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'├ętat 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.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Municipal Electricity & Eminent Domain

Electric Distribution Pole Picture.There have always been three primary functions of public electric utilities: generation (production of electricity), transmission (sending high voltage power to distribution points), and distribution (delivering power to your business or home). The first public utilities typically controlled all three functions. Because of recent deregulation, utility companies such as Ameren have legally separated the functions into 'independent' companies.

The planning and management of these systems was once the exclusive purview of private business. Energy suppliers would go where the markets were most lucrative. Initially, companies chose urban cities to install their systems. Rural America was left without electric power unless power was provided by small-scale electric wind energy systems that typically served one homestead. Back in 1975, some 40 years after REA began, I spent some time scouring farms along the back roads of North Dakota to salvage abandoned wind systems that could still be found. Many of these systems have been refurbished and work today. Most farmers eventually allowed their wind systems to fall into disrepair after the federal government got into the energy planning, production, transmission and distribution business by enabling rural electrification with the REA. Some farmers are returning to their earlier energy producton roles by insstalling wind power and biomass power systems.

In some cases, individuals and small communities read from a different book than the REA bible and chose to provide themselves with their own public utility power. They didn’t rely upon the federal government; they did it themselves. As a result there are now 70 municipal utility companies that are members of the Illinois Municipal Utilities Association. Flora, IL is unique among them as they own and operate all of their utilities: electric, gas, water, and sewer.

Most of the 70 Illinois municipal utilities are ‘transmission-dependent’ - meaning they buy their power from larger suppliers, yet maintain their own distribution and customer service infrastructure. This is essentially the type of system proposed by Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole. The biggest difference being that rather than build the distribution system from scratch, Cole proposes to pay for the system while obtaining ownership through the legal process of eminent domain. This is a commonly used method to acquire property necessary for the completion of projects such as removal of blight or the construction of railroads, highways, public buildings, and open space that are deemed for the public welfare.

Eminent domain use is not without its critics. Its use is generally opposed if its purpose is to provide other private parties unfair advantage in the marketplace. Yet, eminent domain can be used to remove harmful blight and acquire resources for needed badly needed public infrastructure. The downside of eminent domain is the potential to be sued by the owner of the property being taken and having to pay the plaintiffs court costs if the case is lost. Interestingly, Mayor Cole thinks the fight is worth it to acquire the valuable utility infrastructure of the Ameren electric distribution utility, and not worth the effort in the case of the blighted American TAP bar in downtown Carbondale - a major downtown health, safety, and aesthetic nuisance.

Energy planning and regulation duties have increasingly become the purvue of states as a result of improper behavior of utility companies. The Illinois Commerce Commission has the role of protecting consumers from unfair pricing and investigates informal complaints against public utility companies. They are the just one of the entities that bears responsibility for the devastating effects of the January 2007 Ameren price increase.

The latest twist in the Illinois legislature’s grievance against high-priced Ameren electric service is the proposal to reapply the freeze on electric rates long enough to allow competition to enter the Illinois market, thus giving consumers a choice of which provider to use. The rationale being that in a competitive market, electricity prices should go lower as the market prices adjust to supply and demand pressure. Competition in the form of alternative Energy Service Companies (ESCos) will theoretically produce business innovation and new technologies will replace older, inefficient, and expensive systems. Consumers are supposed to benefit. So far they haven't and probably won't!

I’ll soon write about ESCOs and options open to communities that want more energy self reliance.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

How Much Was Your Electric Increase?

I'd like to conduct an unscientific poll regarding the AmerenCIPs rate increase that is affecting many Illinoisans. Before taking the poll shown adjacent in the blog menu, please compare your electric service utility bill from the latest bill from the same month a year ago. Do not include your natural gas service bill costs or taxes - just sum of the three bill categories: DS-Residential (DS-1), Electric Supply (BGS-1), and Taxes. It should be totalled for you on (probably page 3 of the bill. We know that this winter has been colder than the previous year. When I report back the results after the poll closes in two weeks, I will adjust the data for weather impacts. Please ask your friends and neighbors to also take the poll.

In case you don't have access to your historical paper bill records, any AmerenCIPS customer can access their historical bill and payment history (up to 23 months of data) at http://www.ameren.com. While there you can read Ameren's official rationale for the increase. Thanks.

A Rising Ocean Floods All Economies

Rising Sea Level Chart from Wikipedia

The aphorism "a rising tide lifts all boats" refers to the prospect of everyone benefiting from a prosperous economy. If you believe that concept, then you ought to accept that a rising ocean floods all economies.

I recently came across an interesting application of Google Earth mapping applied to the issue of global climate disruption. Most people are aware of the predictions of sea level rise expected this century as a result to melting of polar ice caps. The organization Step It Up 2007 has created an impact video of the effect of sea level rise on New York City – specifically Manhattan Island. Expected flooding there would sink much of lower Manhattan beneath the New York harbor.

You can view the YouTube video now.



One effort of the Step It Up 2007 organization is the Sea Of People project that injects the human element into the sometimes boring statistics of climate education.

We can expect to see similar mapping and community education projects applied to all sorts of environmental impacts: change of growing patterns as the great corn desert plant zone moves northward and other ecosystems disappear to replaced by others, depletion of aquifers, and of course, more visualizations of the disappearance of islands and coastlines all around the world. Stay tuned. It should be a very interesting century.


BTW, I’d like to talk to any Illinoisans working on interesting applications of mapping systems that improve our knowledge of natural resources or other Illinois spatial data.