Illinois Public Media News
The tax cut deal reached by President Obama and Senate Republicans this week includes an extension of tax credits for ethanol --- but another green energy program is not included. Now, supporters of wind and solar energy are lobbying Congress to include an extension of the so-called "Section 1603" grant program in the final tax bill. The program is slated to expire at the end of the month.
The 1603 program converts tax credits for renewable energy projects into up-front grants. Environment Illinois' Max Muller said those grants have helped qualifying companies build 14 new solar, wind energy and fuel cell facilities in Illinois --- resulting in the creation of new jobs at a time of high unemployment.
"Basically, if we don't want to see a precipitous drop in the number of new clean energy projects in Illinois and nationally, we need to extend this program," Muller said.
Among the recipients of 1603 grants in Illinois are nine wind farms, including the Cayuga Ridge Wind Farm in Livingston County near Streator.
Kevin Borgia of the Illinois Wind Energy Association says the grant program provides funding for renewable energy projects at a time when financing is hard to come by, and he said that has led to the creation of new jobs in Illinois.
"I think that the past history with the program is pretty impressive," Borgia said. "And there could be a loss to the Illinois economy if the program does sunset."
In the case of Illinois wind farms, the 1603 grant program has helped only a fraction of the 46 projects that have been built or were slated for construction as of July of this year, according to the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University. Wind farms and other green energy projects will still be eligible for federal tax credits, even after the grant program runs out. But Borgia says the 1603 grants give companies more flexibility when it comes to putting wind farms projects together.
The tax cut deal worked out by President Obama and Senate Republicans includes a one-year extension of tax credits for ethanol --- although at 36 cents a gallon, which is down nine cents from the existing 45-cent tax credit set to run out Dec. 31st.
A spokesman for Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson, Phil Bloomer, said the one-year extension is shorter than what the Urbana Republican would prefer. Instead, Johnson said he wants a permanent extension of the tax credits.
"If you take these away, as it seems to indicate at this point," Bloomer said. "I think that would have severe consequences for farm states, for central Illinois and the entire Midwest."
But even a one-year extension of the the ethanol tax credit, even at a lower rate, would be good news to Illinois Corn Growers Association Board President Jim Reed. Reed said the tax credit has been key to making ethanol available to consumers, but he said it is time to look for a different way to encourage ethanol production, and an extension would give the industry time to do that.
"By it being extended a year," Reed said. "That really gives us the opportunity to stand back and think about what we can do to increase access to ethanol and make it more available to the consumer, and really do what we can help us limit that importation of the foreign oil."
But Clark Bullard with the Prairie Rivers Network said he does not care for the proposed extension of ethanol tax credits. The U of I Engineering professor said so much of the corn crop goes to making ethanol that corn prices are up, leading to higher food prices and environmental abuses.
"It has given farmers tremendous incentives to clear the last little strip of wildlife habitat, and ... bring highly erodible land into production, just to get more acres of corn at this higher price," Bullard said.
Bullard said even if the ethanol tax credit was dropped, federal mandates for ethanol use would still keep production up to a certain level. He supports further research into ethanol made from ethanol made from grasses or wood chips as an alternative to corn.
Eric Jakobsson was sworn in Monday night as alderman of Urbana's second ward.
Jakobsson, who is married to State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana), replaces former council member David Gehrig. Gehrig resigned from the seat in November citing the work overload. Mayor Laurel Prussing said she appointed Jakobsson, a former University of Illinois biology professor, because of his honesty and ability to make sound decisions.
"Well, I've known him for many years," Prussing said. "I think he's an individual with very high integrity, and what I was looking for with a council member is someone who would have very balanced approach to things, not jump to conclusions, but be willing to listen to people and ask good questions."
Jakobsson said he is ready to get to work on issues like historic preservation and the prospects of setting up a wind farm located outside the city on the University of Illinois campus in South Farms.
"One of the things that I welcome about it is the opportunity to be more fully engaged with the community," Jakobsson said.
At his first council meeting as an elected official Monday night, Jakobsson heard a spirited debate about the proposal for setting up the wind farm. While the project would not be based within Urbana, it would be close enough where city officials can enforce a zoning ordinance. The project has an estimated budget of about $4.5 million dollars, but supporters of the plan raised doubts over whether it would be economically feasible to construct three wind turbines as originally proposed.
