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Plugging Into Nature: Numerous factors could make IL a leader in the development of renewable energy

Howard Learner is a busy man. This might seem surprising. After all, he heads a progressive environmental think tank in the tradition-bound corn-and-bean belt. Yet this spring he could be found in Washington, D.C., promoting energy conservation provisions in the new federal farm bill, and at a wind power conference in Portland, Ore., studying the possibilities in renewable energy. At this last stop, he managed to pause long enough to take a call from Illinois. 

As director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, Learner is an optimist, too. He might need to be. Through the static of a cell phone and across a continent, his voice communicates urgency. “Illinois,” he said, “is on the cusp of jump-starting our renewable energy development and going from trailing the pack to leading the way.”

That may be a too-enthusiastic analysis of Illinois’ energy future. Still, there’s no doubt about his assessment of what’s taking place around the country. Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin have working wind farms. Vermont leads the way in the development of biomass energy, a process that turns plants into power. And many states, including oil-rich Texas, have mandated standards and deadlines for developing renewable energy systems, including those that utilize the wind, the sun and grasses. Those states’ laws typically require utility companies to purchase a percentage of their energy from nonpolluting power sources within a certain time-frame. 

However, Illinois has no such requirement. Indeed, until recently there has been little promotion of or research on alternative energy sources. And yet, for all of this state’s sluggishness, Learner’s optimism may be justified. Illinois certainly has potential. An abundance of renewable energy resources, including plants, wind and the sun, makes Illinois a prime candidate for the development of the alternative energy technologies that pump fewer gases and particulates into the atmosphere. 

There appears to be public support for this. Recent surveys show that Illinoisans believe renewable, non-polluting energy to be a critical component of the state’s future. And — they tell pollsters, anyway — they are willing to pay more for this “clean” source of energy. 

Further, state government is beginning to show a willingness to follow the more aggressive path of the city of Chicago in asking more from utilities and in providing public dollars to develop clean energy systems and to stimulate demand for them.

These factors — the state’s innate natural abundance, a growing public awareness and increasing political support — would seem to confirm Learner’s appraisal: “We are on the verge of something very big.”

Illinois’ greatest opportunity for renewable energy development appears to be biomass technology, which generates electricity through the combustion of grass or wood. This system produces the same amount of carbon dioxide as the plants absorb through natural aerobic processes. As a result, the net output of greenhouse gases is negligible. 

Thus, agricultural products and by-products, which are plentiful in Illinois, could provide a source of cleaner energy, while creating rural jobs and additional income for farmers. Transporting the plant material can be a challenge, though. To be cost-effective, biomass systems must use plant material that is grown nearby, which means a number of local biomass generators would have to be built. 

In fact, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced in March that a federally funded project had been approved for a biomass “co-fired” plant in Havana. The pilot program will evaluate the feasibility of generating electricity using biomass from grasses that are used for watershed stabilization along the Illinois River under the federal ag department’s Conservation Reserve Program. 

Chris Williams, alternative fuels manager for Dynegy Midwest Generation, which already operates a coal-powered plant at the site, says his company, a division of the corporation that owns Decatur-based Illinois Power, is committed to finding ways to incorporate Illinois agricultural products into its production format. 

A hybrid system, co-fired biomass is considered a cleaner alternative to burning fossil fuels by themselves. Because carbon dioxide accounts for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, a major culprit in global warming, such processes could become an important part of future energy solutions. 

Biomass technology also represents an emerging and important market for farmers. Williams estimates that the system at full capacity will use 600,000 tons of plant material annually. Production and transportation of crops could create still more economic benefits for the surrounding region.

Wind, of course, can provide an inexhaustible potential source of clean energy. It produces no greenhouse emissions and has very little impact on the environment — not counting the technology’s toll on birds slaughtered in the turbines. 

For these reasons, wind is the fastest growing source of renewable energy worldwide; the scale of its advance is staggering. The amount of energy produced from wind in the United States alone increased by 50 percent in the last year. General Electric just purchased one of the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturers, and company officials predict an annual increase of 20 percent in the size of the market over each of the next 10 years. 

Learner’s associate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Hans Detweiler, says this increase in demand for wind generation systems has had the effect of reducing the overall costs of that process. In turn, that has spurred even wider interest, including in states like Illinois that once were seen as poor candidates for the technology. 

Contrary to popular perception, Illinois is not a particularly windy state. To be effective, large turbines need sustained winds of about 15 miles per hour at a height of 50 meters. The relatively few areas in Illinois that meet that standard are primarily in the western region of the state. But Detweiler says developing just those areas could meet 5 percent of Illinois’ total electricity requirement. 

