Chicago health commissioner blasts KCBX over petcoke

On Tuesday, the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX announced its plans to enclose the controversial piles of petcoke it has been storing on Chicago’s Southeast Side, releasing colorful drawings and an animated video — and saying it needs an extra 14 months beyond a city deadline to build the enclosure.

On Wednesday, the city’s public health commissioner sent KCBX president Dave Severson a scathing letter, denouncing the company for releasing the plans “via press release” without filing formal building plans or a variance request for an extension, under the city rules that require the enclosure be done by June 2016.

KCBX says there is no way the enclosure can be finished before late summer or fall 2017.

“Prior to your announcement, KCBX had applied for no permits and shared no formal plans or architectural drawings for this facility, despite the fact that the clock on your two-year timeline for building the facility started running more than six months ago,” said the December 17 letter from Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) Commissioner Bechara Choucair.

Advocates: Chicago ‘being played’ by petcoke company

KCBX paved roads to reduce pollution. Photo by Kari Lydersen

KCBX paved roads to reduce pollution at its Chicago petcoke facility. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)

The piles of petroleum coke, or petcoke, on Chicago’s Southeast Side that have created a furor over the past year and a half would become invisible under a plan that the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals unveiled on Tuesday.

The piles would be enclosed in a roughly 10-story-high, 1,000-foot-long building. The rest of the company’s 82-acre footprint alongside the Calumet River would be planted with grass and trees, as shown in the company’s newly released renderings and 30-second animated video.

KCBX says the plan shows their commitment to remaining in Chicago, investing in a “state-of-the-art facility” and working to mollify local residents upset about pollution. Local opponents say the release of the enclosure plan is just a public relations move, given that the company doesn’t plan to complete it until more than a year after a city deadline.

What will Republican victories mean for energy efficiency?

Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner visits the statehouse on Dec. 2. (AP Photo / Seth Perlman)

Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner visits the statehouse on Dec. 2. (AP Photo / Seth Perlman)

Following recent GOP election gains, efficiency advocates are taking a glass-half-full approach, emphasizing bipartisan support for efficiency mandates and missions, including among Republicans like Illinois Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

That was the message of the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance in a teleconference on Wednesday analyzing the effect of the November elections for governor and state legislature in 13 states where Republicans were generally victorious.

But there is also uncertainty ahead in the energy efficiency landscape, namely in three states – all with Republican governors and legislative majorities – where rollbacks of energy efficiency mandates have occurred.

Gov. John Kasich was re-elected in Ohio, and Gov. Mike Pence is still in office in Indiana, up for re-election in 2016. In those states, majority Republican legislatures this year passed bills freezing and ending, respectively, the states’ mandates for increased energy efficiency.

Coal plants, petcoke remain hot issues in Chicago elections

Chicago neighborhood activists say Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking too much credit for the closure of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants. (Photo by Daniel X. O'Neill via Creative Commons)

Chicago neighborhood activists say Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking too much credit for the closure of the Fisk and Crawford coal plants. (Photo by Daniel X. O’Neill via Creative Commons)

Even though they closed in 2012, Chicago’s controversial Fisk and Crawford coal plants are making an encore appearance in this year’s municipal elections, to be held Feb. 24.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first televised campaign ad featured the mayor on a park bench talking with Kim Wasserman, one of the community leaders who worked for more than a decade to try to force the coal plants to clean up or shut down.

The ad portrays Wasserman giving Emanuel credit for brokering a deal that shut down the Chicago plants, which immediately sparked outcry from many of the community activists who had been working on the issue since the early 2000s. They said they resented Emanuel taking credit for the plants’ closing. And they pointed out that the plants were likely to close anyway – and did close well before Emanuel’s deadline – because of competition from cheap natural gas. Additionally, the deal Emanuel brokered included the dropping of a lawsuit against the company Midwest Generation’s other Illinois coal plants.

On utilities and solar, Wisconsin goes its own way

(Photo by Ronnica Rothe via Creative Commons)

(Photo by Ronnica Rothe via Creative Commons)

What’s the matter with Wisconsin?

That’s what many clean energy proponents are asking, in the wake of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC)’s decisions in favor of rate restructuring that could virtually kill solar and other types of distributed generation across much of the state.

Despite significant public opposition, the PSC in November decided to approve rate cases filed by utilities We Energies, Madison Gas & Electric (MGE) and the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, which could drastically reduce the feasibility of installing solar or other types of renewable energy for consumers in the Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay areas.

The approvals are not final until written decisions are issued; PSC spokesman Nathan Conrad said that will likely happen in mid-December.

Similar rate restructuring proposals have been made by utilities around the country. But public service commissions have overwhelmingly not supported them, either turning down the requests or delaying a decision while demanding more study.

Wisconsin is the lone exception, according to a tally kept by the Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC).

Study: Wisconsin groundwater contaminated by coal ash

The Oak Creek Power Plant near Milwaukee is a significant source of coal ash that a new report says is contaminating nearby groundwater. (Photo by JanetandPhil via Creative Commons)

The Oak Creek Power Plant near Milwaukee is a significant source of coal ash that a new report says is contaminating nearby groundwater. (Photo by JanetandPhil via Creative Commons)

The “beneficial reuse” of coal ash, often touted as a way to keep the material out of landfills, is potentially causing serious contamination of drinking water in southeast Wisconsin and possibly across the state, according to a report released Tuesday by Clean Wisconsin.

