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Tina Casey headshot

Illinois Clean Energy Report Shows the Power of Community Choice


The tubes have been buzzing over a new report announcing that 91 Illinois communities now get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, but that's just the tip of a very large iceberg. According to the report, "Leading from the Middle," more than 500 other communities in the state have signed on to the same community choice program that the "clean 91" have used, and several have already begun using it to improve their electricity footprint.

Within that larger group is Chicago, which is highlighted in the report. Though it still relies heavily on natural gas, Chicago has already used community choice to get from 40 percent coal down to zero in practically the blink of an eye.

As for how that is possible, let's take a remark by Chicago's chief sustainability officer, Karen Weigert, who sums it all up in "Leading from the Middle" with this comment: "[Electricity] is a market, and when you ask a market for something, they can provide it."

Leading the Illinois clean energy revolution

The full title of the report is "Leading from the Middle: How Illinois Communities Unleashed Renewable Energy." It's a project of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, LEAN Energy U.S., the Illinois Solar Energy Association, and George Washington University Solar Institute.

The report describes how Illinois communities are using renewable energy credits to get renewably-sourced electricity under a 2009 state law that established a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program in Illinois.

Basically, the new law enables local communities to combine their electricity consumers including residents, businesses, and institutions. With a unified bulk consumer, purchasing power skyrockets and communities that prioritize clean energy have enough leverage to get it.

That experience is amply illustrated by Chicago. As described in the report, Chicago officials came up with a plan to eliminate coal from the city's mix and include more wind power, specifically from Illinois wind farms.

The initial response from the energy supplier, Integrys Energy Services, basically came down to, "No," but Chicago's 900,000-strong aggregated customers provided the supplier with a strong motivation to find a way to work with the city.

The result was a 27-month contract for 5 million MWh (megawatt hours) for Chicago's residential and small business customers, with natural gas replacing coal, helped along by the inclusion of more in-state wind power.

For the record, many in the environmental community aren't fans of natural gas (fracking impacts and fugitive emissions being two key issues), but the contract does stipulate high efficiency, combined-cycle natural gas plants rather than conventional gas power plants, which are much less efficient. It's also helpful to keep in mind that getting off coal was a critical public health issue for Chicago.

Getting the most out of CCA

At only 55 pages, the "Lead from the Middle" report is well worth reading in full, but for those of you in a hurry the most interesting part is probably its recommendations for getting the greatest benefits out of a CCA program. These are:

  1. Request a carve-out for local or regional clean energy projects that contribute to job creation. An alternative route is to use renewable energy credits to develop a renewable energy project and have the electricity supplier include that project in its plan.

  2. Relatedly, use community bonding authority to develop local renewable energy projects. That can be accomplished by setting up a dedicated fund, bundling rooftop solar installations or combining a new project with brownfields reclamation.

  3. Require "power content labeling" that enables local communities to identify what kind of power they are buying and where it is coming from.

  4. Use renewable energy credits to offset "brown power," giving preference to in-state or border state projects in order to maximize regional public health and environmental benefits.

Clean energy is the new normal

"Lead from the Middle" was announced from Normal, Ill., which is one of the 100 percent clean energy towns. That led to a bit of unintentional wordplay from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who lent this comment to the announcement:
Normal is showing how communities can help move our country toward a more sustainable future from the local level. Along with other communities up and down Illinois, this city is cutting down both its utility bills and its environmental footprint by pursuing renewable electricity.  I hope other states take notice of the good work being done here in Normal and all across Illinois.

The new normal of clean energy can't come too soon for communities in North Carolina, West Virginia and other states continue to deal with the devastating fallout from fossil fuel dependency.

Image: Chicago at night by Mike Miley

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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