Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 28, 2011

Challenges Accessing Broadband Service Highlight of Congressional Hearing

People who live in a city may take broadband Internet service for granted. But in many rural areas, broadband service is hard or even impossible to obtain.

The issue of broadband access was the spotlight of a recent congressional field hearing in Springfield.

As an employee for eGrain, which specializes in electronic documents for agribusiness, Drew Earles understands the importance of a good Internet connection. But he said that's not what he gets at his home in the central Illinois countryside, where he relies on a wireless transmitter mounted on the grain elevator in nearby Mechanicsburg.

"It'd be a little less than broadband," Earles said. "At times, it's comparable to dial-up, just depending on the traffic. If you catch it early in the morning, you can usually get some things done, and view some things."

Justin Green, who grows corn and soybeans near Arthur, has it a bit easier --- with a wireless connection to the DSL service at his parents' home. Green said people working in agriculture need reliable internet service as much as anyone else.

"A lot of our commodities markets and trading and access to information and communications with landowners and other businesses, a lot of that's done via email." Green said.

Earles and Green spoke at the booth they manned for the Illinois Agriculture Leadership Foundation, at the Illinois News Broadcasters Association convention in Springfield. But their comments could as easily have been made across town at the University of Illinois Springfield campus. There, Illinois Congressman Tim Johnson and other members of the House Subcommittee on Rural Development were hearing testimony on rural broadband service.

Among those testifying, Sue Campbell, the CEO for Community Memorial Hospital in Staunton. She worked with a local internet provider to obtain five megabytes of broadband service for her hospital, needed for everything from transmitting electronic medical records to supplementing their limited staff with doctors who consult from off site. But Campbell said her hospital will soon need a service upgrade.

"And it won't be too long before we're going to have to consider doubling our broadband width from five megs up to ten," Campbell said.

Rural American is well behind the country's urban areas when it comes to access to broadband Internet service. Les Fowler is with the McDonough Telephone Cooperative, which has managed to bring fiber-based broadband service to parts of western Illinois. But Fowler's co-op is not-for-profit. He told the subcommittee there's just not much money for the private sector to make in rural broadband.

"There's not going to be a huge opportunity for a lot of profit taking in those scenarios," Fowler said. "So I think it's going to take a jump start from the public sector to get this going."

In fact, Fowler said McDonough Telephone's broadband service wouldn't be possible without a Rural Utility Service loan funded by the federal Farm Bill, which is up for re-authorization. Fowler said the co-op is applying for its 2nd loan through the program, a process that has, so far, taken two years. Congressman Tim Johnson said bureaucratic problems have left much of the available money unspent.

"In some cases, only five percent of it has actually emerged from the application process to be used," Fowler said. "So upwards of 90 percent hasn't been. There's a limited amount of dollars to go around, and we need to make sure that rural America, small town America gets its share."

Johnson said efforts to reduce the federal deficit will mean less money for rural broadband service next year --- so he hopes his subcommittee can use the Farm Bill rule making process to make the loan program more efficient. The Urbana Republican said addressing the broadband shortage is just one way to reverse the population decline in rural America.

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 27, 2011

Challenges Accessing Broadband Service Highlight of Congressional Hearing

People living in a city may take broadband Internet service for granted. But in many rural areas, broadband service is hard or even impossible to obtain. The problem was a topic of a recent congressional field hearing in Springfield, Ill. Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows reports.

(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

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WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 23, 2011

UI Students Show Off Solar-Powered Home in Energy Competition

University of Illinois students are taking part in a competition where they are presenting a solar-powered home that they have designed and constructed. It's part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, an event that has attracted students from 20 universities around the world.

Graduate student Beth Neuman is the project manager for the U of I's team. She said her team's entry is designed to serve as an immediate replacement for people whose homes were destroyed by a tornado.