Though no one appears prepared to talk on the record yet, plans reportedly are under way to construct a wind farm in Lee County in northwest Illinois that is projected to be the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River. Still, the hesitation to talk before the papers are signed signals the financial risks that still must be taken to develop this form of renewable energy. 

One Illinois-based company has some experience in this. Michelle Montague of NEG Micon says lack of demand — and the political ups and downs of federal tax breaks — forced the company to cease production of wind turbines in Champaign, although the plant is still operating as a maintenance facility. 

Nonetheless, proponents contend that wind power, like biomass energy, has the potential to stimulate struggling rural economies in the future by providing a long-term alternative income for landowners and a short-term economic stimulus through construction jobs. 

If Illinois is short on wind, it is blessed by the sun. And, as demand for the technology increases, solar energy is becoming more cost-effective to produce. While Illinois will never have the sun power potential of the desert southwest, photovoltaic systems do have their advantages. 

A key advantage is that they provide their most reliable output during the time of the year when Illinois utilities are struggling to meet demand: the hottest days of summer. 

Some communities are turning to this source of energy. The city of Chicago recently unveiled the Chicago Center for Green Technology, which is purported to be one of the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly buildings in the world. Spire Solar Chicago, in partnership with BP Solar and Exelon, has developed an aggressive solar power strategy for that city’s public buildings. Ten schools in the Chicago school system have been fitted with 10-kilowatt rooftop solar systems. Several other Chicago buildings have installed larger systems, including the ComEd North Side Commercial Center, which has a 25-kilowatt system, and the Notebaert Nature Museum, which has a 30- kilowatt system. As will the pilot programs in biomass and wind power, these new photovoltaic processes will test the feasibility of large-scale systems for municipal and commercial applications.

In addition to biomass, wind and solar power, several other renewable energy sources are worth noting. 

Biogas, which consists of the methane harvested from livestock and municipal sanitation wastes, has the dual benefit of providing power and eliminating a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

New Horizons Dairy in Elmwood is developing a 270-kilowatt methane conversion system through a $380,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. Methane also is collected from landfill sites — and Illinois has 53 of those. An important development in the collection of landfill methane is a federal law that requires utilities to pay small energy producers fair market value for the energy they produce. Making small collection operations economically viable will allow low-kilowatt systems to grow throughout Illinois. 

The state commerce and community development agency also is supporting efforts to refurbish hydroelectric generation sites at Marsailles and is upgrading a hydroelectric power source at Kankakee.

Illinois supporters of these and other renewable energy sources are planning to gather in Rockford July 11 for a conference on the subject.

All of these developments have been fueled by an apparent growing public interest in clean energy solutions. The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, which supports alternative energy sources, commissioned the poll to assess public attitudes toward renewable energy. The group’s executive director, Jim Mann, says support is consistent throughout the state. The survey showed that almost 80 percent of Illinoisans want renewable sources developed to meet the state’s growing energy demands. And 67 percent of the respondents said they would be willing to pay an additional fee on each month’s electric bill if a percentage of that electricity were generated from wind and solar power. An overwhelming majority, 77 percent, said they favored legislation requiring that at least 10 percent of the electricity supplied by Illinois utilities come from renewable sources.

Meanwhile, a state law aimed at helping Illinois’ ailing coal industry find cleaner ways to burn that nonrenewable source also authorized $500 million in bonds to develop renewable energy. It set goals: Five percent of the state’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2010, and 15 percent by 2020. The commerce and community affairs department, which oversees the state’s renewable energy grant process, is charged with finding ways to stimulate interest in clean energy projects. 

Officials say the state is searching for creative ways to demonstrate the feasibility of renewable energy in the private sector. But critics believe more could be done. Among the suggestions: Replace the state’s renewable energy “goals” with mandates. The state also could require utilities to allow customers to pay a little extra for clean energy. These measures have been successful in other Midwestern states. 

Illinois, of course, is blessed by extensive coal beds. It boasts ancient, but still serviceable coal-fired utility plants — and the most nuclear generating reactors in the nation. 

Still, proponents argue that a more aggressive renewable energy development plan is critical to supplying Illinois’ electricity needs well into the future. 

And, ever the optimist, Howard Learner adds, “Clearly, renewable energy is something that the people of Illinois want.” 


This fall, Joseph Andrew Carrier will begin graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield on the ways in which landscapes are reflected in literature.

Illinois Issues,July/August 2002

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