Thursday, May 3, 2007

Thanks For All the Fish

Bottlenose Dolphin

After residing more than 28 years in Carbondale, I’m finally pulling-up my tent stakes and moving to the Tall Corn State. I moved to Carbondale in 1979 for a four month curriculum development job at SIU’s School of Technical Careers. The job stretched into seven months and then all the pieces fell into place to stay here for a long stint with the City of Carbondale.

After several other jobs since then, Des Moines has finally lured me away with a great opportunity and a pay scale unthinkable in the depressed economy of Southern Illinois. I’ve written before about the third-world economy of this region where wages remain low and sustainable prosperity continues to be elusive. Things may be improving in some areas, but the availability of high-pay/high-tech jobs in the region is abysmal. I’m encouraged by some of the collaborative work of ConnectSI and their goals to bring broadband communications to all parts of the region and in so doing raise wages and train the workforce for information age jobs. This is a project that everyone should support.

Despite my imminent departure, I will continue to author this blog, albeit probably not as frequently as in the past. So, this is not a goodbye, but an ‘I’ll talk to you later’ message. The blog’s scope of topics will expand to encompass the culture, technology and environmental issues of the Midwest, not just Illinois. Its not that big a stretch. Illinois has many issues in common with its surrounding states: similar expected climate change, the fall-out of utility deregulation and carbon-based energy pricing, the potential opportunities and dangers of expanded biomass-based energy development, similar solar energy development options, the issues of telecommunications convergence and media concentration, an insidious belief that King Coal is the solution to our national energy problems, and many other cultural and economic factors.

I’ve concluded that the biggest long-term threat to Southern Illinois is the lack of leadership committed to a sustainable economy. That problem will only go away with voter self-education and action on the issues. I remain optimistic for the future of the region and hope not to be proven wrong. Please, carry on and thanks for all the fish. (music)

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Paper or Plastic? Just Say NO!

In a recent blog post by Peter Gregory, he advocates charging consumers for the luxury of fast food take-out supplies. He like many others, is simply tired of cleaning up other people’s discarded food packaging trash. The concept is in lock-step with most environmentalists that believe in the principle of “polluters pays”: those who pollute should pay for the true cost of generating the pollution and cleaning it up.

Pollution is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. Even the lowly plastic grocery bag has value to some people. When you return it to the store from which it came, it will likely be recycled into another product such as parking lot space tire curbs, playground equipment and most anything else that can be made with polyethylene.

The greater likelihood is that it will end up in a landfill or somewhere in nature where is harms wildlife and litters roadsides, streams, and sewers.

Imagine a world without flimsy plastic bags. It isn’t hard since they weren’t introduced until about 1977. Life will go on and we’d be better off without them.

The U.S. throws away about 100 BILLION bags each year. The manufacturing of plastic bags accounts for 4 per cent of the world’s total oil production.(1)

People are starting to get fed up about our love affair with the tragedy of the commons. Europe is levying significant taxes on the bags and San Francisco has banned them. South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh have also banned plastic bags. Paris will outlaw them by the end of 2007, and all of France will ban the bags in 2010. Phoenix and Boston are considering similar bans. Other USA communities are requiring use of thicker and stronger bags that cost more and motivate businesses to be less generous with their free distribution of the materials.

What should your local government do about the problem? The alleged pro-business solution is, of course, to ‘educate the public.’ Sorry, that just doesn’t work. Tell me, have we managed to prevent litter through cradle-to-grave anti-litter campaigns? No. If it affects your pocket book directly, you it sit-up and take notice. That is why Europe has pursued taxing plastic bags, and why US cities do so little more than establish ineffectual education programs because they a) don’t want consumers to ‘sacrifice' and b) don’t want to mandate environmental protection measures upon small businesses.

My view? Effective 12 months from passing a city or county law, place a 15 cent tax on plastic bags. The tax will fund year -round litter collection and prevention programs. In so doing, also let the marketplace find a solution that suits business customers. Some stores will help transition customers to cloth and synthetic mesh bags, encourage consumers to re-use their heavy-duty bags and boxes, or offer recycled paper or cellulose/corn-starch derived bags. Others will charge for the bags in addition to the tax. In so doing they will be sending a message that the company shouldn’t subsidize the use of wasteful packaging. It won’t be painless, but it will work. Consumers are price sensitive and when reminded at the point-of-sale of the true cost of wasteful behavior, they respond with intelligence.

All it takes is leadership.

Now, banning plastic bags will not completely solve Peter’s complaint about the other forms of community litter from fast food vendors. That’s another topic for the future.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sheila Simon Receives Conservation League Endorsement

Illinois Relief Map

The Illinois League of Conservation Voters (ILCV) has endorsed Sheila Simon for Mayor of Carbondale.

Sheila is one of only twelve municipal candidates statewide that has received the coveted endorsement.

ILCV's endorsement decisions were based on the Illinois Environmental Council's scorecard of incumbent's environmental voting records as well as the ILCV's candidate questionnaire that probed candidates' views on pressing environmental issues.

From the LCV website:

The Illinois League of Conservation Voters (ILCV) is the political arm of the environmental movement in Illinois. Through elections, we actively support candidates who promote sustainable economic development and oppose candidates who vote for anti-environmental legislation.

• We run tough and effective campaigns to defeat anti-environment candidates, and support those leaders who stand up for a clean, healthy future for Illinois.
• We hold elected officials accountable for their actions Environmental actions..
• We build coalitions, promote grassroots power, and train the next generation of environmental leaders

“Sheila Simon is a fantastic example of an experienced leader who understands the essential role environmental conservation plays in sustaining the social and economic health of our cities,” said Amanda Espitia, Executive Director of the ILCV.

Press Release of Simon endorsement

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Council Candidates: Timid Souls

Ballot Box Image

I wrote yesterday about Carbondale’s mayoral candidates’ positions on energy and the environment. If you thought I was disappointed with their inadequate meager ‘action plans’, you should understand why we should be even more disappointed by the candidates for City Council and their lame and archaic remarks about protecting the environment. I seriously wonder if they are channeling for Caspar Milquetoast!

I’ve reviewed all the candidates’ campaign literature that I could locate, as well as their published survey results regarding energy and environment issues hoping to find a glimmer of hope that the next crop of leaders will show more wisdom. If you read the responses to questions posed in the 2007 Carbondale Nightlife council candidate survey, you will likely be disappointed. My primary observation about the statements can be summarized by one simple question, “Have most of them been asleep since 1970?” Do they not know about the bold moves toward building sustainable communities are being undertaken across the nation? Have they not heard of global warming and local government actions in support of the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement? At least the candidates' statements are not as bad as Mayor Cole's record of saying "I do not think investments in photovoltaic energy options would be beneficial to tax payers."

The council candidate's milquetoast and pandering comments are a sad statement on the depth and quality of their thinking about your future.

“(Paul) Simon passionately believes that politicians, the media, religious leaders, and educators have, individually and collectively, abandoned their responsibility to lead. In doing so, says Simon, they have made us vulnerable to future political, moral, and economic disasters.” — Publishers Weekly review of Our Culture of Pandering, 2003.