"Last year, multiple tornadoes came through Central Illinois, and we actually visited Streator, Illinois, and they were hit by a tornado, and a lot of families were affected by that," Neuman said. "So, we sort of wanted to focus on a market that was closer to home, and help people in our own community."

Neuman said the portable home can be shipped in two units by truck, with solar panels mounted on the roof. She estimates the cost for a single home at around $260,000. However, she said if it was mass produced, it would be more affordable. Neuman said architecture, affordability, and energy balance are just some of the factors that each home will be judged on in the competition.

The houses in the Solar Decathlon are currently on display at the National Mall's West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. A winner will be announced Oct 1.

Categories: Education, Energy, Technology

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 15, 2011

Champaign and Urbana Libraries Prepare for New Catalog System

The Champaign Public Library and Urbana Free Library are joining a new catalog system at the end of the year.

The catalog will include features that aren't currently available to patrons through the current catalog system that's shared by libraries that make up the Illinois Heartland Library System. Among the features in the new catalog are e-mail updates alerting patrons whenever an items that matches a saved search arrives, and a mobile application that allows users to make reservations and renewals.

It is still being decided which features will go to which library. The mobile app, for example, will be available at the Champaign library, but won't be immediately available at the Urbana Free Library, according to Debra Lissak, the director of the Urbana Free Library.

Lissak said both the Champaign and Urbana libraries will continue to share items with the more than 590 libraries in the Illinois Heartland Library System.

"We are not leaving Illinois Heartland Library System," Lissak said. "We will still do borrowing between people of other libraries. The other thing I've heard is that Champaign and Urbana libraries are merging. We're not merging our libraries. We're just sharing an online catalog."

Champaign Public Library director Marsha Grove said the new catalog system will be less expensive, and give both libraries more options of how to use its features.

"We're a large library, and Urbana is a fairly large library," Grove said. "We wante to make the catalog more useful for the people in our community."

The new catalog system is expected to be available by the end of the year. People who visit other libraries in the state will still be able to see what items are available in Champaign and Urbana by visiting the website worldcat.org

Categories: Business, Education, Technology

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 08, 2011

E-Book Developer Michael Hart Dies

The Urbana man credited with inventing the e-book has died.

Michael Hart developed what would become Project Gutenberg at the University of Illinois Urbana campus. Starting with the text of the Declaration of Independence, and a 1970s predecessor to the Internet, Hart and many volunteers built up a collection of thousands of free e-books.

Project Gutenberg currently offers more than 36,000 e-books, mostly in the public domain, and offered them online years before electronic devices such as Kindles had been invented.

In a 2003 interview on the Afternoon Magazine on WILL, Hart talked about the satisfaction he received from hearing about people who used Project Gutenberg.

"I get little notes in the email, saying 'Hey! I just Project Gutenberg, and this is great stuff. I love reading and I found five books that I couldn't find at the bookstores and the library that I've been looking for forever," Hart said. "You get people that (it) just tickles their fancy, and they just read and read and read, and they're so happy about it."

In an obituary posted on its website, Project Gutenberg says Michael Hart was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1947. He grew up in Urbana, where he was an Eagle Scout, and his parents were professors at the University of Illinois. Hart served in the Army in South Korea during the Vietnam War era.

Project Gutenberg says the 64-year-old Hart died Tuesday at his home in Urbana. Funeral arrangements are pending.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - September 06, 2011

Groundbreaking Held for Big Broadband Project in Champaign-Urbana

Construction is officially underway on the fiberoptic broadband network that will reach more than 25-hundred underserved households in about 15 months.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Tuesday afternoon in Champaign's Douglass Park to launch construction of the UC2B project. About 200 were on hand, including many of the legislators and local officials that sought funding for the nearly $30-million project. The Douglass Park area is one of the neighborhoods benefitting.

The University of Illinois' Mike Smeltzer says the public will slowly start seeing some progress. He says one crew will be working in Urbana, while the Champaign contractor starts up two weeks from now.

