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December 14, 2011 / Mike Piskur

FutureGen 2.0 lives (for now)

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on December 9, 2011.

Billed as a “first-of-its-kind, near-zero emissions coal-fueled power plant,” FutureGen 2.0 is intended to prove that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is a feasible means for cutting CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants. In November 2011, Ameren Corp. decided to pull out of the project, but will sell its stake to FutureGen Alliance, the consortium of international energy utilities and mining firms providing private funding for the project. The upgraded power plant is schedule to be operational in 2016.

Nearly a decade after the Bush Administration announced the original FutureGen plan that would have constructed a new facility in Mattoon, the current project will retrofit part of the Meredosia Energy Center at a cost, so far, of $1.65 billion. The U.S. Department of Energy pledged $1 billion in Recovery Act funds to spur private investment in the project. U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said FutureGen 2.0 “will help ensure the US.. remains competitive in a carbon constrained economy, creating jobs while reducing greenhouse gas pollution.” CCS technology aims to capture and sequester carbon emissions in storage wells drilled into rock formations more than three-quarters of a mile below the surface. Additionally, the new system will use an “oxy-combustion” process that reduces other greenhouses gases, particulate matter and mercury emissions to “near-zero levels.”

Initially slated to cost $1.3 billion, the most recent cost estimates call for $1.1 billion to upgrade the Meredosia generating unit and $550 million for construction of the CO2 pipeline and storage site. The Alliance, however, claims to have identified potential cost savings that could reduce the price by several hundred million dollars. Once operational, the new system will capture at least 90 percent, or approximately 1.3 million metric tons, of the power plant’s annual CO2 emissions. This technology, however, requires additional energy and can increase a power plant’s energy use by 40 percent. In other words, a CCS facility will burn more coal in order to reduce the carbon footprint of coal, if the technology works at all.

The federal government, electric utilities, and mining companies are eager to prove CCS can be adopted on a wide enough scale to continue burning coal at prodigious rates as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightens regulations on emissions, and especially if Washington can put a national cap on CO2. The commercial viability of facilities like FutureGen 2.0 would allow coal-fired power plants to maintain output while mitigating the impact of CO2 on the climate. The US.. possesses the world’s largest coal reserves.

Despite rapid deployment of wind turbines and solar panels, renewable energy generation accounts for only a small fraction of total generation in Illinois and the U.S. At present, coal provides about half of Illinois’ electricity, and the state’s coal reserves are among the nation’s highest. Assuming that no additional nuclear power plants are constructed and that Illinois doesn’t strengthen its commitment to renewable energy, coal will generate a major portion of electricity for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin played a key role in bringing the project to Illinois. In 2008, the Bush administration pulled the plug on FutureGen as the costs escalated, but President Barack Obama and Secretary Chu used stimulus funds to revive the plan as FutureGen 2.0. Durbin has called it “the most dramatic federal investment in any county downstate”, and voiced approval over the Alliance’s decision to buy out Ameren’s share.

“The FutureGen 2.0 project can move more directly toward its goal of making Illinois and the United States a world leader in cutting-edge technology that will improve the environment and create good-paying jobs,” Durbin said.

FutureGen 2.0 is moving forward, but much uncertainty and risk remains. First, the very nature of the project is speculative. CCS is being used at refineries and to recover additional oil and natural gas by injecting CO2 into wells, but its effectiveness for reducing emissions from power plants remains unproven. Second, construction and operations costs are extremely high, perhaps prohibitively so. As the price continues to grow, the project’s prospects shrink. Expensive CCS technology stands to increase the price of electricity from coal by a significant margin, just when solar and wind energy are becoming cost competitive with coal. Lastly, even if carbon capture and storage does work on a commercial scale, the need for additional energy means more coal will be mined and transported to the power plant. The technology does nothing to mitigate the large environmental footprint of coal mining.

