the summer program involves visits to Decatur's Archer Daniels Midland Company, where a project is underway to store about a million metric tons of carbon dioxide created by ADM's ethanol production.
"It is really gratifying to see the level of interest and help these students gain understanding that they might potentially utilize in their career as we try to address climate change issues," Finley said.
By the end of the week, Finley said the students will share presentations on topics ranging from the best approaches to capturing carbon dioxide to the cost of storing it. He said he is hopeful the students will advance this technology.
"It's an important technology to perfect because there are a lot of questions about it," Finley said. "People ask is it safe? Is it affective? What is it going to do to the cost of electricity? So, all those questions need to be answered to make sure we have this available as one of the portfolio of options."
The summer school's presence at the U of I marks the first time in its five year history that it has been held in the United States.
The Vermilion County Board overwhelmingly approved a measure Tuesday night by a vote of 22-1 to issue a land permit to an energy company that wants to construct a large wind farm in Vermilion and Champaign Counties.
The lone dissenting vote came from board member Terry Stal.
Chicago-based Invenergy is looking to build 104 wind turbines in Vermilion County starting northeast of Kickapoo State Park. The company is willing to pay the county up to $90,000 a year in property taxes and an additional $150,000 in building permit fees.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon supports the plan, touting its economic advantages for the community.
"Land owners get anywhere between $4,000 and $8,000 a year for leasing a piece of their land for the wind turbine," McMahon said. "So, you get the economic boost of people getting money because of the wind."
Darrell Cambron of rural Rankin has opposed the project from the start. Cambron said that the Vermilon County wind ordinance, which allows the wind turbines within 1,000 feet of a home is simply too close. He is urging county officials to give the plan a second look.
"It seems like they keep getting bigger all the time," Cambron said. "I've talked to other people who have had them around their homes, and they have problems with them."
Each wind turbine would be 492 feet tall, and have the capacity of producing 1.6 megawatts. Cambron said he is concerned that the large wind turbines would create too much noise and shadow flicker. However, McMahon said those concerns could only be addressed if Vermilion County had a zoning ordinance, but he said county simply does not have one on the books.
"I have no jurisdiction to look at those issues when it's a building permit," McMahon explained. "If you were going to build a building, and you needed a permit for that building, you have to produce that that building is a sound building, and it's not going to fall over or somebody get hurt."
The wind farm would stretch to Champaign County, where there would be 30 additional turbines north of Royal and just south of Gifford.
Champaign County Board member Alan Kurtz, a Democrat, said the county's wind farm ordinance, which took three years to develop, will allow the county to reap the benefits, including hundreds of jobs.
"I was able to put together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, and we passed a wind farm ordinance by a supermajority of 25 out of the 27 votes on the county board," Kurtz explained. "It's obvious that there was a consensus for wind farms here in Champaign County and the revenues that it will bring to us."
The Champaign County Planning and Zoning Department received its application this week to build the wind farm. A set of public hearings on the project is scheduled Aug. 25, and Sept. 1, 8 and 29 at the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals.
"I don't know if the county board is going to want to do a study session," county zoning director John Hall said. "They are all pretty familiar with the wind farm requirements since it was such a relatively recent amendment, so I never presumed that they would want a study session...there are no plans for a study session at this time."
The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.
A member of a Vermilion County panel that has signed off on a license for a large wind farm on the county's west side says further qualifications will be required for the project
According to Bill Donahue, the Wind Turbine Regulatory Committee said his panel's job was not to weigh the merits of wind farms, but to make sure Chicago-based Invenergy met all the requirements of the county's wind ordinance. Donahue said there is a continuing process involved.
"Just because you've got the permit doesn't mean the heat is off," Donahue said. "We monitor any changes they notify us about, if there's substantial changes and if they want to do something drastically different, we may have a new hearing. So it's not like it's all said and done and over and we pretend they don't exist. There's an ongoing relationship that's going to continue throughout the life of the project."
The Vermilion County Board will take up the recommendation when it meets Tuesday night at 6 p.m. The committee approved the plans Wednesday night. The 134 turbine wind farm would start in an area northeast of Kickapoo State Park, and extend into eastern Champaign County. Donahue said there have only been a handful of concerns citing noise and shadow flicker caused by turbines, but county board members will have to weigh those.
"They (opponents) like the way their land is now, they don't even want to see wind turbines," he said. "And I understand that. The difficulty, of course, is that there are other landowners who want that economic development. They're the ones who have leased the land out. And even if we were in the business of trying to make value judgments and I'm not, the community does have some interest in economic development, and I think we're right to begin weighing those things."
About 30 of the turbines would be located in Champaign County, just north of Royal and south of Gifford. But Champaign County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said the application has not been received yet. Champaign County's Zoning Board of Appeals could take up Invenergy's proposal in late August.
An Invenergy spokeswoman said the company can't comment on its plans at this point, but in a released statement, says the two counties are an "optimal location for a successful wind project, with an excellent wind resource and strong community support.'"
Invenergy has developed 26 wind farms in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Twenty University of Illinois students say the recent tornado damage in the south illustrates the need for building solar homes.
The wood frame of the Re_home is now on the Urbana campus, where a team will do the rest of the construction before September's Solar Decathlon in Washington, DC. The team's project manager, Beth Newman, said the idea is constructing something to run on solar power within days of a natural disaster.
"They could be up and running within a couple of days since the solar panels will already be installed on the roof before shipment," Newman said. "It's sort of a quick, easily assembly home that could be used without having to connect an electical grid."
Newman said her team was inspired to address disaster relief after storms that hit parts of Central Illinois last summer, including the cities of Streator and Dwight. She said the home could help in either a small or large-scale disaster.
"I guess what we're sort of focusing on is maybe some disasters that don't receive FEMA funding," Newman said. "Some of these towns that are hit by tornadoes, it's just really random, there might be only a few homes destroyed. And FEMA funding may not support them, so this is sort our alternate solution to that situation."
The re-home will remain on display on campus until the competition in September. It's located south of the Urbana quad, and west of the Pennsylvania Avenue greenhouses.
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