Illinois Public Media News
University of Illinois administrators are meeting with two 'green energy' student groups next week to decide if a plan for placing a wind turbine on the Urbana campus still has life. A $2 million grant awarded in 2005 will expire in three months, unless the U of I can find a funding source to pick up the remaining cost. With dwindling state funds, members of groups like the Student Sustainability Committee and Students for Environmental Concerns suggest the capital bill approved by Illinois lawmakers, or the U of I Foundation, could pay the remaining $1.7 million for the turbine.
U of I Interim Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement Steven Sonka says the turbine would appear to produce a reasonable rate of return, and would be an attractive option if financing were available. But he suggests there are more effective uses for that kind of money... including retro-commissioning of some campus buildings. "These are very high payoff in terms of energy savings, because it's the energy savings that pays back the initial investment,' says Sonka. "And we want to do those, too. But that's a question of financing as well. We've gotten grants in the past to change lighting in buildings, and those tend to have attractive payoffs." With Urbana campus energy costs exceeding $75-million a year, student groups contend the turbine would quickly show some benefits.
Sonka says the student proposals for paying for the turbine's remaining cost would be considered. He says discussions with other 'outside entities' are being considered, but wouldn't comment on them. The initial grant for funding the wind turbine came from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. On Monday, Governor Pat Quinn indicated his support for the project in a visit to campus, noting wind energy was one goal of the recently-passed capital bill.
The main source of power to the University of Illinois campus burns coal, but a student group wants to convert it to something cleaner.
Environmental groups have also gotten behind a call to make Abbott Power Plant a natural-gas-burning plant. It was built 70 years ago and has burned coal ever since, except for a period in the 1970s when the U of I converted it to natural gas. The university reverted to coal to demonstrate cleaner burning methods using Illinois coal.
Parker Laubach heads Students for Environmental Concerns. He acknowledges that natural gas would also emit carbon dioxide, but it would be a good first step to other alternative sources.
"We want to take incremental steps," Laubach said. "We don't want to be ridiculous and ask to shut down Abbott Power Plant -- we know it's not feasible or reasonable. But they've burned 100% natural gas in the past, and because of that, we feel that they can do it again. There's really no reason why not."
University officials have not yet returned calls seeking a response.
Laubach says the U of I is proposing to to spend $230 million on improvements at Abbott - money he says would be better spent on conversion to cleaner sources. He says research on cleaner coal burning is useful, but so-called carbon-capture technology hasn't been tested on a large scale.
The group that represents Illinois consumers in utility rate cases says Ameren's proposed rate hike shouldn't go forth - in fact, it claims the utility should be cutting its customers' rates.
The Citizens Utility Board has been collecting petition signatures against a proposed $130 million rate hike - it would affect what Ameren charges to deliver power and natural gas, which makes up about a third of the typical homeowner's utility bill.
CUB director David Kolata contends that Ameren's request is way too high considering the utility's healthy profits and the sluggish economy. He also takes issue with Ameren's plans to ask for yearly increases.
"We would expect them to file right after this case," Kolata said. "That's why we think it's so important for the ICC to put its foot down here. If there's ever been a time to eliminate one (rate hike), now is the time, and hopefully if it occurs, Ameren will learn its lesson that they can't just keep going to the ICC and raising profits at consumers' expense."
Last month a judge recommended that the state lower the rate hike that Ameren proposed to $56 million. The Illinois Commerce Commission will consider that and CUB's opposition when it votes on the rate hike request - that vote is expected next month.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says even the lowered rate increase wouldn't be enough for the utility to operate. He says Ameren has already lowered its proposal by cutting jobs and delaying construction, and the profitability of the overall Ameren holding company does not accurately reflect the performance of its Illinois utilities.
Two Indiana lawmakers say legislation that could bring more renewable energy development to the state has a good chance of passing in the upcoming legislative session.
The change would affect Indiana's so-called net-metering policy that allows some customers of investor-owned utilities to send excess power produced by wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable sources back into the electric grid.
Those customers get credit for that power on their next bill. But current policy applies only to homeowners and K-12 schools and sets a limit of 10 kilowatts per customer.
Republican Sen. James Merritt of Indianapolis and Democratic Rep. Ryan Dvorak of South Bend are both optimistic lawmakers will boost that power level and extend net-metering to businesses, industries and municipalities during their session that begins Jan.5.
