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Thursday, March 3, 2011 03:46 am

CWLP readies for greener future

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A contract requiring Springfield’s public utility to be more environmentally responsible doesn’t expire for another six years, but local activists are already urging the city and its residents to start thinking now about how today’s decisions can determine City, Water, Light and Power’s seemingly distant future.

In 2006, the Sangamon Valley Group of the Sierra Club threatened costly delay to the construction of CWLP’s newest power plant if the city didn’t agree, among other things, to bring wind energy into its portfolio for at least 10 years. The city agreed, but local Sierra Club president Will Reynolds says the mayor and aldermen elected this April will determine the success of several additional “green” initiatives that CWLP is already researching. If those initiatives are successful, they could prepare Springfield for continued use and promotion of renewable energy, even without a contractual obligation.

“There’s not going to be, unless something really unexpected happens, another Sierra Club agreement that is just going to make CWLP buy all that wind power,” Reynolds said last week at a public forum where CWLP provided an update on its work in renewable energy and sustainability. “What happens next is going to be up to the next city council and the next mayor we elect and it’s going to be up to people organizing and putting on pressure for Springfield to use clean energy.”

Cool Cities is a national Sierra Club program encouraging cities to reduce their carbon footprints. Springfield’s Cool Cities advisory group is already working on preliminary goals for increasing Springfield’s energy efficiency, growing its sustainability-linked economy and conserving land and water. Once the group’s goals are finalized, members will meet with the new mayor.

“If we can take sort of this global, high-level wish-list, at the moment, to the mayor and we get affirmation that ‘OK, this makes sense. I will put the name of my administration behind this,’ then at that point it goes public,” says CWLP Energy Services Office manager Bill Mills. “If there is not affirmation, basically we take our toys and go home because we were told to quit playing.”

Mills’ office is also researching programs that, if adopted, could encourage growth of solar energy production and the use of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles by CWLP customers.

At the point when solar power peaks – on hot summer afternoons – CWLP customers and their air conditioners are using the most energy. Increased solar panel use by CWLP customers means the utility is under less stress to power their homes and businesses and can sell more of the energy it produces to the wholesale market. Doing so brings in more money for the utility to use on environmental initiatives, Mills says. Because installation cost is a significant barrier for increased solar power, CWLP is now studying the economics of starting a solar-panel rebate program this fall.

Mills adds that he expects more businesses with automobile fleets to switch to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles over the next year. There’s a built-in incentive for doing so, as the cost of CWLP electricity to run a car is equivalent to $0.70 per gallon. Plug-in vehicles would also benefit the utility, Mills says, explaining that nighttime is when CWLP is experiencing the lowest energy demand. Leveling out that demand would help the power plant run more efficiently and create a larger market for wind power, the production of which peaks at night. Plug-in vehicles also mean new revenues for the utility, with fuel sales going to the local utility instead of distant, oil-rich areas, Mills says.

If such vehicles become as prevalent as expected, the next question for the city could be whether to provide even more incentive, such as moving away from a flat-rate electricity pricing system to a multi-tiered system in which those charging vehicles at night – when demand is lowest – could be charged an even lower price, providing further incentive for the green technology. Mills says CWLP is not proposing such a measure at this time and that the cost-benefit of adding such capabilities to the system is currently unknown.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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