"They're going to start with two crews, then they're going to wrap it up to four, then to six, just to get everything flowing in a nice way instead of just descending on the community all at one time," said Smeltzer. "So there will be a slow ramp up, but by the time everything is said and done, there will be somewhere between 10 and 15 crews working simultaneously in different areas of the community."

University of Illinois Interim Chancellor Robert Easter says community anchor institutions will be part of the network as well.

"It's an opportunity to provide our schools, our libraries, our fire stations, our infrastructure, and parts of our campus with access to the broadband that would not exist, were this not to come to pass," he said. "As I think about what it is, I also think about the aspirations that we have as university for our community."

Urbana alderman Brandon Bowersox notes the project will not only address homes and businesses, but a wide range of social service agencies, like the Boys and Girls Club. Lori Sorensem with the Illinois Century Network says the project will provide jobs for both the short term and long term. Champaign City Council member Will Kyles says he's enthused about minority hiring, including opportunities for canvassing, in which employees will knock on doors and explain what UC2B is.

UC2B will be on line no later than February 2013.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - September 02, 2011

Quake Risk to Reactors Greater Than Thought

The risk that an earthquake would cause a severe accident at a U.S. nuclear plant is greater than previously thought, 24 times as high in one case, according to an AP analysis of preliminary government data. The nation's nuclear regulator believes a quarter of America's reactors may need modifications to make them safer.

The threat came into sharp focus last week, when shaking from the largest earthquake to hit Virginia in 117 years appeared to exceed what the North Anna nuclear power plant northwest of Richmond was built to sustain.

The two North Anna reactors are among 27 in the eastern and central U.S. that a preliminary Nuclear Regulatory Commission review has said may need upgrades. That's because those plants are more likely to get hit with an earthquake larger than the one their design was based on. Just how many nuclear power plants are more vulnerable won't be determined until all operators recalculate their own seismic risk based on new assessments by geologists, something the agency plans to request later this year. The NRC on Thursday issued a draft of that request for public comment.

The review, launched well before the East Coast quake and the Japan nuclear disaster in March, marks the first complete update to seismic risk in years for the nation's 104 existing reactors, despite research showing greater hazards.

The NRC and the industry say reactors are safe as they are, for now. The average risk to U.S. reactors of core damage from a quake remains low, at one accident every 500 years, according to the AP analysis of NRC data.

The overall risk at a typical reactor among the 27 remains very slight. If the NRC's numbers prove correct, that would mean no more than one core accident from an earthquake in about 30,000 years at the typical reactor among the 27 with increased risk.

But emails obtained in a more than 11,000-page records request by The Associated Press show that NRC experts were worried privately this year that plants needed stronger safeguards to account for the higher risk assessments.

The nuclear industry says last week's quake proved reactors are robust. When the rumbling knocked out off-site power to the North Anna plant in Mineral, Va., the reactors shut down and cooled successfully, and the plant's four locomotive-sized diesel generators turned on. The quake also shifted about two dozen spent fuel containers, but Dominion Virginia Power said Thursday that all were intact.

Still, based on the AP analysis of NRC data, the plant is 38 percent more likely to suffer core damage from a rare, massive earthquake than it appeared in an analysis 20 years ago.

That increased risk is based on an even bigger earthquake than the one last week. Richard Zuercher, a spokesman for Dominion, the plant operator, says the earlier estimate "remains sound because additional safety margin was built into the design when the station was built."

The safety cushion would shrink, though, if the plant's risk is found to be greater.

Federal scientists update seismic assessments every five to six years to revise building codes for some structures. But no similar system is in place for all but two of the nation's 104 reactors - even though improving earthquake science has revealed greater risks than previously realized.

The exception is Diablo Canyon in earthquake-prone California, which has been required to review the risk of an earthquake routinely since 1985. The NRC does not require plants to re-examine their seismic risks to renew operating licenses for 20 years.

After the March earthquake in Japan that caused the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, NRC staffers fretted in emails that the agency's understanding of earthquake risk for existing reactors was out of date.