The Urbana City Council has put a two-week delay on a vote to endorse the latest revision of the area's Long Range Transportation Plan. At Monday night's council meeting, some members voiced concern over some of the highway projects proposed for Champaign-Urbana during the next quarter-century.
Alderman Brandon Bowersox says the those projects run counter to the plan's own goals for protecting the environment and conserving energy.
"But then the actual implementation", says Bowersox, "when it comes down to what roads would be built, and the projections for how much we'll all be driving shows that the amount we'll be driving goes up a lot faster that population growth, even. So, per-person, we'd all be driving a lot more in 2035 than we're driving today, to live in our community."
Alderman Charlie Smyth says the increased motor traffic would be caused by upgrades of roads on the fringes of Champaign-Urbana that he says are not needed. He was especially critical of a 71-million dollar plan inserted into the long-range plan by IDOT to widen I-74 from Prospect Avenue in Champaign out to Mahomet.
"Where is the justification for expanding I-74", Smyth asked the council. "It's not in the models. There's a statement that says this will relieve future congestion. But there's no modeling that says there's any congestion, even in 2035."
Smyth moved to defer council action on the plan until December 21st, to allow more time for review. But Rita Morocoima-Black of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission says that will give them little time to incorporate the council's decision into the plan --- which must be submitted to the state by the end of the year. Endorsement of the plan by local governments is not required, but helps in winning state funding for local road projects.
A proposal to use tax money from Champaign County wind turbine farms to pay for renewable energy for county facilities was voted down by a Champaign County Board committee Monday night.
Members of the Environment and Land Use Committee voted 4 to 3 against Urbana Democrat Sam Smucker's proposal to place a portion of those tax revenues into a special Renewable Energy Fund.
The County Board recently approved regulations for placing wind farms in the area, and expects to receive applications from companies in the coming months. Smucker says when that happens... the county should use a share of the tax revenue to cut its energy costs --- perhaps in league with other local governments.
"One possibility is that we would simply try to move some of our buildings towards solar energy," says Smucker. "Another possibility is that we would try to go in with other governments --- the city governments or the school boards --- and build a wind turbine to power our facilities. All of that's up in the air. But it seems to me the first step is to make sure the resources are there."
Smucker says his proposal would make sure some of the money made by wind farms in Champaign County, is used to help the county. "When a company builds a wind turbine in Champaign County, that energy is going to get sold on the open electricity markets", says Smucker. "So that energy's going to go outside of Champaign County, most likely. But this is the way we can capture some of the growth in renewable energy, and bring it right back home. "
Under Smucker's proposal, the Renewable Energy Fund would collect about 100-dollars per year from each wind turbine built in Champaign County.
Smucker says he may bring his proposal back to the County Board next year. He says his big challenge will be to convince his fellow board members of the need for long-term energy planning.
The Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals is in favor of hiring a consultant to help the county consider claims about noise made by applicants from wind farm operators.
The Zoning Board endorsed the proposal from County Zoning Administrator John Hall Thursday night. Hall expects Champaign County will receive its first application for a wind turbine farm next month, from Chicago-based Invenergy. And when such applications come in, he wants the expert opinion of an outside consultant to check claims about potential turbine noise and the impact on nearby residents.
"We would be in sort of a predicament", Hall told AM 580 News, "if the neighbors raised valid questions about what the wind farm developer says, because we would have no way to respond to either party". Hall says the county doesn't have expertise about wind turbine noise issues on its own staff.
ZBA Board member Paul Palmgren agreed during Thursday night's meeting, saying he wanted the county to be on firm ground, to avoid possible legal action from wind farm opponents.
"I don't want to be in a court of law some place, trying to defend what we maybe should have done", said Palmgren..
A memo from ZBA Chair Doug Bluhm "strongly supporting" Hall's request for a noise consultant will go to the Champaign County Board's Environmental and Land Use Committee. That committee will consider the request November 9th. Hall says some members of the committee have questioned the need for a consultant --- they note that most Illinois counties with wind farm ordinances haven't hired them. The cost of a consultant is low enough that Hall doesn't need county board approval to hire one --- but he says he prefers to have county board support.
we would be in sort of a predictament if the neighbors raised valid questions about what the wind farm developer says, because we would have no way to respond to either party. So having a consultant who could advise the ZBA on whether what the neighbors raise are valid concerns are not, I think that would be good to have.
