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.

Streamlined permits speed up solar development in Chicago

Workers for Ailey Solar install panel mounts on a Chicago rooftop. (Photo courtesy Ailey SOlar)

Workers for Ailey Solar install panel mounts on a Chicago rooftop. (Photo courtesy Ailey Solar)

Two years ago, Dorian Breuer waited six months to get permits to install solar panels on his home on the south side of Chicago.

At that same time, Breuer was in the heat of the battle to close Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, as a leader of the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.

Today the coal plants are closed and Breuer, along with Jack Ailey, another leader in the campaign, run one of the four companies chosen to implement the city’s Solar Chicago program offering discounted solar installations through a bulk buy.

The program is administered by the organization Vote Solar, in partnership with the Environmental Law and Policy Center and World Wildlife Fund. It is meant to jumpstart residential rooftop solar energy in Chicago, and if projections go as planned it will mean a raft of new orders for Ailey Solar, founded by Breuer and Ailey two years ago.

While petcoke company seeks delay, residents want action

Chicago residents protest petroleum coke storage piles in April. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)

Chicago residents protest petroleum coke storage piles in April. (Photo by Bob Simpson via Creative Commons)

Marcy Juarez, a hospice worker living on Chicago’s Southeast side, says she still can’t open the windows on hot days, because of gritty black dust that blows in.

Her children have urged her to sell the house, but she’s lived there for 35 years, recently remodeled, loves the community and can’t imagine leaving.

Mari Barboza and her family still feel they can’t enjoy a barbecue outside, since the afternoon last summer when a cloud of black dust ruined the food at her mother’s 60th birthday party.

Other residents of Chicago’s Southeast side likewise say their homes, cars and patio furniture are still frequently coated in black grime, as one woman exhibited on a wipe soiled with thick black residue at a community meeting July 28.

They say their lives continue to be seriously impacted by the piles of petroleum coke (petcoke) that the Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX Terminals is storing in the community, despite KCBX’s moves to comply with rules that the city health department issued in March.

Now KCBX is requesting variances from the health department rules, and in its request filed June 9 the company threatened to sue if it doesn’t get the exemptions.

In Illinois, residents demand answers about coal plant’s future

The E.D. Edwards power plant near Bartonville, Illinois. (Photo courtesy Illinois Sierra Club)

The E.D. Edwards power plant near Bartonville, Illinois. (Photo courtesy Illinois Sierra Club)

When Houston-based Dynegy Inc. bought the E.D. Edwards coal plant near Peoria, Illinois last year, Gary Hall was among many local residents who were not happy.

Ameren essentially paid Dynegy to take over the financially flailing plants. Given trends affecting coal plants nationwide, including pending EPA carbon rules and competition from cheap natural gas, many environmentalists and energy experts think the E.D. Edwards plant and other aging coal plants may close in coming years.

“This company comes in from Texas, buys plants like this so they can sell the stuff that’s in it and get out,” said Hall, a retired Caterpillar worker and member of UAW Local 974. “It’s like an old car, you get more money from the parts then selling the car. But what’s going to happen is those poor people, our brothers and sisters who work in there will end up with no jobs.”

Racing pro is head of the pack in race to shift carbon culture

Leilani Munter and her PrairieGold Solar car. Photo by Kari Lydersen

Leilani Munter and her PrairieGold Solar car. Photo by Kari Lydersen

The air smells of burning rubber, and the sound of roaring engines is deafening. Homages to petroleum are everywhere: rows of semi-trucks and trailers, stacks of thick smooth tires and the stars of the show – bright sleek race cars emblazoned with the names of sponsors like Rope, Soap ‘N Dope, an oilfield supply company. Just outside the Chicagoland Speedway, thousands of automobiles are parked amongst bales of hay on grassy fields.

This is the arena where lifelong environmentalist Leilani Munter preaches her gospel of renewable energy and the goal of a carbon-free economy.

Talk about Risky Business: Midwest climate threats

Julie Falk via Creative Commons.

Julie Falk via Creative Commons.

Potentially dire financial and health consequences from climate change are predicted in a report released June 24 by the Risky Business Project.

The effect of rising temperatures on agriculture and energy demand will be particularly drastic in the Midwest, the report predicts. And the way Midwestern farmers, utilities and other industries respond will be crucial.

The Risky Business Project’s co-chairs and risk committee include former Treasury Secretaries Hank Paulson, George Shultz and Robert Rubin; former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

The project quantifies potential risks in three sectors – energy, agriculture and coastal property – for specific regions including the Midwest. While the Midwest is safe from rising seas, other impacts from climate change could have extensive financial ripple effects.

Midwest-born ‘Toxic Avenger’ speaks out in the Marcellus

Illinois native Sandra Steingraber has taken her fracking fight to New York. Photo by Dale Willman.

Illinois native Sandra Steingraber has taken her fracking fight to New York. Photo by Dale Willman.

High-profile environmental activist, biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber – whom Rolling Stone dubbed the “Toxic Avenger” – gained her love of science and ecology in the Midwest, growing up in central Illinois and studying English and biology in Illinois before earning a biology doctorate at the University of Michigan.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring motivated Steingraber to “leave the lab,” as she says, and become an environmental activist and watchdog, as well as an author and poet. She survived bladder cancer — which she suspects was linked to water pollution — and gained international acclaim for her book Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, overlaying cancer data and federal toxic release statistics.

In 2011 Steingraber won the prestigious Heinz Award. By then she was living in upstate New York, where high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for natural gas had exploded on the scene. Steingraber used the $100,000 prize to start the grassroots organization New Yorkers Against Fracking, a movement that soon spread to other states and launched her as an international leader on the issue.

Steingraber has spoken out against the controversial fracking regulations in her home state of Illinois, and traveled to Europe to meet with people dealing with drilling in their communities.

She spent a few days in late June at Carnegie Mellon University with a delegation of reporters convened by the Society of Environmental Journalists. The group heard from industry sources, academics, scientists, landowners and activists about the ways fracking has played out in the Marcellus shale, and what the future may hold.

For paper mills and cogeneration, everything old is new again

The Flambeau River Papers mill in Park Falls, Wisconsin, uses combined heat and power to cut energy costs. (Photo by Wisconsin DNR via Creative Commons)

The Flambeau River Papers mill in Park Falls, Wisconsin, uses combined heat and power to cut energy costs. (Photo by Wisconsin DNR via Creative Commons)

The hulking pulp and paper mills built many decades ago in Wisconsin, Michigan and other Midwestern states have had their share of environmental impacts.

But the mills were decades ahead of the game in adopting technology now seen as an effective tool to fight greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts. That would be the use of combined heat and power (CHP, also known as cogeneration), promoted by President Obama with a 2012 executive order and lauded by environmental and energy efficiency advocates.

Like any industry that generates electricity onsite, paper and pulp mills can take the heat from their generators to create steam that can be used to generate more electricity. More importantly, the heat can also be used directly for mills’ industrial processes, including for drying pulp.

“We were doing this before people were using the term ‘sustainability,’” said Jerry Schwartz, senior director of energy and environmental policy for the American Forest & Paper Association, a trade group. “A lot of it made economic sense.”