Groups touting the plan, including the U of I's Students for Environmental Concerns, shared their voice of support for the project's environmental benefits while property owners raised concerns about the proximity of the wind turbines to their land.
A $2 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation would help set up the wind turbines, but that grant is slated to expire in May, leaving less time to make last minute changes to the project. Jakobsson said the city wants to see this project become a reality, but he said officials need to explore its impact on the entire community, including residential areas where noise pollution could become a big problem as a result of the wind turbines.
"When the city is given responsibility over an area, the city can't neglect that and the city won't, I'm sure," he said.
Jakobsson plans to stay on the council on a more permanent basis, which is why he is running in next year's city council race against Brian Dolinar of the Independent Media Center. Since both candidates are Democrats, a Feb. 22 primary will determine whose name appears on the ballot.
Lured by the promise of jobs and a boost for the state's coal industry, the Illinois House agreed to a plan that could pave the way for a controversial central Illinois power plant.
Omaha based Tenaska Corporation wants to build a coal fired power plant in Taylorville. It would use Illinois coal, which has fallen out of favor because of its high sulfur content. Emissions would be captured and stored underground.
It has taken years to get the proposal this far. Opponents are concerned about the legislation's requirement that utilities purchase power from the plant, which are expected to lead to higher electric rates over several decades. House sponsor Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) said the cost factor was a sticking point.
"I would say that is part of the cost trade off for improving the overall economy," Mautino said.
Residential rates would be capped at a two-percent increase, but businesses and governmental bodies could pay more. Mautino admits it has been difficult convincing colleagues who represent other areas that it is a good deal for them.
"For example, when I buy a gallon of gas or fill my tank in Spring Valley, part of that money goes to fund the CTA which already gets 97-percent of all mass transit money to fund a bus I will never ride on," he said "Yet that is one of the costs built in to having an overall statewide system."
Mautino said a boost for Illinois coal will benefit the entire state. The plan still needs approval from Senators and the Governor to become law.
Months after a federal government U-turn in the long-running FutureGen clean-coal project, six Illinois locations have expressed interest in hosting a carbon dioxide storage site that could mean more than 1,000 short-term jobs and a few dozen permanent ones.
The bidders behind one of those locations, though, said Tuesday that their interest is laced with a heavy dose of skepticism after watching what appeared to be politics almost derail the project and then make radical changes in it.
The six locations that submitted bids before Monday's deadline are the city of Quincy; Christian County; the city of Tuscola along with Douglas County; Morgan County; Pike County; and the city of Vandalia along with Fayette County, FutureGen Alliance spokesman Lawrence Pacheco told the Associated Press on Tuesday. The alliance is made up of coal companies and other firms working with the federal government on the project.
"Our team of scientific and engineering experts has already begun review of those proposals, and we look forward to making an announcement on the final site in early 2011,'' FutureGen CEO Ken Humphreys said.
Until earlier this year the plan called for building a new power plant in Mattoon, Ill. and storing the carbon dioxide it produced just outside town. But the Department of Energy decided instead to use $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funding to refit an existing coal-burning Ameren plant in Meredosia, Ill., with different technology and pipe the carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, to another location for underground storage. That site would also become home to an education center to train people to build carbon dioxide pipelines.
The department said that, with delays in the FutureGen project, other projects had already bypassed the technology it had hoped to use in Mattoon.
The project had already been shelved once by the administration of President George W. Bush, only to be revived under President Barack Obama.
Many people in Mattoon tired of what they saw as politics holding up and changing the project, and the town withdrew.
Tuscola was among the four finalists, along with Mattoon, for the original project, and already had in hand much of the environmental and geological testing needed to bid to store the project's carbon dioxide, said Brian Moody, executive director of Tuscola Economic Development Inc. The area is interested, he said, but needs to know more from the Department of Energy about its plans.
"There's definitely a level of cynicism that we all have,'' he said. "It's obvious with the project, once it's gotten out of the site selection process and has been in the political realm, that's where it's had some problems."
"While we're generally supportive of the concept, we still need to know a lot more,'' Moody said. "In order to do that, we need to keep our name in the game."
Looking at the potential jobs, officials in Vandalia aren't nearly as skeptical, Mayor Rick Gottman said.
Unemployment in the area was 10.2 percent in September, the most recent month for which the Illinois Department of Employment Security has data.
Over the past few years, one major employer, Orgill Inc., moved a distribution center and about 140 jobs out of state, Gottman said. Another, Graham Packaging, has reduced its work force from about 800 to roughly 200.
