In Illinois politics, even good ideas with broad support can get stuck in an unforeseen legislative crevasse. Such is the case with a long-discussed proposal to hold Illinois electric utilities to a standard for increasing their use of so-called renewable fuels, particularly wind power.
Everyone – the electric utilities, environmental groups, even Gov. Rod Blagojevich – agreed to a plan that would require power companies to generate 2 percent of the electricity from renewable sources by 2007, increasing that amount to 8 percent by 2013. It was a win-win for everyone: the environment, the fledgling renewable energy industry, farmers who could lease their land for giant wind turbines and power companies that could delay construction of expensive coal or nuclear power plants.
But the so-called agreed bill setting up the renewable fuels requirements is stuck in the Illinois House, awaiting resolution of a marginally related and much more controversial measure dealing with electric rates. So until the Legislature can figure out what it is going to do with electric rates – which are expected to increase sharply in January – nothing will be done to mandate utilities to make use of wind power and other energy sources in Illinois.
To its credit, Commonwealth Edison Co., which serves most of northern Illinois, last week unveiled a voluntary wind power plan. It said it plans to increase its contracts for wind-generated power from the current 54 megawatts to 300 megawatts, with purchases starting no later then Dec. 31, 2007. The initiative, the utility said, would have little effect on customers, increasing the typical monthly bill of $70 by no more than 35 cents.
That's a nice step, but it comes nowhere near fulfilling Illinois' wind energy potential. Just across the river in Iowa, utilities already are meeting 8 percent of their production needs through wind power. To get some idea of how meager 300 megawatts of power is, consider that the nearby Clinton nuclear plant generates 1,017 megawatts of electricity, and it is one of 11 nuclear plants in the state. Most coal plants also are much larger than 300 megawatts.
Commonwealth Edison's announcement was welcome news – Ameren Corp., which serves most of downstate Illinois, says it's still developing its renewable fuels plan – but it's apparent that the state's electric industry may have to be prodded to take advantage of wind power's potential here.
Nature has blessed Illinois with hills and prairies that are idea for producing wind, and manmade transmission lines make it easy to move the power from rural areas to cities. If only our Legislature would get on board, Illinois might be able to begin to catch up with Iowa, Minnesota, Texas and other wind energy-producing states.