For FutureGen 2.0 to be operational by 2016, the current group of developers must remain intact, which means costs must be contained. If this can be done, then, and only then, will it be known whether the project achieves its stated goals or is a billion-dollar boondoggle.

December 1, 2011 / Mike Piskur

Racing to the bottom

Ohio wants to lure Sears out of Illinois. By offering as much as $400 million in incentives, Ohio aims to convince Sears to move its headquarters from Hoffman Estates and presumably to a similar Cleveland suburb. It’s unfortunate and ultimately destructive for US states, let alone debt-ridden Rustbelt states, to engage in a zero-sum economic contest. Illinois’ loss is not Ohio’s gain. On the contrary, any state’s loss is the nation’s loss. Interstate competition only drains public coffers and damages communities, and does nothing to address the systemic economic crisis gripping the country. As local economy writers like Michael Shuman and Amy Cortese correctly point out, the benefits of such a “victory” may be fleeting. Who’s to say that Sears won’t seek greener pastures in another US state or country in five or ten years’ time? This kind of short-term thinking nearly destroyed the economy and it certainly cannot fix it.

November 29, 2011 / Mike Piskur

Green Infrastructure in Illinois

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on November 23, 2011.


A report by Natural Resources Defense Council recognizes two Illinois cities for leadership in implementing green infrastructure strategies to deal with stormwater challenges. Chicago and Aurora are among the list of 14 U.S. communities highlighted in the Rooftops to Rivers II report(PDF). Green infrastructure helps to eliminate runoff pollution by capturing rain where it falls and using it to replenish plants and groundwater supplies rather than allowing it to enter underground pipes and pollute the water supply.

Green infrastructure includes green roofs, street trees, green space, rain barrels, rain gardens, and permeable pavement. These strategies mitigate flooding, clean water, improve air quality, decrease urban temperatures, and reduce associated energy costs. In addition to their environmental benefits, green infrastructure is more cost-effective than traditional “grey” infrastructure like concrete pipes and water treatment facilities.

Chicago’s water infrastructure was built to address 19th century problems that polluted the city’s water supply and created serious public health problems. Like many older U.S. cities, Chicago has a combined sewer system, which means that sewage and stormwater are not separated. Particularly during heavy storms, but even during rainfalls as small as .67 inches, combined sewer overflow sends waste water into the Chicago River. This water makes its way to downstream communities, and eventually to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, where pollutants have created a “Dead Zone” that grows larger every year.

Chicago is lauded for covering the rooftops of its public buildings with native plants. The city has nearly 500 green roofs totaling about 5.5 million square feet constructed or in-progress, and provides incentives such as expedited building permits for private building owners who install green roofs. This commitment to green roofs has helped to drive down the cost of installation and establish the city as a world leader in urban sustainability. The city’s green roof program receives the most press, but there’s much more going on to address the great environmental challenges of the day. Chicago is a leader in urban forestry, and spends $8 million to 10 million to plant 4,000 to 6,000 trees each year. The city’s Urban Forest Agenda places the maintenance and planting of street trees at the center of its stormwater management strategy, with the goal of 20 percent citywide tree canopy coverage by 2020. Another initiative, Greening Chicago’s Alleys, aims to line the city’s 13,000 alleys with permeable pavement, which improves water infiltration and reduces runoff. As of 2010, the Chicago Department of Transportation has installed more than 215,000 square feet of permeable pavement in parking lots, sidewalks, parking lanes, bike lanes, and plazas.

These efforts, however, are spread across various city agencies, and Chicago does not have a comprehensive plan to integrate its green infrastructure programs. Furthermore, the city lacks a dedicated funding source and does not require private property owners to use green infrastructure to reduce impervious surface, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has been slow to embrace green infrastructure in its stormwater management strategy. Karen Hobbs, co-author of the report, says that although the city “lacks a comprehensive vision”, “Chicago is poised to do important work around green infrastructure.”

