CN August 13, 2015


Wanna hear some good news about Illinois? While America whines that President Obama’s new air quality standards are way too stringent and nobody can achieve them, our little State will probably meet, and possibly exceed them pretty quickly.

How? Well, as the Tribune’s Michael Hawthorne tells us, its a mix of (gasp) nuclear power, (yikes) fracking, a pretty aggressive wind power program and a bunch of closed, or soon to be closed, coal-fired clunker plants. And, dear viewer, all those LED bulbs and energy-efficient air conditioners you’ve been buying.

Coal-fired plants are being retrofitted to burn natural gas, which is suddenly abundant due to the fracking boom.

“It burns…it emits a lot less mercury, a lot less smog and soot-forming pollutants,” Hawthorne explains. “And also it emits about half the heat-trapping carbon dioxide. There’s some other issues obviously with fracking, but just in terms of when it’s burned for electric generation it’s a heck of a lot cleaner than coal and right now it’s a lot cheaper.”

Of course, as we’ve discussed previously on Chicago Newsroom, the fracking process itself creates huge amounts of greenhouse gas, and its opponents have found abundant evidence that it seriously pollutes our water.

The President’s new rules acknowledge that market forces are already helping clean the air through reductions in coal burning and huge efficiencies at the consumer level, but as Hawthorne points out, regulation often has the effect of laying down the challenge to more progressive parts of the regulated industries.

“And we’ve seen this time and time again,” he explains. “A rule is put in place that says okay polluting industry, you have to do something and we’re going to set a target for you or we’re going to set a deadline. The regulated industry, the polluting industry complains saying, “Oh my God, we can’t do this, we can’t do this.” And then what ends up happening is we have really smart engineers at a lot of these companies and they figure out a way not only to meet the target, but ultimately to do it in a very much less expensive way, so that’s what we’ve seeing with these light bulbs. You know it wasn’t too long ago that they were $30 a pop.”

It’s ironic that Illinois is in a fairly solid position on clean air improvements. Because of its nuclear fleet, and the fact that it sold all its coal plants years ago, ComEd and its parent Exelon find themselves positioned as a green leader, at least in terms of carbon-dioxide emissions.

“You know they’ve been in Springfield saying they need essentially some kind of give-away from the rate payers of the entire state,” Hawthorne tells us, “Or otherwise they’re going to be shutting down a few of their older nuclear plants or their smaller nuclear plants. Essentially what’s happening right now is at night sometimes the way the electric markets work, at night sometimes these nuclear plants that are constantly running are essentially getting negative prices for their electricity, because at night wind and other things are going full tilt. They are putting a lot of electricity onto the grid and so ComEd is not making money on those plants.”

But here’s a remarkable statistic about the position of electric generation in Illinois today. One company, if it were to convert its plants to gas, could carry Illinois to the finish line on Obama’s targets.

“There’s this company NRG that bought a lot of the old ComEd coal plants,” says Hawthorne. “They’re planning to turn a big plant out in Joliet to natural gas. That right there will get us a long way toward meeting that reduction target in the climate rules. And if a couple of other plants shut down or shut down some of the more inefficient units we’re probably there by the middle of the next decade or early part of the next decade.

Michael Hawthorne wrote a series of provocative articles for the Tribune about the possible role lead poisoning has played in Chicago’s incessant violence. A recent study had some very instructive findings for policymakers in Chicago.

“Well, I came at it initially because I’m interested in why we keep having this violence problem in our poorest neighborhoods. 2012 was an incredibly violent year here in Chicago, with national headlines for the uptick in murders. And there’s a lot of compelling research that links lead exposure early in life with first problems in school and then later a life of crime and especially violent crime. There’s a really interesting study in Cincinnati where they’ve been following people since the late 70s.

“And if you were poisoned by lead as a child, even small amounts of lead, much smaller than what we were talking about when this was a big issue in Chicago in the 1970s and 60s, very small amounts of that can permanently alter the chemistry of the brain or the makeup of the brain, and especially in areas that deal with executive functions like judgment and emotional control.

“And so you have a situation where kids end up doing very poorly in school in part because of what’s happened to their brain early in life through no fault of their own. And then in the case of these kids that were followed and now adults in Cincinnati they are more likely to be in prison and have committed violent crimes later in life. And I got to thinking, could this lead problem, this historic lead problem that we’ve had here in Chicago because we have a lot of older housing, pre-1978 when lead paint was banned in this country. Could that be part of what’s going on?

You can read his articles HERE and HERE. 

And you can read a full transcript of today’s show here:  CN audio 081315


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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