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Wind Power: Illinois is at a Turning Point in its Energy-Producing Future

Turbines at the Twin Groves Wind Farm near Bloomington
WUIS/Illinois Issues

When a railcar manufacturer shuttered its Clinton plant a decade ago, the sudden loss of 150 jobs was another troubling sign of economic woes plaguing small towns throughout Illinois. But now the factory is back open and retooled to churn out some of the state’s hottest commodities: components for wind turbines sprouting up across the flatlands.

Trinity Industries, a Texas-based company, fired up its DeWitt County plant again to meet a growing need for massive towers that support wind turbines, which can rise up to 30 stories tall and feature twirling blades as long as several semitrailers. Overhauling the central Illinois facility made it easier and less expensive to ship the bulky structures to dozens of wind farms under development throughout the Midwest. The project also is among a series of business ventures and policy decisions that have marked a turning point in Illinois’ energy future, one that only now is becoming apparent to people outside the nascent wind industry.

In a state that for decades has been dominated by coal and nuclear power, wind energy is steadily becoming a big deal in Illinois. Other states boast stronger winds, and some are further ahead in attracting investment from renewable energy companies. But many parts of Illinois are windy enough to be suitable for wind farms. Moreover, the state already has a well-developed transmission grid that makes it easier to dispatch electricity generated through wind power from rural sites to energy-hungry cities. And after falling behind other states in offering incentives, state government has taken a number of steps to make Illinois more attractive for wind development. “We’re on the verge of becoming one of the nation’s centers for wind power,” says Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit group that has long advocated for a more diverse energy mix.

Growing concerns about climate change, lingering problems with air pollution and rising construction costs to build new coal and nuclear plants are giving a boost to wind power. Seeking to curb pollution that is driving up global temperatures, President Barack Obama is pushing for legislation that would cap carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and let companies trade the right to pollute, which could make wind an even bigger player in the energy market. Similar to an existing “cap and trade” system that has reduced sulfur dioxide pollution from coal plants, the Obama plan would let cleaner companies sell credits, or pollution allowances, to dirtier firms, as long as they all stayed below a national limit.

With major investment banks signaling they are going to consider the cost of greenhouse gases before financing new power plants, dozens of proposed coal-fired boilers have been defeated, canceled or placed indefinitely on hold during the past two years. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that wind energy could end up providing a fifth of the nation’s elec-tricity by 2030. The chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently made an even bolder statement, suggesting the surge of new wind, solar and other sources of renewable power means the United States won’t need new coal or nuclear plants. “We may not need any, ever,” Jon Wellinghoff told reporters from the Greenwire news service at a U.S. Energy Association forum in April.

One of the key policy changes nudging Illinois toward a greener future is the General Assembly’s approval of a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, that requires power companies to get 10 percent of their electricity from green energy sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025. The measure, passed in 2007 and strengthened earlier this year, requires that three-quarters of the new renewable energy should come from wind power. More than two dozen states have adopted similar standards, and a sweeping energy bill moving through Congress would impose a national version. Encouraged in part by those guarantees, companies now have about 1,000 megawatts of wind power online in Illinois, enough to power 300,000 homes. Turbines that will generate an additional 312 megawatts are under construction, and experts estimate the state eventually could provide up to 10,000 megawatts of wind power. Gov. Pat Quinn is a strong supporter. In April, Quinn said he wants to see wind turbines “in every nook and cranny of our state.”

Even before Illinois set a renewable energy requirement, one of the nation’s largest wind farms started going up in rural McLean County, about 25 miles east of Bloomington. The Twin Groves Wind Farm rises above rolling corn and soybean fields near the headwaters of the Sangamon River, where the flat prairie gives way to windy moraines and the tallest thing for miles used to be a random grain elevator. Horizon Wind Energy has erected 240 turbines that dot the landscape around the small towns of Saybrook, Arrowsmith and Ellsworth, and the company plans to add more in the near future. “We took a gamble at the time, but it’s one that paid off,” says Bill Whitlock, the company’s development director. “You have a very windy state and a strong [renewable energy] standard that is driving a lot of investment.” Horizon, a Houston-based company, is building two other large wind farms in Illinois, one that straddles Logan and Tazewell counties and another in LaSalle County.

Coal and nuclear power still are likely to generate a substantial portion of the state’s electricity, at least for the near future. Power plants that burn the black, carbon-rich fuel now provide about half of Illinois’ energy, though the owners of most of the state’s aging plants have abandoned the use of Illinois coal. Nuclear plants add nearly as much power, while wind and other renewable sources account for less than 1 percent. That number may be small now, but there are environmental and economic drawbacks to both of the more established forms of electrical generation. Coal plants are the state’s largest source of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and mercury emissions and are major sources of air pollution that creates lung-damaging smog and soot. Nuclear plants, meanwhile, generate large amounts of radioactive waste. Then there are sobering memories of the skyrocketing costs to build the current fleet of nuclear plants, one factor that has made financiers wary to back the construction of new reactors.

