Murky waters: Chicagoans worry petcoke moving to barges

Barges filled with material that appears to be petroleum coke line the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Barges filled with material that appears to be petroleum coke line the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

A full rainbow arched over the Calumet River on a bleak day in late September, lending a hint of beauty to the massive abandoned grain elevator, the ramshackle warehouses and the lines of barges moored by the Illinois International Port.

Some of the barges were covered, but at least nine of them were uncovered and piled high with a powdery black material that appeared to be petroleum coke, or petcoke, the byproduct of oil refining that has sparked a grassroots uprising and political debate in Chicago.

It’s not clear that the material is definitely petcoke. Facilities along the Calumet also handle and store coal and metallurgical coke, or metcoke, and various other bulk materials.

U.S. Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Simone Mausz said that no government agency tracks barges on the Calumet or other Chicago rivers. “It’s impossible to tell how many barges go up and down the river, how many are ‘red flag,’ how many are carrying petcoke,” she said.

An industry spokesman declined to disclose what materials the barges are handling, and officials from Chicago’s port authority did not respond to requests for information on the shipments.

In the absence of information, residents see the barges as the latest wrinkle in the petcoke story, representing new concerns about the material and also about a serious lack of transparency regarding any potentially toxic materials that are moved on the river.

In Milwaukee, critics blast We Energies rate proposal

Opponents of a proposed We Energies rate plan largely outnumbered proponents at a Milwaukee hearing Wednesday. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

Opponents of a proposed We Energies rate plan largely outnumbered proponents at a Milwaukee hearing Wednesday. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)

MILWAUKEE – More than 200 people packed a public hearing on We Energies’ proposed rate restructuring in Milwaukee on Wednesday afternoon. And that was before the brass band played in the parking lot and an evening hearing that brought a new crowd.

“Are they having a party here? Is the news coming to cover the pool players?” asked one local walking up to the senior center where the hearing was held.

The attention to the normally obscure rate-making procedure (docket number 5-UR-107) is because We Energies’ proposal is seen as an attack on renewable energy that could nearly halt rooftop solar development in the area and chill distributed generation in general, including small wind projects and farm biogas digesters.

If the Public Service Commission approves We Energies’ plan, it would mean the fixed charges all consumers pay each month would go up by 75 percent while rates for energy consumption would go down, greatly reducing the incentive for installing rooftop solar or other distributed generation.

Dynegy plan to switch grid operators would cost ratepayers

Illinois Coal Plants

The Newton Power Station is one of five Illinois coal plants that Dynegy took over last year. (AP Photo/Jim Suhr, File)

Last year, Ameren Corp. basically paid Dynegy Inc. to take five aging coal plants in downstate Illinois off its hands.

Now Dynegy is seeking to make those plants more profitable, through changes to the way they are paid for capacity – potential future generation that can be called on if needed.

Critics of the plan say the changes would mean higher costs for ratepayers with little, if any, improvement in reliability.

The plants provide power to the utility Ameren Illinois, which is part of the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) regional transmission organization (RTO). MISO runs an annual capacity auction wherein generators are paid for power they will be prepared to provide if needed.

In fight against pollution, nurses union on the front lines

Members of National Nurses United protest petroleum coke storage in Chicago in May. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)

Members of National Nurses United protest petroleum coke storage in Chicago in May. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)

“Whatever it is a nurse can do, I probably have done it,” says Beverly Van Buren, an operating room nurse at St. Louis University Hospital who has also worked in nursing homes, podiatry, the military reserves and other posts in her nearly four-decade career.

“And I have loved it – it has been a fantastic journey,” she said.

The latest stage of Van Buren’s journey features a growing mission among nurses nationwide: the pursuit of environmental justice, fueled by a growing awareness of the environmental factors that could be linked to, causing or exacerbating the cancers, respiratory ailments or other conditions that affect their patients.

Nurses have individually become increasingly aware of the role of the environment in health, and over the past two years the National Nurses United labor union has launched a concerted campaign to mobilize on environmental justice issues — including the role of fossil fuels in both local pollution and climate change.

Q&A: Tea Party star heads to Wisconsin to fight for solar

In this 2013 file photo, Debbie Dooley speaks at a hearing before a Senate Rules Committee in Atlanta. Long a political activist, Dooley is now extolling the conservative virtues of distributed renewable energy. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In this 2013 file photo, Debbie Dooley speaks at a hearing before a Senate Rules Committee in Atlanta. Long a political activist, Dooley is now extolling the conservative virtues of distributed renewable energy. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Dooley’s itinerary.