Aurora, however, has successfully integrated green infrastructure across all city departments. This comprehensive approach to stormwater management stems from the city’s dependence on the Fox River both as its water supply and as its economic core. Aurora adheres to a Kane County ordinance requiring rainfall events up to .75 inches to be retained on-site; this water cannot come into contact with downstream areas. Green infrastructure is a key element in the city’s strategy to reduce pollution in the Fox River. As it replaces the combined sewer system with two separate pipes, three green infrastructure pilot projects aim to reduce pollution and stormwater overflow.

Large-scale, expensive capital projects like the reversal of the Chicago River eliminated the flow of industrial waste into Lake Michigan but does nothing to address current issues like flooding and overflow. The $4 billion dollar Deep Tunnel project has reduced the occurrence of overflow events, but still sent nearly 19 million gallons of polluted water into Lake Michigan between 2007 and 2010. And the project’s current phase – the construction of a flood-control reservoir – won’t be completed until at least 2029, more than fifty years after construction began.

The 2012 Chicago budget allocates $147 million for improvements to the city’s aging water infrastructure, including 900 miles of new pipes and upgrades to water pumping stations. Increased water and sewer fees will pay for these improvements. While the century-old network of pipes do require significant upgrades, green infrastructure provides a more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable method of dealing with stormwater and sewer overflow.

“Chicago’s green infrastructure investment is an example for the region about how communities can literally make their waterways cleaner, reduce pollution on our beaches, and reduce the risk of basement flooding – and with a much greater return than with conventional solutions,” said Hobbs.

November 22, 2011 / Mike Piskur

The Community Energy Revolution

Despite all of the gloomy news about climate change – that carbon emissions hit record levels in 2010 and that rich nations won’t reach a global climate agreement until 2020 – there is reason for optimism about the future. Communities, companies, and the crowd are powering the post-carbon transition even as governments vacillate and the world’s biggest polluters press on with business as usual.

A number of innovative and potentially transformational clean energy projects may change the way we generate and finance energy. Community supported energy is inherently democratic and provides the counterpoint to the centralized system currently in place. Locally owned, distributed renewable energy generation transforms the average person from a passive consumer into an active and engaged investor. Community-owned energy creates much larger economic benefits than utility-scale generation. According to John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, “locally owned renewable energy projects have an economic impact 1.5 to 3.4 times higher than absentee owned projects.” In this era of extreme market volatility and minuscule interest rates, community supported energy can provide a better and more reliable rate of return than stocks and savings accounts. Perhaps most importantly, community and/or crowd funding creates new means of financing for energy models that may not fit the bill for traditional methods like venture capital or bank loans . Here are several examples of community supported energy:

  • In California, Solar Mosaic uses a platform much like Kickstarter to channel crowdfunding into community solar energy projects. People purchase solar panels that are installed on the roofs of community center, nonprofits, places of worship, and small businesses. The building owner signs a 20-year lease to buy the energy with the option to purchase the panels after seven years. The revenue pays back investors, with any additional money applied to other community solar projects.
  • In Washington State, Tangerine Power offers several options for people to invest in solar panels on their homes or other buildings in the community. This service focuses on group buying and simplified solar installation for homeowners. Community projects require a $1,000 investment that is repaid after ten years. After that, investors elect to keep the array, sell it to the local utility, or dismantle it.
  • In England, Ovesco constructed a 98kw solar power station atop Harveys Brewery in the town of Lewes. Community funding paid for the entire £307,000 project, which offers a 4% return on investment. Unfortunately, current securities laws prevent this model from coming to the US.
  • In Ontario, Canada, the SolarShare community bond program provides a 5% return over 5 years on a $1,000 investment. The funds pay for community solar energy projects throughout the province. Again, quoting John Farrell, “The SolarShare cooperative already operates 18 solar projects with a combined capacity of 600 kilowatts (enough power for about 130 homes).  The program could grow rapidly, once the bond program gets its regulatory approval and removes the $1,000 cap on investments.” Again, this model isn’t possible in the United States.