To not draw unwanted attention from the easily distracted public, candidate statements tend to be platitudes about the importance of being careful and the need for further dialogue. Political consultants advise, above all else, say nothing controversial that might alienate constituents. Consequently, what words of wisdom do we get from Carbondale's candidates? Lewin asserts the safe position that recycling is good for Carbondale. Jack says, “We should strive to be a leader…” Pohlman says, “We should … look to the long-term good…” Haynes says, “we have started the first steps to explore …” Brown says, “The City should research grant programs.” Pretty scary stuff, huh?

The one person showing some original thinking seems to be Luanne Brown when talking about lighting and noise abatement; however, both she and Pohlman dismiss out of hand the possibility of operating a municipal energy distribution system. Why? How did they form that knee-jerk opinion without the City thoroughly investigating the situation?

Five of the six candidates take the safe, but timid position, that the city should defer to the state and federal government to solve our worsening environmental problems. Most, like G.W. Bush, just want to stay the course and talk, talk, talk about the issue until we are distracted by more important news such as, "Who is Anna Nicole's baby's biological father, really?"

The best of the candidates appears to be young Joe Moore. He’ll get my vote. I don’t know if any of the rest have a chance. Moore says, “On the power generation end, we need to increase our use of solar, wind, and thermal power. On the consumption end, we need to be promoting energy efficient products to cut our consumption.” While lacking specifics, he at least ‘gets it’. He sees that energy issues need to be approached from both directions and has an appreciation on how Ameren is hurting the region.

Its truly embarrassing, but only three candidates even mention the words conservation and alternative energy in their survey statements. While three reference the importance of walking, biking, and the current bus system in town, no one specifically talks about Cool Cities, sprawl, other transportation planning issues, telecommuting, purchasing green power, green building codes, encouraging green businesses, solar rights, water and waste management (other than recycling), education and outreach, and dozens of other proven municipal energy policies and projects.

"The electorate, without fail, gets the government it deserves.”

How will you vote? And then, after the election, what will you do?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mayors Matter: My Pick

Vote April 17th
I have a little experience in energy management, energy conservation and renewable energy. So, when it come to voting for local government leaders to guide our communities to a sustainable future, my obvious preference is to select representatives that understand science and technology and have a vision for taking a smarter energy path than the one that has gotten our nation into such dire straits. The newest report on global warming shows how badly Illinois leaders have done on this issue.

  • Illinois’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption grew from 191.1 million metric tons to 233.8 million metric tons between 1990 and 2004, an increase of 22%. Illinois ranked third nationwide for the largest absolute increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the 15-year period.
  • In Illinois, carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants jumped by 64% between 1990 and 2004, rising from 55.7 million metric tons to 91.5 million metric tons. Illinois ranked first nationwide for the largest absolute increase in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants over the 15-year period. (1)
Since the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that we have less than a decade to drastically alter our path to self destruction, I refuse to vote for a candidate that doesn’t understand the urgency to act quickly and responsibly, or who lacks a the personal will and vision to take bold steps to save the planet.

When I look at the records of accomplishment (both personal and business) of Carbondale’s two mayoral candidates, I see some promise in both, but I am also very disappointed in both for doing so little when so much is needed at the local level.

We are working within a new scientific paradigm. We no longer have the luxury of waiting for new technology to save the day, or slowly adopting Commercial Off-the-shelf Technologies (COTS), nor do we have the luxury of addressing environmental issues as a solely feel-good, do what is politically expedient experiment.

Technology, the environment and environmentalists (me included) have changed since the first Earth Day in 1970. Today, when we talk about protecting the environment, we talk about ALL the ramifications of not taking the ‘long view’. We talk about decreasing the incidence of cancers, heart attacks and strokes caused by environmental toxins, eliminating lead and mercury damage to children’s developing brains, reducing waste and converting waste materials into value-added commodities, reducing air particulates that are causing soaring asthma rates, safely eating fish from our local lakes and rivers, building sustainable and efficient transportation systems, and makingsound investments in both energy conservation and renewable energy technology that create jobs and community.

I appreciate Mayor Brad Cole for taking some important baby steps in improving the carbon footprint of the City of Carbondale, for signing the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, considering operation of a municipal power distribution company, proposing to purchase some hybrid vehicles for the City fleet, pursuing funds for an expanded recycling program, installing efficient LED lighting in City street lights, symbolically encouraging bicycle use in the city, and advocating a community clean-up program.

I appreciate Sheila Simon for her initial efforts in promoting bicycle use and an expanded recycling program, advocating for a smoke-free community, for advocating energy audits and installation of photovoltaic power systems on city buildings, and for favoring action consistent with the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. She prominently lists environmental goals in her campaign platform. "My most immediate goal is to address city government as a consumer of energy. Since all of us together pay the power bill for the city, we have both an economic incentive and an environmental incentive to reduce our energy use. The city can be a leader in energy conservation. The city can also be a leader in some very simple ways to address environmental issues."

Where Sheila Simon failed me was doing far too little at the municipal level and not using the election campaign to address environmental issues in a stronger fashion. The Ameren crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports about human caused global warming, SIU’s proposal to build a new coal-fired power plant, and other ‘teachable moments’ could have been used to highlight how the environment is a local issue needing a strong local response.

Sadly, Mayor Brad Cole did the same thing. Cole further failed me by not taking bold action from his bully pulpit as mayor. He has simply taken the slow, easy and politically expedient path. For example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) unanimously passed the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement on June 13, 2005. I wrote about it in my first blog at the start of the 2007 and shared it with the mayor. About a week later and six months after the USCM took action (nine months after other Illinois cities had already joined the Cool Cities bandwagon), Cole, without any discussion or approval from the Carbondale city council, signed the agreement. Since then, all he has done with it is forward it to the Carbondale Energy and Environmental Advisory Commission – the same City commission that Cole has sought to eliminate.

What I think distinguishes the two candidates on the issues of the environment is that Brad postures as an environmentalist and Shelia embodies it to her core. Sheila rides her bike to work and Brad drives his SUV. Where Sheila prints campaign literature on recycled paper, Brad spends lavishly on non-recycled political junk mail.

I suspect that if I visited either candidate’s homes I could immediately see in action the environmental sensibilities of the candidates. At Sheila’s, I suspect I’d see laundry hanging outside on the line, multiple recycling containers, and a fleet of bikes for all family members and all occasions. It seems unlikely that I'd see that at Brad's place.

Where Sheila believes in investing City funds in renewable resources, Brad says, “I am not sure solar power is a viable option for our location on the globe.” Say what!? Is that due to Brad’s astounding ignorance on the topic or is he simply playing it safe? Where Sheila envisions multiple opportunities for renewable energy applications, Brad comes off looking like a spokesperson for Exxon in both style and substance.

No mayor or city council candidate is perfect. I do not expect elected officials to be energy and environmental engineers, just as I do not expect them to necessarily be CPA’s, bond counselors, legal experts, health administrators, traffic engineers, or business owners. What I am looking for at this point in Carbondale's and the nation’s history is a well-rounded candidate that not only talks-the-talk about saving the planet, but walks-the-walk. On issues of climate, energy and the environment, I want a person that boldly responds to the grave danger we are in and is willing to not only live a sustainable life by example, but also take bold steps to rethink and guide the City of Carbondale into a sustainable future. Of the two candidates for mayor, I believe Sheila Simon is a better person for that crucial leadership role.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Weather Looks Dim

Photo: Pollution plumes from ocean going ships in the Pacific Ocean

Back when I was in junior high school, I was responsible for recording daily measurements from our school’s weather station and plugging the data into rather unsophisticated weather prediction models to predict the next three days of local weather. Rarely were the predictions accurate beyond 24 hours. With the availability of massive weather databases, super computers and complex algorithms, scientists are increasingly able to now build complex climate models and predict long-term climate change.