Debbie Dooley is not a tree-hugger – in fact she bills herself as a radical right-wing grandmother, and she is a founding member of the national Tea Party and a leader of the Atlanta Tea Party.

But Dooley is also an outspoken proponent of distributed solar generation and other forms of renewable distributed energy. Dooley will be the featured speaker next week at the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association’s Solar Social Speakers series – as advocates in the state say solar is under attack by elected officials, regulators and major utilities.

Industry says job numbers show need for urgency on fracking

A drilling rig in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. (Photo by WCN 24.7 via Creative Commons)

A drilling rig in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. (Photo by WCN 24.7 via Creative Commons)

Petroleum backers say a new job survey makes the case for why Illinois should be doing more to expand drilling, particularly fracking, in the state.

The oil and gas industry has created 263,700 jobs in Illinois, according to a study released by the American Petroleum Institute Tuesday that lists direct, indirect and induced jobs created, as well as vendors with contracts with the industry, in each state.

In Illinois, 932 businesses are part of the oil and gas supply chain, the study says, supporting $33.3 billion, or five percent, of the state’s economy.

American Petroleum Institute senior economic adviser Rayola Dougher and Illinois Petroleum Council executive director Jim Watson said the study shows why state regulators should be doing more to facilitate the launch of high volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Survey: Midwesterners not buying ‘wind turbine syndrome’

People in Iowa, which leads the Midwest in wind energy, are the least likely to believe that wind turbines impact human health, according to a recent survey. (Photo by tumblingrun via Creative Commons)

People in Iowa, which leads the Midwest in wind energy, are the least likely to believe that wind turbines impact human health, according to a recent survey. (Photo by tumblingrun via Creative Commons)

Science has frequently rejected arguments that wind turbines pose a threat to human health. And now the verdict is in both in the courts of legal and public opinion on the matter, according to a recent study and poll.

bipartisan poll on energy issues released earlier this week found that in six Midwestern states — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin — only 14 percent of respondents believe wind turbines harm human health.

The survey of 2,477 voters was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and FM3 on behalf of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Among the states surveyed, the lowest percentage of people who believe wind turbines cause health problems (7 percent) was in Iowa, a state that leads the nation in proportion of energy from wind.

Illinois grapples with question of who owns energy data

(Photo by SaskPower via Creative Commons)

(Photo by SaskPower via Creative Commons)

In an ideal world, smart meters paired with sophisticated sensors and software programs in homes across the country would allow people to constantly shift their habits and alter their energy use to save money and reduce carbon emissions.

But even as utilities are increasingly installing smart meters and providing customers with data about usage, advocates say they are not generally offering the data quickly enough — or in as much detail as needed — for maximum energy conservation.

At the core of this issue is the question of who “owns” a household’s energy use data – the utility or the customer themselves. Also, whether and how the data can be automatically passed on to a third party – namely a company that will use the data help customers save energy.

Advocates: Wisconsin solar fight could spill into other states

A single solar panel prior to installation at the Lester Public Library in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. (Photo by Lester Public Library via Creative Commons)

A single solar panel prior to installation at the Lester Public Library in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. (Photo by Lester Public Library via Creative Commons)

A closely watched battle over utility policy in Wisconsin could determine the fate of solar development throughout the region, advocates say.

The dispute is over three major rate cases recently filed by We Energies, Madison Gas & Electric and Wisconsin Public Service Corporation. The three utilities cover much of the eastern half of the state as well as its largest cities.

If the state Public Service Commission (PSC) approves the cases, solar experts say there will be a massive chill over solar development in these utilities’ service territories. And they expect other utilities in Wisconsin and beyond will file similar requests.

Boating industry not backing down in Chicago E15 fight

(Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle via Creative Commons)

(Photo by ed_needs_a_bicycle via Creative Commons)

As Chicago clamors to be known as the country’s most sustainable city – promoting solar installations, electric vehicles and energy efficiency – the City Council has been considering an ordinance that would mandate most gas stations offer gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol, or E15.

The ordinance was framed as a step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote cleaner energy, and was seen as potentially sparking other such municipal mandates nationwide. It is sponsored by Alderman Edward Burke, who has pushed clean-air measures including the original ordinance to close the city’s coal-fired power plants and a smoking ban.

The E15 ordinance has strong backing from farmers, part of an Illinois ethanol industry reported as creating 73,156 jobs and $17.5 billion in economic activity annually. It is backed by the American Lung Association. And it also is meant to provide relief from city gas prices identified in June as the highest in the nation — E15 blends are typically cheaper 5 to 15 cents per gallon cheaper than conventional 87 or 89 octane gasoline.