In a March 15 email, for example, an NRC earthquake expert questioned releasing data to the public showing how strong an earthquake each plant was designed to withstand. The seismologist, Annie Kammerer, acknowledged that recent science showed stronger quakes could happen. "Frankly, it is not a good story for us," she wrote to agency colleagues.

Kammerer's boss, Brian Sheron, who heads the NRC's Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, wrote in a March 14 email that updated numbers showed the government "didn't know everything about the seismicity" in the central and the eastern part of the country.

"And isn't there a prediction that the West Coast is likely to get hit with some huge earthquake in the next 30 years or so? Yet we relicense their plants," he wrote.

The NRC flagged the 27 plants for possible upgrades by calculating the likelihood of a severe accident based on 2008 hazard maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and comparing it to the seismic risk estimated in 1989 or 1994. Those data were used the last time existing reactors evaluated their earthquake hazards.

The NRC identified the 27 reactors with the greatest risk increase but did not provide the risk numbers. The AP used the NRC's data and methodology to calculate the risk increase for each reactor.

The Perry 1 reactor in Ohio tops the list with the steepest rise in the chance of core damage: 24 times as high as thought in 1989. The four other plants with the largest increases include River Bend 1 in Louisiana, up nine times; Dresden 2-3 in Illinois, eight times; Farley 1-2 in Alabama, seven times, and Wolf Creek 1 in Kansas, also seven times. The smallest increase was the 38 percent at North Anna.

A spokesperson for Exelon Nuclear, which operates the Dresden facility, said Friday that the new risk analysis is faulty because it doesn't include plant upgrades since seismic information was provided to the NRC in the mid-1990s.

Spokeswoman Krista Lopykinski says Dresden in Grundy County has "layer upon layer of safety systems" to protect against natural disasters.

Todd Schneider, a spokesman for First Energy Corp., which operates the Perry plant, said the increase in its seismic risk estimated by the NRC is misleading. He said Perry is capable of withstanding an even larger earthquake than is typical for the region.

Personnel at a handful of other plants, including Indian Point outside New York City and Oconee in South Carolina, have already redone the NRC's calculations, and they show a much lower risk of core damage from earthquakes. Those calculations have not yet been reviewed by the agency, which along with other federal agencies is developing a baseline earthquake risk for every nuclear power plant to use.

Predicting earthquake probability and damage is dicey; the Japanese nuclear industry was taken by surprise in March when a quake-driven tsunami far surpassed predictions and swamped the Fukushima Dai-ichi site.

The U.S. nuclear industry may not be fully ready, either. Current regulations don't require the NRC to make sure nuclear reactors are still capable of dealing with a new understanding of the threats.

It's not just earthquakes. It is all types of events, including floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, said an NRC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the agency's recent seismic work.

The worry about earthquakes is not so much direct damage to the reactor vessel, the hardened enclosure where the nuclear reaction takes place, but to water tanks and mechanical and electrical equipment needed when disaster strikes. The failure of those systems could disable cooling needed to prevent meltdowns of radioactive fuel.

In some of the emails obtained by the AP, NRC staffers worried that U.S. reactors had not thoroughly evaluated the effects of aftershocks and the combined impact of a tsunami and earthquake. They suggested plants might need more durable piping as well as better flood barriers and waterproof storage of essential equipment. Staffers talked of a need for bigger supplies of fuel and batteries for extended losses of all electrical power. One email expressed concern about some key pumps at Dresden that might fail in an earthquake.

In a separate problem reported last month, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy acknowledged that its older control rods could get stuck if an earthquake struck when reactors were running at low power. Control rods are needed to stop the nuclear reaction. The manufacturer has alerted the operators of 35 U.S. reactors at 24 sites, who are checking whether replacements are needed. The AP documented scores of instances of such wear and tear in a range of equipment in a June investigative series showing that safety standards have been relaxed to keep aging reactors within the rules.