That junior weatherman experience helped lead to my interest in understanding solar energy and renewable energy resources. Little did I know that formative weather prediction experience would contribute to my renewed attention forty years later to climate models and predicting the future of civilization.

On March 26th I wrote about the effect of a not well-known phenomenon called global dimming. I feel compelled to return to the subject because of its importance to understanding the very real global emergency that we face. I do so because others and I believe we have less than a decade to make drastic behavioral changes or we will pass the point of no return for saving civilization, as we know it today.

I described global dimming as the reduction of heat from the sun reaching the earth. Look at the accompanying picture of the effect of ocean going vessel exhaust plumes discharging pollution into the Pacific Ocean. It is a small piece of evidence about the direct effect humans have in dimming the sun.

What is the importance of global dimming? It has masked the actual high rate of global warming. It means we have limited time to change our destructive behavior. By we, I mean me, you, our city governments, park districts, state offices and federal bureaucracies, and the nations of the world. This is not a plea worthy of the annual Chicken Little Award. Rather, it is a plea to ask for your deeper understanding of consequences.

In 2006, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) provided in its scientifically authoritative TV series, NOVA, a revealing portrait of the cause, history and consequences of global dimming and its relationship with global climate disruption. Excerpts and a transcript of the program are now available online. There is also an excellent teacher’s curriculum guide available for hands-on understanding of weather. Take a few minutes to understand your planet.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Going The Distance

Fuel Pump Photo

How far can you travel on a gallon of gasoline? For decades the big automakers have thwarted efforts to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standard. They thought they were safe from the winds of change when George W. Bush was elected. They miscalculated and are now, because of their stubborn recalcitrance to improving vehicle fuel efficiency, being told they can expect requirements for significant upgrades to the CAFÉ standards!.

Four factors have caused them to come under the spotlight:

  1. A large increase in crude oil and transportation fuel costs

  2. The loss of political control in the Senate

  3. A miscalculation about their former allies in Congress and the administration, and

  4. The awakening of the electorate to the reality of global climate change.

Suddenly before Congress are proposals for cars to achieve 30 to 35 mpg and the trucks to get at least 23 mpg within the next five years. A competing Senate proposal goes further in calling for a 27 mpg rate for trucks in 2011. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has proposed an across-the-board legislation to increase CAFE standards to 35 mpg on both light trucks and cars by model year 2017. Current standards only require an average of 27.2 miles per gallon (MPG) for cars and 21.6 mpg for light trucks.

Meanwhile, an independent fuel economy panel is reported to have concluded that SUVs and trucks can be built with substantially better fuel economy, and that U.S. competitiveness would not be impacted by increasing the standard. Auto companies were shocked with that news. Although the panel did not reach a conclusion as to level of the achievable mileage standard, the report said that existing technologies could add as much as 12-14 mpg to cars and 11-13 mpg to trucks.

The auto manufacturers may have been shocked (hardly), but probably not their network dealer owners that hear complaints on the sales floor that customers want to get better mileage. How big has been the outcry? Consider that Hummer dealers are now offering to perform unauthorized modifications to their new vehicles to boost MPG even though doing so violates their own warranty

So what is the average consumer to do while we wait again for Congress to catch up with the needs of the nation? Buyer options are wide.

» Buy a more fuel efficient vehicle such as the hybrid Toyota Prius. Find and compare cars!
» Drive more efficiently.
» Maintain the existing vehicle for optimum efficiency
» Take fewer trips by consolidating trips.
» Move closer to the user’s typical destinations so as to reduce commute and shopping time and distances traveled.
» Stop using the inefficient automobile and either walk, bike, ride-share or use mass transit whenever available.
» Reduce the weight of the vehicle. This is primarily how auto manufacturers have been improving mpg. They’ve gone to thinner windows, aluminum, magnesium and plastic components, lighter frames, and smaller primary and spare wheels and tires. Drivers can keep their vehicles empty of extraneous junk, including those sand bags and concrete blocks used last winter for improved real wheel traction. For every extra 100 pounds you carry in your vehicle, you reduce gas mileage and fuel economy by roughly 2%.
» Buy or lease a hybrid vehicle.
» Already have a hybrid? Convert it to a 150 mpg plug-in hybrid or wait for the anticipated OEM version.
» Retrofit the vehicle for biodiesel or electric use.

You can make a difference in global warming and save money by using transportation fuels efficiently. Every gallon of gasoline saved cuts emissions of carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas, by about 25 pounds.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Business of Doubt

Doonsbury Panel On Monday the Daily Egyptian printed an editorial by Jonathan V. Last about Al Gore and environmental uncertainty. Since you can’t read Mr. Last’s irresponsible editorial online at the DE website, you need to visit the Philadelphia Inquirer where it is was originally printed.

Thankfully, Jonathan M. Gray, an SIU Associate Professor of Speech Communication, had his rebuttal printed today. I can’t improve upon his analysis other than to note that Mr. Last has previously written:

“Killing the environment will take time. This big ball of mud is pretty resilient. But if we love our planet -- and really, who doesn't? -- then we have to show corporate America how little we care about it. Only then will it be safe to be an environmentalist again.”

Satire? Or just sowing more seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the problem?

There does seem to be a concentrated effort by well-funded climate change deniers to cast doubt about the seriousness of humanity's disruption of the planet’s ecosystems. At least one group, DeSmogBlog, is taking on the deniers by outing their credibility. They state

“Unfortunately, a well-funded and highly organized public relations campaign is poisoning the climate change debate. Using tricks and stunts that unsavory PR firms invented for the tobacco lobby, energy-industry contrarians are trying to confuse the public, to forestall individual and political actions that might cut into exorbitant coal, oil and gas industry profits. DeSmogBlog is here to cry foul - to shine the light on techniques and tactics that reflect badly on the PR industry and are, ultimately, bad for the planet.”

Check it out!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Reader Feedback

Vogon from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Movie. Buy it!

I have a booklet (more like "a trilogy in five parts") of blog topics I’d like to write about that are consistent with the purpose of this blog: the quest for the ultimate answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, everything.”

I welcome your feedback on how to arrive at the answer, so I’d sure like to hear from my readers what topics, issues or subjects you would like to see discussed (or avoided) here.

Please add you comments below. If all this blather reads too much like a Vogon’s procedure manual, well, you can let me know that too.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Your Ameren Rate Survey Results

The results of my very unscientific poll on AmerenCIPS rate increases are in. It was an experiment to see if polling works well enough in a small, local blog. Only 21 people bothered to vote on the question of “How much did your latest electric bill increase compared to 12 months ago?” Respondents said:

32% said their electric bills almost doubled despite probably implementing some minor energy reduction strategies. Based on my conversations about the region, these respondents were definitely the owners of all-electric homes or apartments. Another 9% saw more than a 70% increase. As expected, another 37% had an increase of 20 – 50% reflecting a price increase matching the average expected rate of increase. I don’t know what to say about the 3 people that saw no increase.

A decidedly unscientific poll, but of some interest none the less.