These models share some similarities but also differ in fundamental ways. All have the potential to revolutionize energy, though only time will tell which, if any, are successful. Much of the excitement comes from the fact that communities and entrepreneurs are inventing and perfecting locally owned energy as they go, and that everyone involved, from the person who creates the scheme to the individual looking to invest in their community and the clean energy industry, has a say in creating a democratized renewable energy infrastructure. This is uncharted territory: never has so much been at stake, and never have so many been able to shape the future.

November 9, 2011 / Mike Piskur

Smart grid politics and distributed generation in Illinois

The Illinois “smart grid” bill became the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act in late October when the Illinois General Assembly overrode a veto by Governor Pat Quinn. The legislation will pour more than $3 billion dollars into modernizing the state’s electric grid, but Quinn and many consumer advocacy groups opposed it on the grounds that it also guts regulation of utilities and essentially allows ComEd and Ameren to raise customer rates on a yearly basis in order to guarantee a certain rate of return. The legislators and utility representatives who crafted the bill included several provisions in order to gain enough votes for passage. Key among these are new rules for net metering and distributed power generation, both of which have the potential to create a renewable energy boom in Illinois.

The Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) mandates that 25 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2025, but did not include any requirements for electricity from small-scale producers. Under the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act, distributed generation must supply one percent of the state’s renewable energy by 2015. One percent of 25 percent of the state’s electricity consumption may not seem like a huge amount of energy, but it establishes incentives for homeowners and communities to invest in renewable energy technologies. It may prove to be a major step forward in transitioning Illinois away from fossil fuels and toward the post-carbon future.


November 5, 2011 / Mike Piskur

Building the sustainable urban future

Among environmentalists and urban theorists who don’t believe societal collapse is inevitable, the prevailing wisdom dictates that high-density urban areas are the key to creating a sustainable society. Smaller housing units, walkable neighborhoods, locally produced energy and food, and access to bicycles and mass transit create a smaller carbon footprint than large homes in low-density neighborhoods and towns connected by highways. This much is known. That this formula for urban sustainability has entered the mainstream is a positive development, but it overlooks one major factor in determining livability and, indeed, the stability of society: natural resources in general, and energy in particular.

Edward Glaeser, Alex Steffen, and Geoffrey West are ardent supporters of high-density cities. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, argues for constructing skyscrapers (anathema to many environmentalists) to increase the amount of residential and commercial space in a city’s central business district. The contrast between costs of living in Chicago and New York supports this thesis. Steffen, co-founder of Worldchanging, compares high-rise buildings to tent poles that boost a city’s overall density and sustainability. He about “reweaving the urban fabric” through infill development, retrofitting, and sharable services and spaces as means of reducing the carbon intensity of the city. And West, the physicist in search of a grand unifying urban theory, offers data that shows cities create economies of scale that suburbs and small towns cannot match: city dwellers use fewer natural resources and require less infrastructure investment than their suburban and rural counterparts, and this return to scale increases as the city becomes larger. On a per capita basis, New Yorkers consume fewer resources than Chicagoans, who consume few resources than Houstonians or Cincinnatians. Furthermore, he contends that access to culture, ideas, and other people make cities natural hubs of creativity and innovation; it’s this role that make cities the linchpins of a sustainable society.

Despite the low per capita carbon footprint of city dwellers, cities consume vast amounts of resources. Sure, the world would be better off if everyone lived in Chicago-style density as opposed to, say, Atlanta-style sprawl, but the sheer size and level of activity necessarily means that cities, as a whole, will consume a large portion of the planet’s energy, water, food, and other resources. Sustainability is a word that eludes a fixed meaning, but those who think about the future of cities (whether their visions are utopian or dystopian) agree that people will need to live closer to the resources that make modern civilization possible.  The post-carbon future will not allow any more places like Las Vegas or Dubai.