By classifying coal ash as an “industrial byproduct,” as report author Tyson Cook says, companies are able to place contaminant-laden coal ash in the ground — as structural fill in and below roads, trails, parking lots, buildings, and bridges — with no lining or monitoring.

About 85 percent of Wisconsin’s coal ash is reused, compared to about 50 percent nationwide. Congress has even called Wisconsin the “gold standard” on this front.

Clean Wisconsin’s study of test results from almost 1,000 wells found that there is evidence such coal ash is contaminating groundwater that provides drinking water for thousands of residents.

At a Racine area elementary school, Clean Wisconsin’s own testing found molybdenum levels at more than twice the state’s enforcement standard.

Clean Wisconsin’s analysis of state test results also found that molybdenum contamination is significantly higher in close proximity to coal ash structural fill sites — ash layered below roads, buildings and the like to create level ground and fill spaces. Higher molybdenum levels also corresponded to the flow of groundwater in relation to known coal ash reuse sites, the study found.

Illinois activists seek federal takeover of mining oversight

A former coal mine site in southern Illinois has become the focal point of a legal fight over state regulation. (Image via Google Maps)

A former coal mine site in southern Illinois has become the focal point of a legal fight over state regulation. (Image via Google Maps)

Around the turn of the millennium, southern Illinois environmental consultant Bob Johnson would drive by a six-story-high grassy plateau and imagine the ways the reclaimed coal mine waste storage site could be put to “higher or better” use than its previous life as farmland.

Those words are enshrined in the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA), the federal law that requires mine sites to be returned to an approximation of their natural contours and to uses at least as beneficial as their previous incarnation.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could put baseball fields on top of this mound of waste, from the highway you’d see them up in the air, people would be enjoying it, wouldn’t that be great?” said Johnson.

But far from becoming sports fields, the waste dump has become the grounds for a legal demand, filed last month, that seeks a federal takeover of mining oversight in Illinois.

If granted, the decision could put a major chill on Illinois’s resurgent coal mining industry and spark the re-examination of numerous mining and waste permits previously issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

Chicago group sells landlords on benefits of energy efficiency

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 41 percent of households are renters. (Photo by sabrina via Creative Commons)

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, 41 percent of households are renters. (Photo by sabrina via Creative Commons)

Making the case for energy efficiency investments seems relatively straightforward for homeowners who will reap the benefits directly in lower utility bills. But for rental, multi-unit buildings where landlords pay for infrastructure and appliance upgrades while tenants pay all or most of the utility bills, it’s much more complicated.

This situation is referred to as a “split incentive,” where the party making the investment won’t directly reap all or any of the financial benefits.

Landlords who don’t live in a given building also don’t have the personal incentive of seeking a more comfortable dwelling free of drafts and temperature swings.

But energy efficiency measures like insulation, new furnaces, smart appliances and efficient lighting do pay off for building owners, a message the Chicago-based group Elevate Energy is working to convey statewide. Elevate Energy has a program specifically to educate multi-unit building owners about energy efficiency and assist them with free energy audits and advice on contractors and upgrades.

Groups seek investigation of Wisconsin rate case ‘petitions’

Clean-energy advocates are calling for the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to investigate a list of 2,500 names submitted in support of utilities in two controversial rate cases.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and RENEW Wisconsin say at least some of the people in the list have said they actually oppose the plans.

Experts say the rate proposals by We Energies and Madison Gas & Electric (MG&E) would have a devastating effect on solar energy in the state.

Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston group that advocates in support of fossil fuel development, submitted to the Public Service Commission the names of 2,500 electricity customers statewide, in both We Energies and MG&E’s service territories. They said the people had signed a petition supporting the utilities’ proposals, which would make it much less financially viable to install solar energy, farm biogas digesters or other distributed generation.

However, people who CEA claimed signed the petition have since said they did not realize what the petition actually signified, and that they are not in support of the utilities’ proposals. An October 21 story in the Madison Capital Times quoted several customers saying they strongly opposed the utilities and were confused about how their names got linked to the petition.

From Chicago to small towns, spreading the smart grid gospel

 Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)

Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation grantees tour Ameren facilities in downstate Illinois. (Photo courtesy ISEIF)

The smart meters being delivered to Illinois homes under the state’s 2011 smart grid law could potentially spark significant energy savings – relieving burden on the grid and on power supplies and saving money for residents.

But that’s only if people use the information provided by smart meters to modify their habits, by shifting when they use energy, installing more efficient appliances and the like. Figuring out how to use a smart meter and respond to the data it provides is a complicated and intimidating task for anyone.

It is especially challenging for renters and public housing residents who don’t own their appliances or even pay their own energy bills; or for senior citizens who don’t know how to use the internet; or for immigrants who don’t speak English. And for people in low-income and marginalized neighborhoods in general, beset by violence, decrepit housing, and a lack of well-paying jobs, understanding and modifying energy use is likely to be a very low priority.