When the NRC ran preliminary calculations of quake risk last year, it was the first time the agency had reassessed the threat since most plants were built.

"The plants were more vulnerable than they realized, but they weren't unsafe. We look at rare, rare events," said Kammerer, the NRC seismologist.

Plants built a generation ago were designed to withstand an earthquake larger than any known to have occurred in the area. But since then, scientists have been able to better estimate the earthquakes that are possible. And in some cases, those rare quakes could be larger and more frequent than those the plants were designed for.

"If they met a certain level, they didn't look any further," Gregory Hardy, an industry consultant at Simpson, Gumpertz and Hegger in Newport Beach, Calif., said of some of the industry's earlier assessments. "Forty years ago, when some of these plants were started, the hazard - we had no idea. No one did."

Seismologists inside the agency didn't recognize that increasing earthquake risk was an issue until operators started applying to build new reactors at existing plant sites in the central and eastern United States in 2003. Those applications included a thorough analysis of the risk posed by earthquakes, which is required for all new nuclear power plants.

In some cases, the result was much higher than risk calculations performed by the industry in the early 1990s as part of a broader assessment of worst-case disasters.

"We did have some idea that the hazard was going up" in the period between the late 1990s analysis and the applications for new reactors, said Clifford Munson, a senior technical adviser in the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactors. But Munson said some of the research indicated that there was disagreement on whether the ground motion predicted would damage nuclear power plants.

Kamal Manoly, another NRC senior technical adviser, said, "There was nothing alarming (enough) for us to take quick action."

But a task force requested by President Barack Obama to make U.S. safety recommendations after the Japanese accident has questioned that. Its three-month review concluded that existing reactors should re-examine their earthquake risk more often.

Some operators are expressing caution about the NRC's initial analysis, and say their own early calculations show that their facilities are at much lower risk. The differences between the calculations of government and industry have prompted some to call for a third-party review.

"It sort of defies logic to ask the regulated entity to do the seismic analysis to determine whether upgrades are necessary or relicensing is appropriate," said California Sen. Sam Blakeslee, a geophysicist who pushed a bill through the Legislature giving the California Energy Commission a role in assessing seismic risk, particularly at Diablo Canyon. "There needs to be a more arm's length relationship in getting this technical information."

There will always be uncertainties, experts say.

"If all these plants were subjected to large earthquakes, that's the only way anybody can say for sure. But the only ones we know of are in Japan," said Hardy, referring to the quake that struck in March and another in 2007 that damaged the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant.

"There is a pretty good technical feeling that U.S. plants are going to be safe," Hardy said, "but there is just a question of how much work it will take to show it.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 29, 2011

Legislation to Raise Electric Rates Heads to Gov. Quinn’s Desk

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Legislation to raise electric rates to help pay to modernize Illinois' power grid is on its way to the desk of Gov. Pat Quinn, despite his repeated pledges to veto it.

The energy bill would raise electric rates as part of a $3 billion, 10-year plan to give Commonwealth Edison and Ameren money for basic infrastructure and a modern Smart Grid.

The bill would allow a 2.5 percent annual rate increases for the first three years. ComEd bills are projected to climb about $36 a year, while Ameren customers would pay about $34 more by the project's 10th year.

It's estimated consumers might save $7 to $10 per month by using smart meters.

Com Ed claims the Smart Grid technology will allow consumers to monitor and reduce energy usage - and will help the company respond more effectively to power outages. Com Ed serves approximately 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois.

Com Ed calls the measure "the most comprehensive electric utility-based job creation and capital investment program in generations," though Quinn claims it places too big of a burden on consumers. However, critics say the legislation guarantees ComEd and Ameren higher profits on the backs of consumers.

Quinn's "anti" stance caused supporters to put the measure on a type of legislative hold. The hope was they could use the extra time to win over the governor and other critics, including the AARP and the Citizens Utility Board.