Movies Too Hot To Handle

Sunspots - Too Hot To Handle

If you missed the first two days of the environmental film fest being sponsored by the Shawnee Group of the Sierra Club, you can play catch-up starting with tonight’s viewing of “Too Hot Not to Handle” - a 90 minute HBO special on Global Warming that features leading climatologists and leaders who are taking positive actions to reduce global warming emissions. It will be reshown Wednesday at 7 PM in SIU-C’s Parkinson Hall (next to SIU Carbondale covered parking lot), Room 124. Tonight, you can see it at 7 PM at the Mix Coffeehouse, 106 South Division St., in beautiful downtown Carterville, a community located between the Capital of Southern Illinois and the Center of the Universe (aka Marion).

On Tuesday you can see “Out of Balance” - an expose of Exxon Mobil’s efforts to distort the global warming science and debate, and presents global social changes that must take place to preserve our planet for future generations. One hour film is followed by discussion and information on cutting your own energy use. It will be shown at Church of the Good Shepherd, 515 S. Orchard Drive, Carbondale at 7 PM.

Last, but not least, you can see the final showing of “Kilowatt Ours” - a one hour film takes you from the issues of mountain top removal to large scale solar panel projects to one family’s efforts to reduce their household energy use. It will be shown at the Longbranch Coffeehouse, 100 East Jackson St., Carbondale at 7 PM. Be there!

Global Dimming

The NASA photograph showing aircraft contrails and natural clouds. Taken from I-95 in northern Virginia, January 26, 2001, by NASA scientist Louis Nguyen.</
What’s with that title? Maybe another typo or maybe a reference to the dumbing of the electorate? Hardly.

Global dimming is the reduction of heat from the sun reaching the earth.

You’ve seen the manifestation of the causes of global dimming if you’ve ever flown in a plane or been to a high viewpoint and looked to the horizon where that sickly orange/brown haze hugs the horizon everywhere on the planet.

The dimming isn’t due to some intergalactic light dimmer (rheostat) switch increasing resistance to flow of the sun's energy. The real contributors to global dimming include the products of incomplete fossil fuel (coal, oil, gas) combustion, the black carbon from burning of wood, jet contrails, airborne volcanic ash, and aerosols.

Is global dimming anything to really fret about? Some scientists now consider that the effects of global dimming have masked the effect of faster than predicted global warming and that resolving global dimming may, therefore, lead to increased future planetary temperature rise. Some scientists have postulated that global dimming has...

"contributed to the deaths of a million people in Africa, and afflicted 50 million more with hunger and starvation.”

That conclusion was broadcast in the 2005 BBC documentary on climate change that is summarized here. A very extensive discussion of the global dimming is also available.

It’s a topic worth your review. Knowledge is power.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

King Coal is Dead! Long Live the King!

Old King Cole

Since the middle of the last century clean coal has been the Holy Grail of the power industry: highly desired but unachievable. That is not stopping greedy business and politicians from looking for money to proceed with the Great Coal Rush.

36 states are racing to build at least 94 (possibly 150) new coal-fired electric power plants with the capacity to power at least 62 million American homes. This race dubbed America's new coal rush, has utilities hell-bent on get their plants built before inevitable new federal and state regulations are passed that restrict greenhouse gas emissions. Some 62 gigawatts of new production potential are being proposed. Illinois is neck and neck with Texas for having the most proposals. Illinois might build 8 or more gigawatts of new capacity with 10+ coal plants. Add to that list one more plant that SIU President Glen Poshard now says he wants built - a new $200 million coal-fired SIU power plant to replace its existing fluidized bed boiler system on the SIU campus.

You can’t be a politician from southern Illinois without exclaiming the virtues of coal as a cure for the unemployment, better schools and roads, tourism, and a litany of other civic goals. Every downstate politician loves to promote clean coal even though it is an impossible dream. (Call me a cynic, but the best use for coal is as a transitional feedstock for creating liquid fuels before be finally switch-over to a renewables-based transportation system.)

Yes, we’ve all been told repeatedly that the total known world reserves of coal might be sufficient for 200-300 years' of humanity’s needs at current consumption levels – never mind the environmental consequences. As evident in this map, the United States is the ‘Saudi Arabia of coal.’ Despite that analogy, I say King Coal’s future is limited!

How dare I speak such heresy? I say what I say about coal because:

» The burning of coal already produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source. The Illinois Department of Health has already issued fish consumption advisories for every waterway in the state due to dangerous levels of mercury. Don’t eat the fish! Texas already ranks first in the U.S. in carbon emissions.
» The soot from coal plants is a leading cause of asthma attacks, lung cancer, heart attacks, and even premature death in the region. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness (about 10 million lost school days each year). In St. Louis, estimates are that approximately 15% of children under age 18 suffer from asthma. This is more than double the national average of 6.3%.
» Coal mines will continue to kill miners. Illinois has lost 21 miners since 1996. The nation lost 819 in that same period. Think that is bad? Eighty percent of all mining deaths now occur in China even though it has only 35% of the world’s coal. While their death rate is starting to decline, in 2006 China lost 4,746 coal miners! In 1942, China lost 1,549 miners in one day due to a coal-dust explosion.
» Midwest wind energy alone could meet 25% of America’s electricity needs and create thousands of additional jobs in manufacturing, installation and maintenance of clean energy systems.
» Solar power in all its many forms has too much potential to be ignored any longer.

The amount of solar energy intercepted by the Earth every minute is greater than the amount of energy the world uses in fossil fuels each year.
Even the conservative Business Week Magazine hints that the era of coal may be ending. It will surely be a slow death for coal as we transition through technologies being touted again such as coal gasification, methanation and liquification for creating liquid motor fuels.

The extensive research into clean coal technology has resulted in the general conclusion that these conversions will create vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – “far more than is released in the extraction and refinement of liquid fuel production from petroleum.” That isn’t exactly a popular conclusion for a region like southern Illinois that is suffering from perpetually high unemployment.

Eventually the research (Follow the money!) led to proposals to artificially sequester the vast amounts of carbon dioxide into artificial trees, the deep ocean or into underground geologic repositories. (Out of sight – Out of mind). The federal government has plans to aggressively research sequestration options. Those plans bring us to Illinois’ quest to be the lottery prize recipient of FutureGen – a $1 billion, 275 MW coal power plant that would sequester carbon dioxide emissions at a rate of about one million metric tons per year. After initial proposal rejections from several states, the two Illinois cities of Mattoon and Tuscola are in very intense competition with Odessa and Jewett, TX for the FutureGen prize.

FutureGen for Illinois touts the alleged benefits to the state:

» FutureGen will create an estimated 1,300 direct jobs during construction.
» FutureGen will create an estimated 3,250 indirect jobs during construction.
» FutureGen will create 150 permanent jobs.
» FutureGen will create 375 spin-off jobs in related investments.

So, why pick Illinois? As seen in the map above, Mattoon and Tuscola both sit above vast coal reserves. Those reserves contain more energy than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined.

A long list of Illinois notables supports the project. Curiously, the group’s website makes zero mention of any negative consequences. Therefore, there must be no risk right?

