Fullerton: Wind Most Cost-Effective Energy Source For Illinois

September 11, 2015
A pie chart showing the state of Illinois' power generation capacity in 2013

State of Illinois power generation capacity as of 2013

Graph created by Brian Moline

A recent paper from Don Fullerton with the University of Illinois IGPA argues that wind energy is the best way for Illinois to lower its carbon emissions as required by the EPA by the year 2030.  Fullerton talked about his conclusions with Illinois Public Media's Brian Moline.

Don Fullerton, IGPA

Photo Credit: Illinois IGPA

Fullerton says a big reason wind makes the most sense for Illinois as the state attempts to lower carbon emissions is that much of the needed infratructure is already in place.

"That's what we have more of than some of the other possibilities," Fullerton said.  "You can see windmills all around Illinois.  It actually works pretty well, and it's a fairly low cost form of renewable energy."

He said that wind is not the only answer for the state's energy future, particularly in the near future.

"We're going to have to use a portfolio of multiple options," Fullerton said.  "Probably the cheapest and best thing to do initially for the very first step to reduce carbon emissions would be to switch to natural gas."

Fullerton said that's because the technology is already in place.

"We know that technology, and it's currently cheap." he said.

But as the emission restrictions tighten, Fullerton said that the need for carbon free energy sources will grow, which is why Illinois should start putting more wind energy in place as soon as possible.

"The carbon emission mandate is going to become more stringent," he said.  "As wind power gets cheaper, and the mandate gets more stringent, we'll have to switch more eventually to other renewables, and not just natural gas."

Fullerton said though all of the state's wind farms are currently on land, the biggest opportunity for future growth is to use offshore wind farms in Lake Michigan.

"The advantage of putting them offshore is that there's more wind," he said.  "It doesn't use up any farm land.  It's actually cost-effective to put the windmills out there."

Fullerton said though there are currenly no offshore wind farms in the United States, European countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands have used offshore wind farms extensively.

We did not do that. In our own study we cited some numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration so that we’re sort of going on that basis but their projections down the road.

Basically the story is that the new technology and the costs are going to improve more rapidly and fact those costs will fall at a more rapid rate the more we use of them another was it’s called learning by doing. Or windmills we have and the more people that are trained to build them and use them, the more experience can get with that technology the cheaper it’s going to be so.

Sitting on our haunches now and doing nothing and then waiting a couple decades and then starting on something like wind power when absolutely necessary is probably not a good way to plan for that event and better way might be to start earlier in order start learning about the technology in order to get some people trained to be able to use it, and then when the federal mandate gets more stringent, Illinois will be a better position to take advantage of the best available technologies, have those costs to be lower than they otherwise would be.

How has Illinois done wind so far, and what are some areas for growth for wind power in the future?

Interesting question because one of the aspects of our study was to focus on where the windmills might be looking down the road and so far all of them are of what’s called onshore, in other words on land, on and they’re in farms on farms. It’s not a bad way to do it, in fact it’s relatively cheap to rent some land from the farmers, it doesn’t use up most of their farm, it’s only a small patch of ground that they need for the base of the windmill and most of the farmers are used for farming, and then you can put, you know, hundreds of these things or at least dozens of them in a given area. You’ve seen them along the interstate highways driving down until Illinois but to the extent that those get filled up and to the extent that we’re investigating more different alternatives a future possibility might be to put these windmills offshore and there’s sort of two choices that we talk of in the paper: one is a near the shore in Lake Michigan, and the other option is further offshore, and the difference is that the ones near shore will be a bit cheaper than the ones further away because the the water’s not as deep, you don’t have to transport the windmills out there it’s just easier to set up when it’s not too deep and too far away from the shore.

But it has the disadvantage of being able to see those windmills from the coastline, from the beach, and so there might be some aesthetic costs if people don’t like the view of the windmills disturbing the natural beauty of Lake Michigan. We’re not sure what’s the size of that problem and so you know if Illinois was going to investigate this you might need some surveys, or some measurement, then get you know to just get a feeling from people how costly that might be, what’s the problem or is that really bad? You know maybe some people like that idea of being able to see them or nearby the shore the advantage of putting on the shore like that is that there’s there’s more wind and it doesn’t use up any land it doesn’t use up farmland, there’s more wind.

