How clean is Illinois?


Not too long ago, driving by the Montfort Wind Farm on a Wisconsin road trip seemed pretty novel, my friend Dave recently mentioned. Now as he drives along I-55 for business in Springfield, he sees wind turbines popping up all over the landscape.  As it turns out, Illinois is now the fourth largest wind-producing state in the country and has enough generation capacity to power nearly 1,000,000 homes.  Plenty more wind farms are on the way.  One day we may we even see turbines spinning offshore near Evanston and Waukegan.  Illinois is turning to cleaner, renewable energy to diversify electricity sources and realize various environmental, employment and economic benefits.



Thanks to strong wind resources, great transmission infrastructure and supportive policies, wind industry is thriving in Illinois.  Local wind farms are cost competitive with new coal or gas fired power plants and price stable thanks to free wind “fuel”.  Clean wind reduces over 3.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually in our state and releases no pollution into the air or water like other energy sources.  The wind industry is a good job creator and economic driver in Illinois.  According to Environmental Law and Policy Center, our state is home to 25 wind farms and the Chicago region is home to 13 headquarters of major wind power companies.  Overall, the Illinois wind power supply chain comprises over 150 companies with more than 15,000 employees.  Since the strength of wind varies, grid integration and transmission issues can be limiting factors.



Solar Exelon City in West Pullman Chicago

Solar Exelon City in West Pullman Chicago. Photo courtesy of

While a growing number of homes are installing solar thermal or photovoltaic panels on rooftops, larger scale solar arrays are making headway in our region as well.   Solar Exelon City, the country’s first urban solar farm located in Chicago, was built on a reclaimed brown field using locally sourced materials and powers about 1,500 homes.  Invenergy is developing the LaSalle Country solar array next to the company’s wind farm. This 140 acre project will power around 4,000 homes.  Also, New Generation Power of Chicago and Wanxiang America will soon build a solar farm in Rockford.  This project willpower nearly 7,000 homes and the solar panels will be built at a Rockford factory.  As an urban solution to space requirements, big box retailers are also getting into the solar power business.  Recently, IKEA announced a solar array will be installed on the massive roof space of their Schaumburg and Bolingbrook stores.  Hopefully the Illinois legislature will fix glitches in net metering rules to prompt more solar production on commercial and industrial rooftops.  With improvements in technology, the cost of PV cells is declining and will soon be more competitive.  Since sunshine varies, the storage, transmission and grid balancing can be limiting factors.



Biomass & Landfill Gas

landfill gas to energy

Collection of landfill gas to be burned for energy. Photo courtesy of King County Solid Waste Division.

Biomass power is typically produced by burning wood waste, agriculture waste, fuel crops and methane from landfills. According to the American Council on Renewable Energy, Illinois was ranked second in the nation for potential biomass resources in 2007, considering crop residue resources and methane from landfills. At this point, biomass plants and cogenerators are scarce in Illinois, and concerns exist regarding air pollution and competition of land for food and energy crops.  Landfill gas to energy facilities, which combust methane gas emitted from decomposing garbage, are more popular.  Waste Management Industries, for example, has developed ten landfill to gas energy facilities in Illinois.  These efforts produce 41 megawatts of energy, which is equivalent to powering about 32,000 homes.



lockport powerhouse

The Lockport Powerhouse sells renewable energy credit to ComEd.  Photo courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Water power, an old school renewable, generates electricity at several Illinois waterways including the Lockport Powerhouse and the Peru hydroelectric plant near Starved Rock.  For hydropower to be considered renewable, it cannot involve new construction or significant expansion of hydropower dams.  Northern Illinois Hydropower is proposing new Dresden Island and Brandon Road projects near Joliet which could power about 14,000 homes.  New hydro projects are somewhat rare due to the long, complex permit process and controversial environmental impacts to fish and wildlife.



Most Illinois electricity comes from burning fossil fuels

Despite all of these clean energy developments, still a tiny fraction of electricity comes from renewables.  Most households in northern Illinois are powered by burning fossil fuels and nuclear reactors.  As shown in ComEd’s environmental disclosure report below, last year the North Shore’s electricity was produced from coal (44%), nuclear (40%), natural gas (12%), and renewable energy sources including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower (3%). Winnetka residents’ power is supplied by the municipal utility, IMEA.  IMEA power is heavily dependent on coal-fire power (the actual breakdown is not publicly disclosed).


ComEd Environmental Disclosure 2011



crawford or fisk coal plant chicago

Over 60 organizations have spent years battling the dinosaur Fisk and Crawford coal-fire plants in Chicago to clean up their act. Finally we can breath easier. Last week, it was announced both plants will be retired. According to the National Research Council, health and environmental damages from the plants cost the public in excess of $127 million per year.  Photo courtesy of Eco Justice Collaborative.