“When something is too good to be true, then it isn't”
Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney described the FutureGen situation another way:

“If Johnny jumped off a cliff, does that mean you should jump off a cliff?” If Texas is foolish enough to offer a taxpayer bailout for an unknown quantum of liability arising from a potential disaster of unknown proportions, does that mean Illinois should follow suit? I don’t think so. I’m not going to stick Illinois taxpayers with a commitment of unknown proportions.”
What risk is that? He’s was talking about the monumental FutureGen risks that private insurance companies won’t insure. He’s talking about the financial risk that must be so eliminated that both Illinois and Texas are falling all over themselves to legislate away any financial risk to the plant operators if their construction plans go awry and emission sequestration doesn’t work. You know simple risks like:

» An earthquake releasing to the local atmosphere the estimated fifty million metric tons of carbon dioxide that would be stored underground compressed at over a thousand pounds/inch of pressure.
» The risk of rupturing the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) pipeline that Governor Blagojevich wants to construct stretching from the coal gasification plants planned to Illinois Basin oil fields in southeastern Illinois.
» The risk that that all hydrocarbon reservoirs are likely to leak over (geologic) time?
» The risk that carbon dioxide might start filling the basements of nearby homes.
» The risk that displacement of brine (salt water) into drinking water well aquifers.
» The risk of induced earthquakes or surface land deformation. (source)

Isn’t it time to just stop the madness?

Isn’t it time to end our addiction to coal?

The pursuit of clean coal distracts us from proven solutions for energy security. We should be telling all levels of government to stop coal subsidies and support programs for efficiency and clean energy. The sooner we abandon clean coal as the Holy Grail, the faster our nation can develop a sane energy policy that makes for a sustainable environment.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Ameren Monopoly

Monopoly Game Board

Jim Syler (aka Calion), Chair of the fringe Southern Illinois Libertarians recently wrote in Carbondale Bytelife about ‘Electricity, markets and monopolies”

In classic Libertarian-speak Syler asserts, “The only way out of our electricity problem is to cut Ameren loose from its state-privileged status, to fly or fall on its own.” He says this will benefit consumers because Ameren”will be afraid that if their price is too high or their service too poor, other companies will come in and try to undercut their business.”

I’m convinced that Libertarians want utilities to rain havoc on consumers. From the flames of the resulting chaos, they have an expectation that some Phoenix-like, benevolent, natural order (and Wal-Mart style ‘Falling Prices’) will spontaneously sprout from the ashes.

The Illinois Libertarian Party takes the position that:

“Allowing the free market to set electricity rates is the best way to get reliable service at competitive rates. The Libertarian Party of Illinois opposes legislation that controls prices for any market service, including electricity.”
Libertarians simply choose to ignore both distant and recent history of scandalous abuses by utilities that were unregulated monopolies. I’ll be the first to admit that understanding utility regulation is not an easy task. There are so many federal and state laws that have distorted the market. Many of the laws were actually written by the utilities, handed to legislators, and hastily passed without decent analysis. It should come as no surprise that the electric industry sought to improve the profitability of its monopoly standing by giving “more than $40 million to Congress since 1999 (more than two-thirds to the Republican Party) and spent an additional $260 million lobbying the federal government over that same time period. The crisis we are in now in Illinois over deregulation and high prices was nurtured in the utilities and sold to the ICC as a universal panacea for Illinois energy problems. Everybody was tricked into or bought-out by the plan. Just follow the money!

Most of the disastrous utility laws now on the books began with deregulation brought about by the Energy Policy Act of 1992. That’s the same complex act (393-pages) that, in its infinite wisdom, designated Yucca Mountain as the ‘permanent disposal site’ for used nuclear fuel and other radioactive materials from commercial nuclear power plants and U.S. Department of Defense activities. The act distorted alternative transportation fuel development leading to uneconomic subsidization of ethanol from corn. It’s the same act that also failed to significantly raise automobile fuel economy (CAFE) standards.

The latest incarnation of AmerenCIPS is one of nine public utilities in Illinois that are retailing monopolies regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), a state agency established to “to pursue an appropriate balance between the interest of consumers and both emerging and existing service providers in accordance with applicable statute and rules.”

Essentially, when it comes to electric utilities the ICC has repeatedly blown numerous opportunities since the 1980’s when I helped argue before the ICC that Ameren needed to invest far more in sustainable energy solutions such as conservation and renewables. First, the ICC failing to foster significant demand reduction and demand management solutions that would reduce the need to build more polluting coal and nuclear power plants. Then it failed to guide acquisition of renewable energy supply sources, and most recently, it miserably failed to protect the electorate from an artificial purchasing process where the new “retailing Ameren” gets to buy power from the old “power generation Ameren” company at unnatural prices.

No, sorry, I cannot see cutting “Ameren loose from its state-privileged status, to fly or fall on its own.” Not when there are so many opportunities for the company to leverage its unregulated monopoly status to pillage its customers’ bank accounts. There is no quick easy solution. The solutions I see working best in the long run are those that turn every home and business into both an energy demand reduction engine and a distributed energy producer using renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and other clean fuel technologies.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fuel Fights

Fuel Fights Poster, 1943.One of the hot issues 64 years ago was fuel rationing. It wasn't an issue of high energy prices as Americans tend to view it today, but one of scarcity of fuel due to its priority use in World War II.

"During World War II many consumer goods were rationed for civilians in order to supply more goods for both American and Allied troops. Among the items rationed were sugar, red meat, gas, oil, coffee, and rubber. In October 1942 fuel oil was rationed. During the especially cold winter of 1942-43 this brought numerous protests from citizens. A temperature of 65 degrees was set as the standard for homes, by the federal government." (Source)

Conserve Fuel Poster
65 degrees is still a reasonable standard. If everyone used that benchmark, we probably wouldn't need fuel from the Mideast where we are now in a protracted war that has caused over 3200 American soldier deaths and 23,417 casulties.

Both posters were originally published by the United States Government Printing Office.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Carpe Utility

Red Onion Layers
In response to rising costs and concern for better management, Carbondale’s Mayor Cole has proposed seizing the local infrastructure assets of AmerenCIPS through the process of eminent domain. There are generally five reasons that a municipality would want to take over a publicly held utility such as AmerenCIPS.

  1. Cost
  2. Safety
  3. Reliability
  4. Local accountability
  5. Control
Ameren will undoubtedly raise a stink about the eminent domain process and claim that Carbondale citizens cannot afford the cost of acquisition.

1) If the City can run the utility with less expense, then it is in the community’s interest to proceed. We don’t know if Carbondale can afford to buy the utility until the costs are analyzed in a comprehensive feasibility study.

2) Can Carbondale maintain the infrastructure with equal or better safety for its employees and for citizens using power from the utility? That is an unknown, but is certainly possible after an intensive education/training program of personnel is undertaken.

3) Can Carbondale provide greater reliability of energy delivery in both the short- and long-run? I am not convinced that can happen in the short-run, but I do think it is possible in the long-run by carefully investing in technology that simultaneously lowers energy demand and substitutes diverse supply sources that have greater sustainability.

4) Local accountability is the second best reason for acquiring the utility assets. Elected officials accountable to local citizens is, in my book, preferable, to a large corporation being primarily responsible to only its investors and Wall Street analysts. Accountability can turn into a negative if the new governing entity operates in an unprofessional manner as the region has witnessed in recent years with the Rend Lake Conservancy District. In Rend Lake’s case their audit identified management deficiencies in 16 areas and recommended more than 70 specific actions to stop bad management from continuing.

5) Control is the primary reason Carbondale should explore acquiring the utility’s assets. With good stewardship, Carbondale can build a sustainable and comprehensive energy management system for the community. Without the local control, the community will be unable to chart its own energy destiny and be independent of the utility and its suppliers. Also, the City can be independent of state/federal legislators and regulators that may have conflicting priorities.

