Friday, April 22, 2011

Clean Power

I was at the Clean Power Ordinance hearing until just shy of 3 PM.  An interesting array of facts, counterfacts (I made up that word while channeling Alexander Haig), and claims that the other side was dealing in falsehoods.  When I got there the folks waiting for entry to the council chamber got shunted upstairs, only to find out the 'balcony' was full.  I went back downstairs and snagged a seat on the main floor.  One of the few remaining supporters to get in.

The main floor was a sea of blue shirts from Midwest Gen.  Midwest bussed them in from other plants, along with a handful from the Fisk and Crawford plants.  Later questioning from Alderman Moore established that total employment at the 2 plants is ~ 190 with ~ 20% or so residents of the city.  The ordinance supporters wore green T shirts and were few on the main floor, but apparently many in the balcony and we could hear them chanting out in the hallway for much of the hearing.

The ordinance was read (Reader's Digest (Super) Condensed) and we learned an amendment was proposed to include a requirement that Midwest provide retraining and employment opportunities for their employees affected by any changes.  The blue shirts were unimpressed.

My choice for the Pit Bull award - Alderman Moreno.  He clearly understood the issues, spoke the language, and gave as good as he got.

My choice for Most Likely Unpaid Lobbyist Award - nominees are Balcer and Reilly, and I think it may be a coin toss.

The Department of Environment provided a thoroughgoing explanation of the context and issues.  These plants provide something on the order of 3% of the power regionally.  I am not sure how far this region extends.  Pollution from other sources, such as construction, exceeds what these plants spew.

The Public Health Doctor suggested that there is no way to draw a definite link between the plants and health issues in Pilsen and Little Village since the possible sources could be the housing environment as much as anything the plants are doing.  He suggested that South and Southwest Side neighborhoods are in worse shape healthwise and they don't have the plants to contend with.

The Legal Eagle acknowledged home rule but suggested the ordinance might be an overreach.

Then the fun really began.  The Clean Power rep (didn't catch the name) started on the bussing in of non local Midwest employees, went after the claims of the importance of the plants by pointing out ComEd's testimony to the IL commission reviewing their application for new transmission lines that stated the two plants could be closed post installation with no ill effects on the grid (i.e. no blackouts in the Loop), pointed out that the selected solution for cleaning the emissions was less costly than scrubbers and did not solve the problem of CO2, and pointed out that Midwest was in court because they were not in compliance with the law/regs.  Also pursued the home rule issue and said the city was on solid ground due to the way the courts were treating pre-emptive legislation/regulation.  Offered to help the city's Legal Eagle defend the ordinance.

Midwest was next.  They began by calling the ordinance supporters liars, although they didn't use the word, referring instead to "falsehoods."  That included the Tribune and Moreno wanted to know if they were going to sue the Tribune for publishing false information.  The answer was 'no'.  When Alderman Moore got his turn he took on the falsehood claim, naming himself as the chief sponsor and commenting on the many sources he consulted in writing this ordinance.

Midwest's testimony can be summed up as follows - the ordinance as written is going to result in the closing of the plants because Midwest cannot do what is required in the time frame allotted.  Alderman Moore asked if the due date was extended 3 years would they sign on.  They didn't commit to it.  They also insisted that the two plants are important for grid stability and load balance, especially for the Loop (there was a blackout a few years ago).  They referenced another piece of ComEd testimony regarding the plants and why they are needed.

Allow me to pause the VCR for just a moment.

I consulted an attorney I know who does work on utility issues in an effort to understand the conversation.  Here's what I think I understand now.  Basically, ComEd thinks the new transmission lines will solve the problem of grid stability and load balancing whereas Midwest asserts the plants are required to do that.  What appears to be certain is that ComEd does not buy power directly from Midwest, and ComEd does not know the precise origin of every electron they purchase via the existing powermarket, which spans 16 states.  Our power could come from anywhere in that market.  The general mix of nuclear to coal to wind is known, and it is conceivable that the ratio would change as power requirements, and supplies (ex. the wind farms generating at high capacity) change over the course of a day.  But, ComEd is buying from the market and what is available in the market, not from Midwest itself.  So I am having a hard time seeing how those plants are necessary as contingencies for the Loop's power.

Resume VCR

Midwest sees the ordinance as overkill in a regulatory ocean.  They referenced EPA regs that are planned for emission regulation, while asserting there is no good way to reduce CO2.  They must think no one knows that the current Republican Congress is laboring to kill EPA's ability to write such regulations.  There was discussion about the State of California and its legislation basically outlawing coal plants.  Midwest's parent company is transitioning to natural gas as a consequence.  They see any transition to natural gas here as prohibitively expensive.

I left before Midwest go into the health issues.

My Take - as the hearing began to move forward it became obvious that there are many in council who want to delay the ordinance or kill it altogether.  Coupled with aldermen who don't have a clue and it's not a recipe for passage.  The Clean Power folks ran a campaign to get all of the aldermen in the room.  I did not see a lot of folks at the table, aside from the committee, Alderman Solis, Alderman Waguespack and a handful of others.  So I am not certain they were successful.

The fundamental issue the aldermen will consider is whether it makes sense to clobber Midwest over two items (CO2 and very fine particulate matter) that were missed in the previous MOU.  That question kept coming up; why weren't these issues addressed in 2006.  My answer would be - either the players knew what they were doing when they negotiated the MOU and kept those items out, or their crystal balls failed them.  Either way, the issue is up for discussion now.

The plants are bit players in the regional power market, and bit players in the overall pollution plaguing Chicago.  The problem is that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that lasts a long time in the atmosphere.  You have to start somewhere in reducing it.  Given that the plants are small potatoes, knocking them off the grid seems like overkill but it sends an important message.  Coal may be king but we have to find alternatives.  If Midwest thinks these plants are worth keeping then they have to make the investment to fix them up or transition to natural gas.  Midwest says part of the costs to do that will fall back on ratepayers.  Most likely true, but that will occur within the confines of the power market for Chicagoans, which means those costs should be distributed over a very broad customer base.

It does appear there is room for negotiation on timetables if Moore's comment is any indication. The legislation will reappear with the next council, not a surprising outcome.  Meanwhile, perhaps Alderman Moore can get Midwest to the table, along with the Clean Power folks, and hammer out a compromise that everyone can live with. 

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