Not until the last century did cities manage to grow without a major body of water nearby. Desert cities in the United States, Middle East, and Asia couldn’t bloom without a major investment in infrastructure and/or desalination technology. Providing water for cities, whether you’re diverting it from a river or removing its salt content, uses a lot of energy. Coal and nuclear provide much of the world’s electricity, but coal-fired power plants and nuclear reactors cannot be in close proximity to dense urban centers. Renewable energy production, however, can and should become a common part of the urban fabric. Buildings and communities that generate their own energy, grow (at least some) of their own food, and purify their own water must become standard operating procedure if the magnificent urban future of Glaeser, Steffen, and West is to become reality.

The sustainable society is urban, and the post-carbon cities that constitute this future scenario are dense, walkable, efficient, and provide access to mass transit. But that’s not enough. In addition to being hubs of culture and innovation, these cities must also become hubs of energy production. The era of cheap and easy fossil energy is ending, but the future need not be one of downgraded technology and diminished expectation. Solar energy will be available to meet society’s needs long beyond the scope of even the most forward-looking urban plan or energy forecast. The transition to a post-carbon society will be difficult, but it’s far from impossible. Perhaps the key is to eradicate the disconnect between the places we live in and the places that make our lifestyles possible. Just as the locavore movement reconnects people to their food and the land it grows on, a local energy movement will create a connection between people and the resources upon which they depend. It’s easy to take for granted the carbon-spewing power plant or wind farm located a hundred miles outside of the city, but a neighborhood solar energy generation center would be unforgettable. It would become entrenched in the urban fabric, and it would transform the ways we think about energy and the city.

November 1, 2011 / Mike Piskur

Illinois Power Agency’s new overseers

In early October, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn named Arlene Juracek head of the Illinois Power Agency (IPA). Juracek, a long-time employee of ComEd, was a key part of the negotiating team that created Illinois’ deregulation law and the reverse auction process, which caused dramatic rate increases and led a to $1 billion settlement. IPA was established in 2007 for the purposes of:

  • Developing and submitting annual electricity procurement plans to the Illinois Commerce Commission that ensure adequate, reliable, affordable, efficient, and environmentally sustainable electric service at the lowest total cost over time, taking into account any benefits of price stability for Commonwealth Edison and the Ameren Illinois Utilities.  The plans are to include electricity generated from renewable as well as clean coal resources.
  • Conducting competitive procurement processes according to the procurement plans as approved by the ICC.
  • Developing electric generation and co-generation facilities that use indigenous coal or renewable resources, or both, financed with bonds issued by the Illinois Finance Authority.
  • Supply electricity from the Agency’s facilities at cost to municipal electric systems, governmental aggregators, or rural electric cooperatives in Illinois.

Less than a month after Juracek’s appointment, the Illinois General Assembly voted to strip Gov. Quinn of his control over IPA. Oversight duties now belong to the Executive Ethics Commission, a “nine member commission that promotes ethics in public service. Its purpose is to help ensure that State business is conducted with fairness and integrity.” The governor responded by calling the General Assembly’s decision “extremely short-sighted” and saying:

“This unfortunate action will mean that an agency that is responsible for brokering enormous energy contracts each and every year will be overseen by a commission that has absolutely no background in the complex process of electricity procurement and planning. Additionally, the Executive Ethics Commission does not have the experience needed to effectively manage the operations of a state agency, which it never was intended to do.”

Politicking aside, Illinoisans can only hope that Quinn’s statement is incorrect. IPA’s mandate is to “ensure adequate, reliable, affordable, efficient, and environmentally sustainable electric service”, and to develop renewable resources in Illinois. It is vitally important to the renewable energy industry that the state’s energy broker functions as intended. The General Assembly’s decision ostensibly aims to correct what’s seen as mismanagement by the governor’s office. Already, Juracek testified against long-term contracts for wind energy, in opposition to Quinn and energy developers. Yes, IPA must balance the imperatives of providing low rates for consumers and adequate incentives for developers, but if renewable energy credits (RECs) are the most cost-effective option then the long-term health of the Illinois clean energy industry may be sacrificed for short-term savings.