I think that the advantages of acquiring the Ameren infrastructure probably outweigh the disadvantages, but we all need more information upon which to base a sound opinion. Using eminent domain is not without serious risks. It is almost always an adversarial process. We can look to numerous examples around the country where local units of government have tried and failed to use eminent domain for private utility acquisition. In many instances, the government body has lost the battle and been liable for paying significant litigation and lobbying costs. For example, Morristown, Maryville, and Alcoa, TN, as well as, Kansas City all failed in their attempts to take over the gas distribution systems in their communities.

Any plans to acquire AmerenCIPS would be both complex and expensive, and in then end, businesses and citizens may end up saddled with millions of dollars in debt without neither better utility rates or service.

Should we abandon the idea now? No. Lets move forward cautiously peeling away the issue’s layers to get at the truth of the matter AND explore other options along the way. This exploration must require citizen involvement to be trusted and successful.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Wildlife Rehabilitation - Free Again

Bobcat in Rehab

Nature is generally unforgiving. When a bird or mammal becomes ill or injured, depending upon the species, they are often completely on their own to acquire shelter, food, and medical care.

Some people argue that the animal should be left alone to allow "nature's way" to complete the cycle of life. I would tend to agree, but stop after remembering how responsible the human species is for harming animals in so many other ways. Human activities injure and kill animals by the millions every year and are responsible for countless extirpations of species. The list of extinctions that have occurred in the US alone is mind boggling. The least we can do is intervene where possible to give the creatures a chance for survival.

Wildlife rehabilitation organizations around the world perform amazing wonders in helping sick and injured wild creatures. In southern Illinois we have Free Again, a volunteer, non-profit organization providing wildlife rehabilitation services for injured, ill or orphaned birds and other animals. Founded in 1987, Free Again cares for nearly 400 bird and mammal species yearly.

The primary goal of Free Again is the rehabilitation and release of these wild creatures back into their native habitat. Through awareness and education, Free Again encourages a peaceful co-existence between people and native wildlife.

Free Again Logo
As we enter the "busy season" when young animals are entering this dangerous new world and animal activity and migrations resume, organizations like Free Again need your help. I encourage my readers to visit the Free Again website and consider contributing goods, service and your very valuable volunteer time to the organization. You can make a big difference.

Our Heritage of Hills

Monk's Mound at Cahohia Mounds World Heritage Site

Less than 80 miles as the crow flies from my doorstep in Carbondale are the ruins of a once-thriving prehistoric city of up to 20,000 American Indians known as Cahokia Mounds. Cahokia was among the most complex, sophisticated societies of prehistoric North America. At its population peak around 1150, researchers say, the city covered nearly six square miles.

Cahokia was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1982 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is one of twenty World Heritage Sites in the United States.

Several theories exist for the demise of the ancient civilization. One theory suggests that Cahokia was abandoned because of environmental abuse: over-hunting and deforestation. Another suggests that political collapse was the primary reason for the site’s abandonment.

Cahokia is under new environmental and political threats today. The nation's largest garbage hauler, Houston-based Waste Management, which owns the towering Milam landfill in nearby Fairmont City (Madison County), wants to expand to floodplain land adjacent to the world heritage site. How big is the Waste Management company? It has over 22,000 collection and transfer vehicles - the largest trucking fleet in the waste industry.
The company would expand its existing landfill and use its trucks to build a decidedly different kind of mound - one of buried garbage that would be constructed within 2,100 feet of the Cahokia Mounds and close to Horseshoe Lake State Park. The 222-acre expansion area for the landfill would also inundate 18 acres of wetlands in the floodplain.

Two environmental groups (Illinois Sierra Club* and American Bottom Conservancy) have filed an appeal with the Illinois Pollution Control Board to stop the construction on the site. Kathy Andria, president of American Bottom Conservancy said
"I think it's unconscionable, so disrespectful to the site, to the American Indians living today who would see garbage put on top of a site they consider sacred."
Each day an average of 400 truckloads (about 3,000 tons) of trash are deposited in a mound to a height of almost 170 feet height at the existing landfill site in Milam.

Approval for the site must be granted by both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

If the landfill is completed, the City of Madison would receive $1 million a year from the landfill; Madison County would also receive approximately two million dollars annually in tipping fees.
(* Disclosure: I serve on the governing board of the Illinois Sierra Club.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Poll: We Can Do More To Help Environment

Survey Form

The Gallup News Service released the results of an interesting poll last month about environmental priorities for government and citizens. People definitely think the government should do more to help the environment. They also think their neighbors should do more, but offer only a few suggestions as to what. Only about 50% identified actions that they or their neighbors could take. Suggested actions include: "developing alternative fuel sources (19%), addressing global warming (16%), imposing stricter standards on fuel emissions (10%), and setting tougher fuel standards for autos (6%)."

About a third of Americans think the government should strengthen environmental protection laws and their enforcement (not specific to global warming), including by setting higher standards on clean water, holding industrial organizations accountable for pollution, and passing stronger laws for protection of natural resources.

Democrats and Republicans are about equally likely to suggest that the government should initiate more research to find alternative energy sources (20% and 21%, respectively). However, Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans (23% vs. 11%) to say the government should acknowledge and address global warming, specifically.”
When it comes to telling their neighbors what to do, people suggest that their fellow citizens can be better stewards of the environment by conserving more, recycling more, and polluting less (in that order). But of these, cutting down on energy consumption is by far the largest category of responses. This includes using more energy-efficient products (18%), buying smaller or more fuel-efficient cars (13%), and driving less (10%).

When it comes to recycling they place low emphasis on reducing their consumption patterns, preferring instead to recycle more of what they increasingly consume.

Greenhouse Gas-O-Therapy

The Nose Knows!

I couldn't turn-on the "Smell-O-Vision" for this announcement about reducing greenhouse gases, so please just take my word for it that it is definitely worth your while to attend any of the film showings scheduled next week that are part of the Sierra Club's First Annual Environmental Film Fest.

The first film on Thursday, March 22nd is “Kilowatt Ours” -a one hour film that covers topics ranging from mountain top removal to large scale solar panel projects to one family’s efforts to reduce their household energy use.
The Thursday showing is co-sponsored by the Kaleidoscope Group.

For a detailed show schedule and links to descriptions of the film, visit the Sierra Club's Shawnee Group blog.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Political Fiction

Bully Pulpit
Lately, some local bloggers have been especially effusive in their praise of Carbondale Mayor Cole and the fact that he is such an active “full-time” mayor. Some call him “a real bargain” and “our Vista Volunteer” because he works full-time for a low salary.

For example, in regard to the upcoming election, David More argues for “voters to not to turn back the clock, and return to the days of the part-time Mayor . . . but to Spring forward with a full-time Mayor whose #1 job is making Carbondale a better place to live and work.”

Lost in all this admiration is the history of the City-manager form of government in Carbondale. The pundits miss the fact that the citizens of Carbondale legally chose to adopt the Council-manager form of government as a means of reforming the abuses of past municipal government systems. A full-time, partisan mayor is not an ingredient of the chosen reform.

Recall that there are three possible forms of municipal government. All three are found in southern Illinois. Most municipalities of communities with more than 10,000 citizens use either a mayor-council government (sometimes referred to as the strong-mayor form of government), a council-manager government (E.G. Carbondale), or the once prevalent, but now generally disfavored, city commission form of local government (E.G. Marion).