The next generation of the nation's electricity backbone will need stronger systems to protect it from attacks.
That's why the federal government is setting up an institute dedicated to computer security as it puts more than three billion dollars into improving the electric grid. The University of Illinois' Information Trust Institute will be a part of that effort, helping design software that keeps the improved power network safe from hackers.
Institute director Bill Sanders says the threat exists because the so-called "smart grid" will involve much more computerization than the current system.
"There's much more computerization, both on the distribution side -- and the distribution side is the kind of equipment you might have in your house that actually delivers the power to your house and the feedback and control there -- and on the transmission side, a wide-area data network that supports power generation and transports that power to somewhere near your house," Sanders said.
Three other universities are taking part in the five year, $18.8 million research program. The smart grid is expected to be more efficient and help consumers track and adjust their own power usage.
If natural gas prices are stable this winter, central and southern Illinois homeowners will pay less to heat their homes.
Ameren predicts the price it will pay for natural gas will average 26 percent less than last year's heating season. The utility passes along the price it pays for gas directly to billpayers - and this fall, spokesman Leigh Morris says it's considerably less than the price spike we saw last year with gas and other types of fuel.
"Just going back one year, it was $1.32 a therm, and right now the October price is $0.56 a therm. That's the average for all three utilities," Morris said, citing the three divisions of Ameren's Illinois utilities. "That's about a 58 percent movement from a year ago."
The recession may be to blame for the worldwide drop in demand for natural gas - and thus the drop in prices. Morris is quick to point out that Ameren's pending request for a gas rate increase involves the fee the utility charges to deliver that gas.
For the second time, a team of University of Illinois students is getting ready to take their solar-powered house to Washington D-C, where it will compete in the U-S Energy Department's biennial Solar Decathlon.
An open house on Thursday night served as a housewarming party. Graduate student in architecture Cam Greenlee played "Scotland the Brave" on the bagpipes, as the outdoor LED lights were turned on at the small house that's been dubbed the Gable Home.
With just 560 square feet of living space, the three-room house is small --- cozy, according to one student. Greenlee says the Solar Decathlon rules call for homes of no more than 800 square feet --- and some of that space went for things like the one-foot thick insulation to help insure energy efficiency.
"And so a lot of our design had to do with how do we use the little space that we have very efficiently", explained Greenlee. "And so, even though it's 560 square feet, I think two people could comfortably live in the house."
The south side of the Gable Home's roof is covered entirely in solar panels, the source -- both directly and indirectly --- for all of the home's power. While solar homes in past competitions used batteries at night, new rules at the Solar Decathlon allow the use of electricity from the conventional power grid. However, the house must send at least as much electricity back into the grid as it takes out. U of I Architecture Professor and Project Manager Mark Taylor says the Gable Home does that, and then some.
"If you actually go around to the east side", says Taylor, "you can see our little (electric) meter that you have on a typical house. And it's actually spinning backwards."
The U of I Solar Decathlon Team worked with area firms to build the Gable Home. Springfield-based Lamboo Incorporated developed the treated bamboo used in the home's frame. Goodfield-based Homeway Homes handled the modular construction, leaving it up to the students to design the home's interior and energy system.
Graduate student in architecture Philip Dimick helped design the Gable Home's compact bedroom. Because of the home's small size, Dimick says they used cabinets with sliding doors and wardobes to maximize space. "The challenge of the bedroom was that in order to get all the space we wanted in the main room (a combination kitchen, dining room and living room), we needed to not have a bedroom closet. And so that required the design of the cabinets."
When the U of I first entered the Solar Decathlon in 2007, their entry came in 9th place overall, out of 19 teams. This year, the U of I's Gable Home will be among 20 entries from the U-S, Canada and Europe.
The Gable Home will be transported to Washington D-C, to be set up with 19 other Solar Decathlon entries on the National Mall, October 9th through the 18th. For now, it's on display on the University of Illinois Urbana campus. It's open to the public Saturday and Sunday, September 12th and 13th, from 10 AM until 6 PM.
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