Illinois Public Media News
More delays could be in store for a clean coal technology plant in eastern Illinois. The FutureGen Industrial Alliance is still negotiating finances with the state, dragging out a decision by the US Department of Energy on whether to build the plant in Mattoon.
Illinois Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin says the agency is extending its study of the experimental plant.
"I said that the Secretary of Energy had to decide this project on it's merits and I wanted him to do that," Durbin said over the weekend in Springfield. "I think we've made a good strong case, but we don't take anything more granted."
Durbin, the Majority Whip, says he's optimistic the plant will be built.
The Energy Department had planned to announce by now whether to go forward, but the agency has decided to keep studying the alliance's plans another 60 days.
If built, FutureGen would be the worlds' first zero emissions coal-fired power plant. Carbon dioxide created from burning coal would be stored underground. The project would create thousands of construction jobs.
Optimism remains that construction on the long-delayed FutureGen power plant will get the federal government's okay soon.
In the meantime, local officials can do little more than watch and wait for a decision from the Energy Department. It's in talks with corporate members of the FutureGen Alliance who want to get the $1.8 billion dollar coal-to-energy plant built and operating near Mattoon.
Angela Griffin heads the economic development group Coles Together. "As far as we know they're still in negotiations," Griffin said. "There's still a lot of details to be worked out with the agreement going forward, and they're not at liberty at this point to talk about those."
But Griffin says she and others in the Mattoon area are being kept up to date on the talks, even if she doesn't know the details. Griffin wouldn't estimate when the government and the Alliance can reach a conclusion.
She does say that once that agreement takes place, the construction phase will have a big impact on Mattoon. She says plant developers expect to keep cement plants within a 100-mile radius of FutureGen busy as they drill the initial wells for the plant's carbon-sequestration unit.
Ameren says it will seek a rehearing of its rate case ... after the Illinois Commerce Commission granted the utility only a fraction of what it seeking in increases for gas and electricity delivery.
At the same time, Ameren is cutting budgets, instituting a hiring freeze, reducing its use of contractors, and delaying or canceling some projects and activities.
In an internal newsletter released by the company, Ameren Illinois president Scott Cisel calls the actions "regrettable but necessary".
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says their core commitment to delivery reliable energy won't be affected. But he says customers might notice some changes in service.
"This doesn't mean it would, but we could be talking about wait times for calls to customer service, wait times to have new service installed" says Morris. "It could have impacts like that. Those aren't reliability issues but those are service quality issues."
The I-C-C voted 3 to 2 Thursday to allow Ameren just $4.75 million of the $130 million it was seeking in additional revenue on delivery rates. Morris says the company was surprised by the ruling, and believes it had made a strong argument for the full increase. Ameren has 30 days to seek a rehearing of its rate request. There's no guarantee that the ICC will grant a rehearing.
The Illinois Commerce Commission has rejected most of a request from Ameren to raise electricity and natural gas rates.
Ameren had sought an additional $162 million from customers. On Thursday, the ICC approved $5 million of that increase. The utility company released a statement, saying the decision may hinder Ameren's ability to provide the service customers expect. Spokesman Leigh Morris says the company will spend a few days reviewing the decision to decide its next steps... including whether to appeal. The Citizen Utility Board's Jim Chilsen praised the decision. "Ameren was asking for way too much," said Chilsen. "And the rate hike that it got will give the company all the funds it needs to provide safe, reliable service and to return a fair profit to stockholders."
ICC spokeswoman Beth Bosch says the cuts of more than 95-percent came from various line items on the delivery side of Ameren's power. "Ranging from incentive compensation to benefits, working cash, what kinds of projects they consider useful the rates could be collected on, operations and maintenance," said Bosch. She says the ICC also brought down the rate hike from what an administrative law judge had requested. The decision is also based on reviews from several parties, including local governments, the Attorney General, and AARP. Bosch says all of Ameren's gas rates should go down as a result of the decision, with electric rate hikes of 10-percent or less for Ameren IP, CILCO, and CIPS customers.
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.
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