In the council-manager form of city government, mayors typically are part-time jobs because the council delegates authority to administer the details of government not to the mayor, but to the City Manager. The mayor is normally supposed to primarily perform ceremonial duties and act as a member and presiding officer of the elected city council that sets policy and gives the manager direction.

That is the way the voters approved the governance system for Carbondale and the way things worked well for decades before the current mayor took office. Historically, the Carbondale City Manager (currently Jeff Dougherty) has looked to trade organizations such as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) for guidance on how to administer government in a non-partisan manner. The ICMA publishes eighteen best practices of operation for professional city managers.

Despite the many good intentions and efforts that Mayor Cole has, I suspect that there is an aversion in the community to the bloodless Coup d'état that seems to have occurred in city hall. The mayor’s position was never intended to be a full-time position. Taxpayers pay the City Manager a very hefty salary to professionally administer the affairs of city government without the need for the heavy hand of a full-time Mayor residing in city hall all day, every day. It is irrelevant that the mayor is willing to serve full-time or at low pay. That is simply not what the voters agreed to support.

Mayor Cole says he is running for office to be a full-time mayor. His opponent has clearly stated that she is running for the part-time office of mayor in keeping with the traditional council-manager form of government. In essence, they are running for different offices, but one of the offices is a fiction and does not exist.

This is not to say the mayor’s role should be marginalized. To the contrary, elected mayors are very important because they can use the “bully pulpit” to resolve divisive community issues and help lead a community to new solutions and opportunities.

There is a very real danger in supporting the continuation of a low-salary, full-time mayor position, especially when the person has sworn allegiance to one political party. First of all, it is a step backwards from the desired goal of professionalizing municipal administration by having a CEO-level administrator responsible for running government in a non-partisan manner. In the case of Mayor Cole, he is an avowed Republican with statewide political aspirations. This alone hinders his impartially when it comes to representing a non-partisan city administration, and makes all his actions (good or bad) suspect when he acts independent of Council direction or authority. Moreover, since “perception is reality,” any act the Republican mayor takes will be deemed partisan behavior with political overtones.

A second danger of a full-time, partisan mayor is that city employees will always feel either real or imagined pressure to operate in a partisan manner for the sake of job security, promotions and raises. With an non-partisan city manager stationed between the employee and the elected body of council decision-makers, employees have greater freedom to professionally act for what they see as best for the city, rather than what is preferred by any in-the-house, full-time, partisan mayor.

Away We Go!

Oklahoma Musical Poster

Such is the original name of the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma, which later became the popular 1955 movie starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.

Try to imagine that the production was really about the future Illinois.

Based on calculations about global warming, the winter climate of Illinois is now expected to begin looking more and more like that of present day Oklahoma, and in summer it will be closer to that of Texas!

“Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain
And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain.”

Such is the assessment of a Union of Concerned Scientists report on the results of pending climate change. Their detailed assessment suggests we are in for some wrenching changes.

“Illinois’ climate will grow considerably warmer and probably drier during this century, especially in the summer. As a result of these changes, by 2030 summer in llinois may feel more like current-day summer in Oklahoma or Arkansas, while winter may feel like present day Missouri. By 2095 summer climate will resemble that of eastern Texas today with winters that feel like Oklahoma.”

Image an Illinois growing season 2 - 6 weeks longer. Accompanying that longer season may be increases in the frequency of Mississippi River floods, drought, tornadoes and severe storms.

Since 75% of Illinois is used for agriculture, there are likely to be significant shifts in viability and productivity of certain crops. If the crops can survive the expected weather extremes and altered threats from pests, farmers may shift towards wheat production in lieu of corn.

I recommend everyone take the time to review the brief sections of the report listed below:

It looks like the future just ain’t what it used to be.

Away We Go! Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!

Friday, March 9, 2007

Illinois Holdem Power Poker

Aces Wild Power Poker

It’s a high stakes media game this week as Ameren and the Illinois legislature play poker with the energy supply system of 390,000 electric customers in 576 communities in Illinois. (See service area map).

The Illinois Senate Environment and Energy Committee showed their hand Wednesday by unanimously voting to extend the electric rate increase proposed in House Bill 1750. The freeze would be extended only six months to allow time to craft better solutions for Illinois.

Ameren has raised the bet by issuing a news release in which the company threatens to take the following punitive measures. A careful read of the threats would indicate that they primarily affect their employees, low income residents of Illinois, and those having the most difficulty paying the high electric bills of the company. Way to stick it to the little guy, Ameren!

  • Immediate steps would be taken to lay off employees
  • Nearly all of the companies' contractors would be laid off
  • Reliability projects, including tree trimming, would be postponed
  • Connections for new homes and businesses would be delayed
  • Response to customer calls would stretch from seconds today to many minutes
  • Elimination of the proposed $20 million customer credit, primarily for the relief of residential electric heat customer
  • Elimination of the zero-percent interest Customer Elect Plan (CEP) for phasing in higher electricity rates
  • Elimination of the zero-percent deferral assistance program for certain non-residential customers
  • Elimination of the $15 million pledged for energy assistance, energy efficiency programs and aid for low-income customers; and all community donations and projects would be discontinued.

Will the full Illinois Senate fold, call or raise the bet in this game of power poker?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

91 Days

Oil Drilling Platform
Everyone has their pet theory on how gasoline prices are established in the real world. Of course, many people think it is simply tied to the price of crude oil and simple supply and demand. Wish it were so!

For a detailed analysis of the last three years of oil pricing and the influence of political and military events around the world on oil prices, please read this assessment and hope it isn’t at all accurate.

Three facts jump out of the document:

  1. The United States has the largest demand for oil by far, using around 25% of the world's total oil production and 40% of the world's gasoline production -- with only about 5% of the total world population.
  2. Approximately 2/3 of the oil and gasoline consumed by the U.S. is being imported from foreign countries. This dependency leaves the U.S. highly vulnerable to any supply disruption.
  3. At any one time there are about 54 days of stock in the OECD system plus 37 days in emergency stockpiles. 54 + 37 = 91 days.

If oil stopped flowing for whatever reason – terrorism, war, natural disaster – it would only take about 91 days before the economy and world social order spiraled into chaos.

You didn’t want to hear that, did ya?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Eating Oil

French Fries

No, the title of this post is not about that clunker of a car in your driveway, nor the greasy french fries you had for lunch yesterday. It is about the actual good stuff you put in your mouth every day that you might have purchased at the local farmers market.

A community with a local farmers market is a stepping stone on the path to community sustainability. In addition to the opportunity markets provide for social interaction, they offer excellent sources of food diversity, nutrition, and local employment. I especially value them because locally grown food generally requires less energy than imported food.

Juxtapose the status of farmers markets in your community with the statistic that 90% of the food consumed in Illinois is imported. Illinoisans spend millions of dollars for food and most of that leaves the local economy. An enormous portion of the family food bill is actually for the fuel to transport food to market. When you eat “foreign food” you are essentially eating the oil needed to get it to you.

“Virtually all of the processes in the modern food system are now dependent upon this finite resource, which is nearing its depletion phase.

Moreover, at a time when we should be making massive cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in order to reduce the threat posed by climate change, the food system is lengthening its supply chains and increasing emissions to the point where it is a significant contributor to global warming.” (source)
In a multitude of ways locally grown and consumed food is the benchmark of a sustainable community.