"We're in a high unemployment area right now,'' he said. "We're looking at ways to create jobs.
Officials from Dynergy Inc. have raised concerns about the Vermilion Power Station's long-term stability.
The Houston-based company owns four power plants in Illinois, in addition to the Vermilion plant located near Oakwood. Dynergy spokesman David Byford said because of challenging market conditions coupled with the cost of transporting coal that is trucked to the plant, his company is looking at 'options' for the 54-year-old power station.
"For the short term, it's business as usual for the plant," Byford said.
Byford would not go into detail about what options the company's pursuing.
Dynegy may soon merge with the Blackstone Group for about $4.7 billion, which would include the assumption of Dynegy's debt. Dynegy Shareholders are scheduled to vote on the merger next week in Houston.
The land that was to be the site of a futuristic clean-coal burning power plant has been returned to the community of Mattoon.
The area that was to have hosted FutureGen was given back Thursday by the FutureGen Alliance. Mattoon dropped out of plans for FutureGen once they were reconfigured by the Department of Energy. This announcement allows the community to market the 440 acres to other businesses.
Coles Together President Angela Griffin said four companies that are not being disclosed have already toured the land. She said the goal is lure something similar to FutureGen. It is estimated that tens of millions of dollars was spent to survey, engineer, and analyze the area.
Griffin said that money will not be recouped, but is not a total loss.
"The work that was done is still valid and good," Griffin said. "And so we're able to use that - the completed surveys and the completed engineering. And that all has value. I don't think anybody will be able to recover costs for dollars that were spent to characterize the site in any way."
Griffin also said putting a dollar figure on the amount spent would be difficult, since so many entities paid for the work, including the state, city, the FutureGen Alliance, and the Southern Illinois University Clean Coal Review Board. She said this news should provide some relief for Mattoon residents, and remind them they will be kept apprised of any plans for the land.
"I think (Thursdays) news is going to put a lot of relief in the hearts of people who gave one way or another to the FutureGen effort," Griffin said. "The site did return to the community. We do control it now, and we'll able to determine what goes in there, and the community doesn't have to worry that something will happen there that they're opposed to."
An informational meeting regarding the future of the site is planned for Monday morning at 9 at Pagliacci's Restaurant in Mattoon. Meanwhile, the FutureGen Alliance reported that nine communities met Wednesday's deadline to be part of what's called FutureGen 2.0. The host city to be selected early next year will store carbon emissions, working with a power plant in the western Illinois community of Meredosia.
The University of Illinois dedicated the Timothy Nugent Residence Hall and the Student Dining and Residential Programs Building on Friday in Champaign. The dormitory and dining hall are both handicap accessible.
The dormitory, which is University Housing's newest residence hall in more than 40 years, features proximity readers and large elevators to accommodate wheel chair bound individuals. The rooms also include technology to help students get in and out of beds and showers.
"This building was planned with the notion that students with disabilities could use each and every part of the building," explained John Collins, director of University Housing.
The new dorm's namesake is Timothy Nugent, who is director of emeritus for the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES). Nugent established the center more than 60 years ago. He said society's views of people with disabilities have come a long way.
"I never expected anything this wonderful," Nugent said.
The U of I's commitment to providing accessible facilities for students with disabilities was an important factor for student John Burton, a junior from Indiana studying engineering, when he was deciding where to go to school. Burton, who has spinal muscular atrophy, praised the University for making Nugent Hall an inclusive dormitory for students with and without disabilities.
"It allows you to make friends and meet new people, so that's kind of nice," Burton said. "Although Nugent Hall is the first of its kind, we have the opportunity to lead the way for other universities to follow."
In addition to providing independent living for students with disabilities, the new dining facility will also reduce the university's carbon foot print by using less water and electricity. The dining hall will also use leftover residue oil that is processed from fried foods, and then convert it into bio-fuel for cars and buses on campus.
University president Michael Hogan said the new dining hall is the second green building of its kind at the U of I next to the Business Instructional Facility. Hogan said he predicts the environmental impact of the dining hall will save the U of I money, especially as it looks to trim its budget.
"If you can save your energy cost, you can save a lot of money, so anything that keeps our air conditioning bills down, anything that keeps the lights off when not necessary, anything that reduces our water use," Hogan stated. "That all saves the university money, and of course saves the planet."