Around 22 major coal burning power plants are located throughout the state and have been the traditional choice for reliable and low cost power. Unfortunately, coal plants are the most polluting source of energy. Coal is dirty throughout its lifecycle, from the mining and shipping to burning and disposing (of ash).  According to the Clean Air Task Force’s Toll From Coal, Illinois currently ranks seventh highest in the nation for public health impacts due to coal plants (when considering the number of deaths, hospital emissions and heart attacks).  Illinois spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year in medical bills, missed workdays and lost productivity due to asthma, respiratory disease and other ailments caused by coal. Coal plants are also single largest contributor of global warming pollution in the world.  Other environmental burdens include smog, acid rain and mercury-contaminated fish.  When assessing the true cost of pulverized coal plants, they are anywhere from 9 cents – 27 cents per kWh more than what we actually pay.  At some point, increased pollution regulation and the cost of carbon emissions will drive up the price of coal-fire power.  Despite the massive pr campaign, “clean coal” does not exist.  Technology to capture and sequester carbon emissions is not cost effective or commercially available.  Also, the hazards of sequestration leakage have yet to be adequately addressed.


Mayor Bllomberg gives $50 million to get beyong coal




Byron nuclear plant Ogle County, IL

Steam rises from one of the two cooling towers at the Byron nuclear station in Ogle County, IL.  Photo courtesy of AP/Rockford Register Star.

Currently, six active nuclear plants provide power in Illinois (owned by Exelon, the parent company of ComEd).  Many of the plants contain multiple nuclear reactors, making Illinois home to the most nuclear reactors in the nation.  Existing plants have relatively low operational costs and nuclear energy throughout its lifecycle releases less carbon emissions compared to fossil fuel fired plants.  High capital costs and long lead times of new construction , nuclear waste disposal problems, supply chain challenges and other drawbacks (remember Fukushima?) have prevented the expansion of nuclear energy throughout the country.  Last month, the first new nuclear plants (located in Georgia) were approved in U.S. since 1973.


Natural Gas

Many natural gas fired base and “peaker” plants are also located throughout Illinois.  These plants tend to be most economical to run when power demand is very high, and are considered the most desirable option for balancing wind and solar.  Natural gas plants release half of the carbon emissions of coal fire plants, other air pollutants are reduced as well.  Although “cleaner” than coal, natural gas has other environmental impacts due to fracking and groundwater contamination.  Also, reliance on natural gas plants can expose consumers to less stable rates due to volatile gas prices.


ComEd Environmental Disclosure Emissions

ComEd's environmental disclosure report informs residents of the impact of their household's power (on a monthly basis). Particulates, mercury, trace heavy metals, VOCs and other pollutants are not included.



Moving renewable energy forward

Illinois has taken significant steps to transition to a clean energy future.  The Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires electricity providers to obtain portions of their power from renewable sources, incrementally reaching 25% by 2025.  Of that amount, 75% must come from wind and 6% from solar.  It should be noted that Winnetka’s power company IMEA is exempt from these requirements (see oust WINNETKA’S DIRTY SECRET).  In order to fulfill renewable obligations, electric providers purchase infrastructure to produce renewable energy or purchase certified renewable energy certificates (RECs) from renewables produced elsewhere, ideally sourced locally.  At some point, federal legislation and regulations on carbon emissions will also incentivize the switch to lower carbon generation sources.


The momentum of renewable energy also relies on continued research and development and early commercialization support.  Currently the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity offers a variety of grant and rebate programs to increase clean energy development.   (Although DCEO also has an office dedicated to promote Illinois coal).   Unfortunately, the federal government provides substantially larger subsidies to fossil fuels than to renewables, as reported by the Environmental Law Institute and Management Information Services Inc.  Fossil fuel and nuclear energy price support is often embedded in the permanent tax code while wind and solar energy aid is typically offered on a time limited basis.  As it stands, over 13,000 megawatts of planned wind projects in Illinois, enough to power 3.3 million homes, is at risk.  Federal wind production tax credits are expiring by years end, and if Congress doesn’t act soon to renew, projects coming on line after 2012 will be significantly delayed or abandoned.  The emerging renewable energy industry faces an uphill battle with the entrenched fossil fuel industry working hard to protect its turf.  A level playing field would help.


No single silver bullet exists for reliable, cost effective, stable and environmentally sustainable power.  Utilities will continue to procure a mix of energy sources, but the pie chart will change. The shift toward clean renewables is underway and Illinois is poised to benefit environmentally and economically.


Help support clean energy in your community, vote YES to electric aggregation on March 20, 2012 referendum – see wren post CUT YOUR ELECTRIC BILL AND GET GREEN POWER


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Thank you Sarah Wochos, Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), for your assistance.


For an insightful analysis on where the US electric industry is headed, read Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid and the Future of Electric Utilities. The author, Peter Fox-Penner, is an internationally recognized authority on energy and electric power industry issues.