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Wednesday, July 19, 2006 04:28 am

How to swing a Sierra club

If CWLP can be forced to do the right thing, other energy companies can, too

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Nobody likes deals done in secret, or under the threat of a lawsuit, but the substance of the Sierra Club deal with City Water, Light & Power is excellent. It gets Springfield involved in wind energy, as well as promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, while reducing emissions of harmful gases and cutting down on the production of carbon dioxide. It’s too bad that Springfield didn’t come up with this environmentally sensitive plan on its own, in public, without a threat, but it has always been hard to get taxpayers, and utility ratepayers, to pay environmental costs voluntarily. The City Council wants to spend some time studying and tweaking the deal, but the basic framework is sound and deserves approval. Council resistance only goes to show how much we needed Sierra’s club over Springfield’s head to get this deal done.

Now, after picking off Springfield, the Sierra Club should go after the big guys. Every new electric-generating plant should include an investment in wind, solar, and conservation. So Exelon Corp.’s application for an early site permit to build a new nuclear power plant at Clinton should be a prime target for those who want a safer, greener energy future. So far, Exelon has encountered little resistance on its Clinton II proposal from well-organized environmental groups. Hardly anyone from Springfield bothers to attend the hearings, just up the road in Clinton. Perhaps that’s because some environmentalists are so focused on carbon dioxide and global warming that they lose sight of the big picture. Although it is true that nuclear power generation doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, the process of uranium enrichment to make nuclear fuel is one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases. Nuclear’s other problems — including operational safety hazards, the terrorist threat, and the environmental nightmare of nuclear waste — rule it out as a solution to global warming. Some nuclear plants may be built anyway, but companies that build them must be somehow required to invest in renewable energy and conservation at the same time.

A spate of new proposals are coming to the region, and each one brings opportunity for central Illinois to shape an energy future that makes environmental sense, but too often the lure of jobs and money gets in the way of thoughtful policy. Just last week the Sangamon County zoning board was so eager to claim the economic benefits of a new ethanol plant at Waverly, it approved the zoning without probing the environmental tradeoffs involved in corn-based ethanol production. The full County Board should ask more questions.

Also last week, an Alabama coal company visited Montgomery County to campaign against a November referendum to oppose longwall mining. The company hinted that it might build a coal-gasification plant if the county proves friendly to its mining methods, but voters will surely see through this gesture. Montgomery County coal is valuable enough to be mined in a way that doesn’t ruin farmers’ fields.

The best energy thinkers are saying that the way to address global warming is to approach it on many fronts simultaneously rather than relying on one magical fix. The solutions include increasing vehicle efficiency, reforestation, improving the efficiency of buildings, capturing carbon in power plants, replacing some coal power with wind power, and replacing some coal power with solar power. With the Sierra Club deal, Springfield is showing how to move on several fronts at once. This can become a model for hard bargaining on other energy proposals as they come along.

Illinois has more coal than Saudi Arabia has oil. It has more corn than anybody but Iowa. It is the most nuclear state in the country, with 11 operating nuclear power plants. The nation’s energy future starts here, and it will be shaped here. Rather than jumping too eagerly to OK anything that comes along promising jobs, we’ll do better to take a longer, more thoughtful look — and learn how to swing a Sierra club.

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