The new dining hall is named after former U of I president Stanley Ikenberry, who estimated that the savings generated because of the dining hall's green technology could equate to "several million dollars" within the next 50 years.
"It's not jump change," he said. "It's very important to us."
Hogan said he hopes the U of I considers making more buildings on campus environmentally friendly. The rest of Nugent Hall is currently under construction. An additional 350 beds will be added by the fall of 2012.
U.S. House Rep. Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) said he would discourage communities in his district from further involvement in the FutureGen project.
Johnson railed against the Department of Energy after it re-worked the coal-burning power plant project, ditching plans for a new plant in Matoon and instead calling to retrofit an existing one in Meredosia.
The change infuriated Johnson, who said Coles County leaders spent millions of dollars to bring the original FutureGen to Mattoon. The Energy Department said it changed course because technology that would have been used at a new power plant in Mattoon was already being used elsewhere. Mattoon withdrew from the project when it learned it would no longer host the FutureGen power plant.
Now, the FutureGen Alliance is looking for a community to host an underground storage site for the plant's carbon dioxide emissions. Johnson said the initial winner of the project -- Mattoon - was cheated out of FutureGen because of the change, and he said communities bidding for the storage site should not get too excited.
"They want to pursue it, I'll help them," Johnson said. "But they ought to be advised that the history of this project has been an absolute disaster from the Bush administration to the Obama administration."
He added that he does not think FutureGen 2.0 will become a reality, saying if it does happen "most communities wouldn't want it."
On Tuesday, the Republican asked a House panel to look into why the new plans for the project did not include a coal-fired power plant in Mattoon, suggesting pay-to-play politics was behind the decision. He argued that an Energy Department official assigned to clean-coal projects is the former head of a firm that was chosen to work on the reconfigured FutureGen.
A spokesman for U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said politics appears to be behind Congressman Johnson's call for a review of changes to the FutureGen coal-fired power plant. Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said he wants to know why the Congressman would raise these questions three weeks before an election.
"It certainly raises the question whether he's doing this to get his name in the paper or on the radio, " Shoemaker said. "I don't think this is a serious attempt to get questions answered."
Shoemaker said Johnson has asked questions about the FutureGen project before. Yet, when given the opportunity to meet with the Department of Energy, Shoemaker claimed Johnson refused to meet with the agency's officials.
Johnson shot back, questioning Durbin's own intentions.
"Senator Durbin is the very individual who pulled the plug together with the Department of Energy on a community who had their collective lifeblood in this issue," he said.
FutureGen plans to announce the site of the storage space in early 2011.
A Champaign manufacturer of semiconductors for solar energy has received a more than $2 million grant.
Federal stimulus money will boost production capacity at EpiWorks, and cut down its fossil fuel consumption. The funds will also let the facility add about 30 jobs. Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Warren Ribley was at the plant Tuesday to announce the $2.5 million Green Business Development Grant. Ribley said manufacturing through green energy has been a priority for some time. He said more than $6 million set aside for East Central Illinois is primarily aimed at renewable sources, and developing companies that support them.
"We have to have a broad energy portfolio that depends on wind, solar, clean coal technology, and energy efficiency," said Ribley. "All of those things combined help reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum."
Joining Ribley Tuesday were a number of area city and school officials who have received stimulus funds to help their facilities become more energy efficient. Recipients include the cities of Tuscola and Arcola - each for building wind turbines. The Prairieview-Ogden school district is also installing a wind turbine, and Champaign's Bottenfield, Westview, and Robeson Elementary schools are getting new boilers and ventilators. Four of the grants are more than $400,000. The Arcola grant was just over $60-thousand.
During Ribley's visit to Champaign Tuesday, he also said the former Meadowbrook Farms site in Rantoul could one day soon resemble its old self. Earlier this week, Trim-Rite announced it was leasing and reopening the 2,000 acre site that closed earlier this year, and hiring 100 people when it starts operations next spring. Ribley said the newness of Trim-Rite's facilities, its size, and the state of the industry should mean more jobs soon after its spring 2011 opening.
"We are seeing a lot of interest in the food processing area, particularly in animal processing," he said. "That tells us that demand is growing, not only domestically, but internationally. So we think it's just the beginning. Illinois is a terrific workforce, it's a terrific location to move its product anywhere in the world."
Ribley added that several companies looked at the former Meadowbrook site before Trim-Rite committed to it. The company's president pledges the facility will use state-of-the-art equipment and be "the most modern hog processing facility'' in the country.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
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