It’s actually you know sort of cost effective to put him to put the we’re not out there but if you want to avoid the slightly unaesthetic cost of having one near the shore and when those further away then they become more expensive and I’m curious. I didn’t really see much in the paper about that but I didn’t know if you had found it some research you know what the lifespan of these when turbines usually is how that gets factored into the cost of wind energy down the road we didn’t measure that specifically or talk about that much in the paper they may have more fixed cost up front and they do you know over the decades that they’re in operation so it’s a big investment to put up you know not just one of those the whole field especially field of these when else but then they last for decades. You know something on the order of thirty years and they’ll keep generating energy rich with relatively low costs for maintenance and you know they’re not always work and sometimes and one of them might need adjustments breakdown and need repair, but those costs are relatively low compared to the up front cost and like right now by the way when does not really cost effective it nor a solar power or geothermal I mean the cheapest way to generate electricity is good old coal fired power plant coal is cheap the problem is that those generate a lot of carbon dioxide emissions which is a greenhouse gas which is you know not just causing problems with climate change for the world and sea level rise as well as health damages you know last bio diversity in general sort of heat problems around the country but you know with whether you worry about that or not kind of doesn’t matter because now Illinois going to be facing this federal mandate. Illinois I will have to cut its emissions by thirty one percent relative to two thousand and levels by the year twenty thirty so we don’t have to do anything yet and we can sit on our hands for another five or ten years and not too much we have to you know pose a plan to the federal government according to the new rules under the Clean Power Plan the Illinois will need to make a plan but we don’t have to execute the plan we could sit around and do nothing but that’ll make it more costly later i’m so the general recommendation here is get started learning the technology can get started on the implementation so as to have a gradual transition of of just waiting and getting ourselves into a crisis state.

Don, should Illinois decide to go with the wind a route to expand wind energy, What are some other places that Illinois can look to as an example of how wind has been done previously?

Well we mentioned in that paper is that Europe has generally more experience, especially in the Netherlands and Denmark they actually have a lot of wind power and a lot of it is off shore, and so if they want to learn about the technology for installing with energy turbines off offshore and Lake Michigan you know might be worth learning some what’s been done in Denmark especially and elsewhere in Europe to put windmills not just on land, we have some experience about in Illinois, but there’s actually no place in the United States that has operating windmills offshore, so might need to go to Europe to learn more about how to do that.

And Don I saw that this is part of what’s called the Climate Change Policy Initiative; what is that initiative, and and how long have you been working on it?

Well the IGPA is interested in trying to help policy makers with information and policy analysis. It’s meant to be you know unbiased, objective, pros and cons of these different alternatives just to help inform policy makers to make good choices for us. And you know there’s a lot of different policy problems, and we have an issue that’s going on about education policy and about other social policies about economic policy, you know, this one is about climate change policy because that’s one of my interests and my research so we might study, you know, economic effects of air emissions or water pollution or you know what. Our sustainability of water quality is another climate change issue but by calling it a climate change initiative and expense we’re going to focus on these problems from climate change and climate change policy.

So one of the things Illinois does have to worry about regardless of whether you want to do anything to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the state of Illinois there’s going to be climate change and that’s going to depend the extent of that’s going to depend upon how much everybody else cuts their carbon emissions in the world but even if everybody cuts their carbon emissions around the world we’re still going to get some climate change and that means Illinois going to become hotter and that means that policy makers might want to start preparing for that and that could involve health problems. Heat stroke and heart attacks that the company he might want to make sure everybody has access to air conditioned environments on the on especially hot day there’s also going to be problems with climate change with for management because we’re going to have more clubs in will have more droughts this is part of our climate change initiative is to think about what state of Illinois I might need to do to protect our agricultural production when there’s droughts or indeed more extra rain in the spring time they could be floods that wash away the the seeds doing feeding parts of the year and drought during the summer when the plants grow you know heat problems. Storm water management at the city of Chicago and all these problems just tapping to the climate change we’re going to get.