A benefit of farmers markets is the savings they create in energy consumption. One way to measure that benefit is the ratio of energy outputs (the energy content of a food product) - to the energy inputs needed to produce, package and transport the food. Does it make sense to consume 127 calories of fuel to deliver 1 calorie of food? That is the energy ratio to ship iceberg lettuce to Great Britain. Where are the origins of your last banana, head of lettuce, pint of strawberries, and salmon steak?

With the coming of Peak Oil Illinois needs to do everything it can to transition to locally grown food sources.

The transition must begin now. Before the Illinois legislature is House Bill 1300 - The Illinois Food, Farms, and Jobs Act of 2007. HB 1300 proposes to:

“assemble a task force from diverse Illinois constituencies that are necessary to construct and maintain a complete in-state food system for the production, processing, storage, distribution, sale, and preparation of local and organic foods.

The Task Force’s objective is to identify barriers to Illinois creating locally grown and organic food system. The legislation calls for:

  • Farmer training and development

  • Helping farmers to transition to locally grown foods, USDA organic, and specialty crop production

  • Improving consumer access to fresh and affordable Illinois-grown foods in both rural and urban communities (farmers markets, roadside stands, and new and existing groceries)

  • Removing barriers separating landowners, farmers, businesses, and consumers desiring to participate in local and organic food networks

  • Constructing a local food infrastructure (processing, storage, and distribution)

  • Developing new food and agriculture-related businesses, such as on-farm processing, micro-markets, incubator kitchens, and marketing and communications businesses

  • Research into best practices and opportunities for local and organic food production and handling.”

Communities should support such legislation as part of The Ultimate Answer.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Is An Energy Service Company In your Future?

Compact Flourescent Light Bulb Image
In a recent post I mentioned Energy Service Companies (ESCos) – the use of which is one option that cities like Carbondale can employ to reduce city-wide energy expenses.

What is an ESCo? An ESCo is a “business that develops, installs, and finances projects designed to improve the energy efficiency and maintenance costs for facilities over a seven to 10 year time period. ESCOs generally act as project developers for a wide range of tasks and assume the technical and performance risk associated with the project. Typically, they offer the following services:

  • develop, design, and finance energy efficiency projects;
  • install and maintain the energy efficient equipment involved;
  • measure, monitor, and verify the project's energy savings; and
  • assume the risk that the project will save the amount of energy guaranteed.

These services are bundled into the project's cost and are repaid through the dollar savings generated.” {read more}

The great advantage of using ESCos is the avoidance of risk by the customer. It is up to the vendor to properly manage their technology decisions. If they fail to save energy/money, they make no profit. This is “performance-based contracting.”

ESCos tend to specialize in particular areas of expertise in either the demand or the supply side of the energy saving equation.

A company doesn’t have to be a large ESCo or be a member of the National Association of Energy Service Companies to make a difference for a community. There are hundreds of smaller businesses with technology innovations that can help communities build there way to energy self-reliance and sustainability. They have expertise in energy conservation, wind, solar, and other cost-effective renewable energy solutions.

Demand-side solutions from any number of sources do work. In this report, “Power To Save – An Alternative Path to Meet Electric Needs in Texas, their study found that:

“a comprehensive effort to promote efficiency and other cost-saving demand reduction measures can meet Texas’ electricity needs more reliably, at a lower cost and at a tremendous net economic benefit compared to building a new fleet of expensive and heavily polluting power plants. Over the next 15 years, boosting markets for more efficient products, lighting, cooling, heating and industrial processes can eliminate over 80% of forecast growth in electricity demand, while lowering consumer’s energy bills. With additional measures to further reduce electricity demand and enhance reliability, Texas can completely eliminate its “load growth,” resulting in a gradual decline in total electricity demand to more than 9% below current levels by 2021.”

Our local politicians don’t seem to be considering ESCos or conservation and renewables as part of their response to the disastrous Ameren rate increase. I wonder why that is. If anyone knows about a local politician decisively working on alternative solutions, please let me know.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Utility Formerly Known as CIPS

Electric Meter Image

In my last post I started to describe the history and role of planning/management of electric utilities. Using the tool of energy utilities, only two proposals for southern Illinois appear to be publicly under consideration.

1) Carbondale, IL is proposing to acquire Ameren’s local distribution infrastructure (poles, wiring, substations, building meters, etc. and buy power from the ‘competitive’ market.

2) A group of municipal mayors is looking into forming a power purchase company to attempt to get power at a lower bulk rate.

The legislation for option #2 is what legislators call the “Southern Illinois Aggregate for Viable Energy Solutions.” Now there’s a warm and fuzzy name if I ever heard one! Do we call it “SIAFLVES” or maybe “The Utility Formerly Known as CIPS?”

Marketing aside, the two options leave far too much to be desired. Mayor Cole proposes to acquire Ameren assets through eminent domain. This would put the City under obligation to maintain that infrastructure. Carbondale could bid it out to private vendors to manage, or the City could do the work with city employees. They would need to be trained. This is certainly possible. The City already operates sophisticated drinking and wastewater treatment plants.

What would either proposal gain the city and its taxpayers? Under the new electric rate structure from Ameren a theoretical $100 a month electric bill looks like this:

Customer Charge $6.24 6.2%
Meter Charge $3.62 3.6%
Distribution $16.42 16.4%
Supply $67.47 67.5%
Subtotal $93.74
Tax $ 6.28 ~6.3%
TOTAL $100.02

That $100 bill provides the customer approximately 848 Kwh. About 10% represents fixed costs of serving a residence. Distribution (the portion Mayor Cole wants to acquire) constitutes 16.4% and the biggest portion of the bill is for the actual electric power supplied the consumer (67.7%). Taxes are about 6.3%.

I suspect there is little room for cost savings in the distribution portion of the bill. Its only about 2 cents per Kwh delivered. Acquiring the distribution system would be very expensive, fraught with problems with fair valuation, and legality. Yet, it is possibly a prerequisite to forming a truly independent local municipal utility.

The real money potential is in the supply portion of the bill. Ameren’s residential customers are now paying slightly under eight cents per Kwh. One year ago it was only about seven cents per Kwh. All-electric customers were paying even less.

For every one-cent decrease in the energy supply charge, a customer saves over 17% on their bill.

Acquiring cheaper energy has the greatest potential for saving money, or at least reducing future increases. There are three possible ways to lower the cost of electricity. Either engage either supply-side solutions or demand-side solutions. The first two are supply side:

1) Buy it in the open market from suppliers with excess capacity that can sell power cheaper than Ameren.
2) Build your own energy production system using the cheapest long-term fuel source that has the least negative impacts upon the environment. That cheap source is probably not coal and it more likely to be wind, biomass and solar.
3) Implement demand-side energy conservation measures that lessen the need for off-site energy delivery.

In any utility network, reducing the need for one unit of power is the same as producing one. If the utility can recover the cost of conserving power and do so cheaper then producing it, then it is in the best financial interest of the utility and consumers to pursue that option.

What are the ingredients of a demand-side solution? Building insulation, high efficiency windows, radiant barriers, energy efficiency building codes, high efficiency lighting such as LEDs and compact fluorescents, high efficiency heating and cooling systems, and lifestyle adjustments. No rocket science required!
One has to wonder why our political leaders aren't giving more attention to demand side solutions.