The proposal's House sponsor, State Rep. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park), said that it didn't work. But he said the storms that knocked out power for days in suburban Chicago early this summer prove why the power grid needs to get "smart."

"There's a chance that some of these things, through redirecting the power source and just the knowledge of where it's at and how many people are affected by each individual one, that we could have used that information in order to get some of these people back on line quicker," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said even though there is still opposition, he wanted the measure to get to the governor's desk so Quinn would have to act on it before October's veto session.

Earlier this year, Quinn and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a joint statement urging the Illinois Senate to reject the measure before it became law.

"While Commonwealth Edison and Ameren talk about investment in Smart Grid, Senate Bill 1652 is clearly not just about investing in this technology," wrote Quinn and Madigan at the time. "This legislation locks in guaranteed, significant annual profits for the utility companies without real oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC)."

According to the Governor's office, ComEd rates would increase by approximately $180 million - or 9 percent -- every year for 10 years.

ComEd continued Monday to call on Quinn to sign the bill.

"Since its introduction last winter, the bill has undergone significant revisions to address concerns raised by the governor and multiple stakeholders. It is clear that the benefits provided by the bill greatly exceed its costs and allow Illinois the opportunity to invest in much-needed infrastructure improvements," the company said in a statement.

The measure's sponsors predicted they could find enough votes to override Quinn if he follows through with his threat to veto the measure. McCarthy said if it is needed, he will introduce a follow-up measure to appease those concerns. He said that could include requiring the utilities to set aside money to help low-income customers afford their electric bills, or a lower return on equity.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 26, 2011

U of I Proceeding with New Engineering Facility

The University of Illinois' College of Engineering expects to break ground late this fall on a building that's been in the works for about 40 years.

The 230,000 square foot, four-story building will combine much of the research now spread between different facilities at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Nearly $50 million in state capital funds and $35 million in private donations are already committed to a project that Professor Phil Krein said was next in line to the Lincoln Hall renovations in terms of priority. It will be located just south of the Beckman Institute.

He said 2,000 students at ECE, the largest department on the Urbana campus, now split up their work in six different buildings. Krein said this will effectively house the department in one area. ECE is often mentioned on par with the same department at schools like MIT and UC Berkeley. Krein said this new building can put the U of I's department on top.

"With special emphasis these days on the electric power grid and some other basic infrastructure things, air traffic control, and so forth, the building actually can become kind of a living laboratory for power grid advances in the future as well as communications infrastructure and many other related things," he said.

Department head Andreas Cangellaris credits U of I President Hogan and Governor Pat Quinn for freeing up the capital funds for it. He said this building will allow many of the school's 2,000 students to study various innovations in the same space instead of all the buildings currently used.

"We have students who learn from things having to do with electronics and integrated circuits all the way to alternative energy, cyberphysical systems, and bio-related education that requires very special laboratories," Cangellaris said.

The U of I expects to seek out bids for construction by mid-October, with groundbreaking in November. Construction is expected to take about two and a-half years.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 25, 2011

Wind Farm Proposal Goes Before Champaign Co. Zoning Board of Appeals

A proposed wind farm for Champaign and Vermilion Counties goes before the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals tonight.

The ZBA's 7 PM meeting at the Brookens Center in Urbana is the first of four scheduled meetings on the proposal from Chicago-based Invenergy Wind. County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said he hopes the zoning board can reach a conclusion on the proposal by its Sept. 29 meeting --- so the county board can act in October. But he said if there's enough public interest, more meetings may be scheduled.

"This could go beyond Sept. 29, if necessary," Hall said. "We absolutely have to listen to what people want to say, provided it's no redundant, and it's relevant to the application. And if that literally takes longer than Sept. 29, that's what we'll have to do."

The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.

Invenergy's proposed California Ridge wind farm would place 30 wind turbines in northeast Champaign County, north of Royal, and 104 turbines in western Vermilion County.

The Vermilion County Board approved a building permit for the project in July.


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