Illinois, like many other states, is in the midst of a fierce battle between companies looking to cash in on the next wave of energy projects. Several coal plants are moving forward despite the financial and regulatory uncertainty. The biggest is a 1,600-megawatt plant in Washington County being built by the nation’s largest coal company, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy. The giant plant would provide electricity to 2.5 million people in nine states. It also would be the largest source of carbon dioxide built in the United States in more than two decades, churning out 12 million tons of the gas every year. Peabody’s plant may be the last of its kind, though. At one point, Illinois had more new coal plants on the drawing board than any other state, with state officials boasting that at least 10 projects would burn coal mined in the southern part of the state. Just three remain active, and only one would be designed to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by injecting it deep underground.

Because coal is the most carbon-intensive way to generate electricity, it could end up becoming more expensive than nuclear power or natural gas, according to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute, an industry trade group. “The landscape is changing quickly,” says Ron Burke, head of the Chicago office for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Even the big companies that have relied on coal are starting to invest in wind and other renewable energy. They see the writing on the wall, too.”

A model for the transition to cleaner energy is the city of Springfield. In a unique deal between traditional antagonists, the municipal utility — City Water, Light and Power — scrapped an old, inefficient coal plant and replaced it with a larger unit that will get more out of the Illinois coal it burns. After negotiations with the Sierra Club, the Springfield utility also is making a huge investment in carbon-free wind energy, drawing enough to power the Statehouse and other state office buildings. Even with the larger coal unit, CWLP is expected to generate 25 percent less carbon dioxide than it did before, a feat equivalent to taking more than 100,000 cars off the road. “Plus we still have some of the lowest rates in the state,” says Eric Hobbie, the utility’s chief engineer.

CWLP wasn’t required to invest in wind energy or do anything else to address climate change. But the deal cleared the way for quick approval and construction of its new 200-megawatt Dallman 4 unit. The 120 megawatts of wind power Springfield is purchasing will be split evenly between the city and state government. Another selling point is the utility will burn locally mined coal. Most of the state’s other power companies have switched to coal from Western states, which generally is cheaper and contains less sulfur. By contrast, Springfield installed sulfur dioxide scrubbers to remove the harmful pollution. The city also agreed to boost spending on energy conservation programs. “It’s remarkable that this happened in the heart of coal country,” said Bruce Nilles, a Sierra Club attorney who has played a key role in fighting proposed new coal plants and helped negotiate the Springfield agreement.

Even though proponents are giddy about the prospects for more wind power in Illinois, many projects still encounter vocal opposition, including from some homeowners who live close by and see the giant turbines as a blight on the landscape that could diminish their property values. About 700 people packed a rural DeKalb County gymnasium last winter to oppose a project that would plant 133 turbines in the area. One woman wondered if the drone from the turbines would affect honeybees that pollinate her apple orchard. Others said the towers would spoil their pastoral views. “I’m concerned we’re prostituting our countryside,” said Mel Hass of Shabbona, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Then there are the challenges of handling the projected surge of wind power from 1 percent to 20 percent of the nation’s energy mix. Operators of the electrical grid in the eastern United States estimate that it could cost $80 billion to build transmission lines to carry the load. Building enough wind turbines to meet that target would cost an additional $1.1 trillion.

During the recently completed legis-lative session, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a measure that would give wind projects a boost by extending enterprise zone authority to rural areas where turbines are located. The bill, which Quinn is expected to sign, would save developers $10 million in sales and use taxes for every 100 megawatts constructed. However, wind power interests fell short with another initiative that would require power companies to negotiate long-term contracts with wind developers. The proposal would cut the price of wind power and make it more competitive with coal and nuclear energy. “That’s one of our biggest challenges in Illinois,” Horizon’s Whitlock says.

Once the kinks are worked out, wind power will become even more prevalent in Illinois. Farmers are sold by the money they can make leasing land to wind developers. Counties like the money generated by new sources of property taxes. And business and labor are attracted by the prospect of new jobs. There already are about 1,000 wind-related jobs in the state. Besides the Trinity plant in Clinton, a unit of the German firm Siemens A.G. is building a gear works in Elgin. Brad Foote Gear Works in Cicero and a handful of other companies have shifted toward more wind-related production. Another German firm, Nordex, recently opened a North American headquarters in Chicago.

The changes were evident in early May at the annual Windpower Conference & Exhibition held in Chicago, where more than 23,000 people and 1,200 exhibitors flocked to promote the power of the future. In 2004, the last time the conference was held in Chicago, just 3,000 attended.

“At no time in our history has the time for a new energy policy been so urgent,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the conventioneers. “This is an opportunity that Americans cannot afford to miss.” 

Michael Hawthorne is the environment reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2009

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