Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=214733
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Marci Jacobs/MEDILL

Chicago's new electricity contract with Integrys Energy Services will take effect this year, eliminating the city's reliance on coal altogether.


Chicago is going coal-free, but is the city really cleaning up its act?

by Marci Jacobs
Jan 29, 2013


Coal energy producers and environmental groups in Illinois have one thing in common these days – both find flaws in Mayor Emanuel’s plans to clean up Chicago’s power supply.

Emanuel required Chicago’s new electricity supplier, Integrys Energy Services, to eliminate all coal-sourced power, which the city currently relies on for up to 40 percent of its electricity. Even so, some environmental groups feel Emanuel’s plan fell short of championing clean energy in the long term. At the same time, coal suppliers argue that the fossil fuel should still be considered part of a total cleaner energy strategy.

“The city needs to be thinking grander than it is. They went at this with a really blunt set of goals,” said Dave Kraft, director of the Nuclear Energy Information Service, a Chicago-based environmental advocacy organization. “That’s old-school thinking. Even though they were using this new sort of tool, the aggregation tool, the city could be thinking much larger than that.”

In December, the city selected Integrys to deliver power to more than 1 million Chicago residences based on a community aggregation model. This was previously the function of the Illinois Power Agency, which historically purchased electricity from Commonwealth Edison Co. for the Chicago area.

Under the new contract, ComEd will continue to deliver power, service lines and process bills, but Integrys and alternative producers will supply the actual electrons that fuel the city’s power grid. Integrys Energy Services is a subsidiary of Chicago-based Integrys Energy Group and a sister company of Peoples Gas. It supplies power to customers throughout the northeastern U.S.

Aggregation allows customers to directly select their energy supplier based on competitive prices. It can also mean customers are able to choose cleaner energy sources.

“If you have a large enough market, it would drive the other side of the equation, the provider side, to build the kinds of energy that the city wants,” Kraft said. He feels the city’s no-coal provision did not go far enough to pressure suppliers to develop sustainable energy infrastructure.

“A large customer is a much bigger bobble to dangle in front of the folks who are out there providing electric services than smaller ones would be,” Kraft said, explaining that the city could have used aggregation to encourage construction within the renewable power industry.

“Why hitch our wagons to a 19th century power concept?” Kraft wondered. “With enormous plants miles away, duking it out over fossil fuels markets. That’s a pretty old way of thinking.”

Coal suppliers, on the other hand, warn against focusing restrictively on “clean” energies.

“We think there is an important role for environmentally compliant coal,” said Katy Sullivan, a spokeswoman for wholesale power supplier Dynegy, which operates five coal and gas plants in Illinois. “It’s important for the country to have a balance of energy sources, and coal is an important part of that mix.”

Coal is an abundant natural resource in Illinois as is shale gas. And a long-term energy strategy should include all possible energy sources, Sullivan argues.

“It’s because of other abundant resources such as shale that makes a move like Chicago’s possible,” Sullivan said, referring to the city coal elimination plan.

Should shale gas supplies wane and without coal as an alternative, the city’s need for nuclear power could increase.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club of Illinois have applauded the city’s efforts to go coal-free, but the contract still recognizes nuclear power as a feasible electricity source. That, in fact, would make sense given that “Illinois has the highest percent of nuclear generation in the country,” Sullivan said.

While nuclear power is considered “clean” in terms of emissions, it creates thermal pollution and poses the risk of nuclear meltdown.

“The water use from nuclear is extraordinary,” Kraft said. “In the climate-disrupted world of the future, surface water is going to be in short supply. And do you want to use it to drink and cook and water your crops, or to use it for a nuclear plant and have it evaporate up into the atmosphere?”

Integrys spokeswoman Jennifer Block explained by email that electricity will be generated primarily from natural gas-fired facilities. “Nuclear and wind facilities could be used as back-up generation in the event of outages at the gas-fired facilities,” she said.

The Integrys deal stipulates against any new nuclear sources as a result of the contract. Yet the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that Illinois sources nearly 50 percent of its electricity from nuclear power statewide. One of the nation’s largest nuclear utility companies is ComEd parent Exelon Corp., headquartered in Chicago.

Chicago’s use of nuclear-sourced electricity is more difficult to track given that the origins of power electrons are untraceable once they hit the power grid. But current levels are considered to be significant.

The city’s contract with Integrys ends in 2015.