Energy conference brings experts

The Illinois Renewable Energy Conference was held at Cliffbreakers Conference Center last Thursday. More than 300 people turned out to learn about the various forms of renewable energy and the industries forming to harness them.

The Illinois Renewable Resource Group (IRRG) put on a well-orchestrated event with industry experts from numerous fields. The very fact that this event was held in Rockford and packed with local attendees speaks loudly of the interest in this field and its potential value to the city. The enormous energy industry is undergoing profound changes—both in its structure and its technologies. This was a great opportunity to get an inside view of what’s happening.

“I think the conference was extremely successful,” said Paul Sterner, the president of IRRG. “I couldn’t have been happier with the turnout. I estimate we had about 320 attendees. At least a quarter of them were from the Rockford area. We had a pretty good showing from the Chicago metro area, and even from downstate, Carbondale, East Peoria. In terms of other states, we had folks from Texas and Missouri and California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan.”

Sterner was pleased with his choice for the location of the conference. “We are in the midst of our decompression, and we will have a post-convention meeting. Rockford is right up there at the top of our places to come back to. I can’t say enough about how friendly the local people were, and especially the people from Cliffbreakers. Also, I can’t say enough about The Rock River Times in helping to promote this. I heard that WNTA gave us air time, too. It really helps to have some media people on your side,” he said.

The conference kicked off with two keynote speakers. Gary Nowakowski of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) covered the DOE’s funding and programs for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The DOE’s 2002 budget for these is $1,302 million, divided between industrial, transportation, power, and building technologies. He explained that in 1999, renewable energy technologies provided 8% of the energy used in the U.S., but that most of this (94% of the 8%) was from the mature technologies of biomass (burning wood wastes) and hydropower (dams).

Tremendous progress has been made on reducing the costs of renewable energy technologies. The cost of electricity generated from photovoltaics (PVs) has dropped from $1/kilowatt hour in 1980 to 20-30 cents today. The cost of wind-generated electricity has plummeted from 40 cents/kilowatt hour in 1979 to 4-6 cents today, making it price competitive with fuel-burning, pollution-belching power plants. This is one area where federal tax dollars are paying dividends!

The second keynote speaker was Rex Buhrmester of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA), who discussed the state’s rebate and grant programs for renewable energy systems. Homeowners can get a check for up to $5,000 from the state of Illinois for installing a solar

hot water, space heating, or electric (PV) generating system.

Rebate recipients were on hand to tell us how easy it was. Rebates of up to 50% of the cost of the system (60% for PVs) are being paid. Thirty-three such rebates have been paid already—why not you? Cut your utility bills and get the state to cover half the cost; this is a deal!

Larger (still 50% of cost) grants for commercial and industrial installations are also being given. Very few states in the country have such a generous renewable energy program. Carpe diem, business owners!

After the keynotes, the conference broke into two tracks, Track One on solar and wind energy systems and Track Two on biomass and hydro energy systems. This reporter attended Track One, so the information is more detailed on those topics.

Track One began with photovoltaics, or PVs (a/k/a, solar cells). PVs are clean, reliable, and long-lived. They typically carry a 20 to 25-year warranty and will operate that long or longer with no maintenance other than washing off the dust and bird droppings that may collect on them. They aren’t cheap, but the state’s 60% rebate really helps. They’re going up on roofs around Chicago. Why not Rockford?

Solar water heating is the most cost-effective form of renewable energy for the average homeowner. An antifreeze solution runs through a series of pipes bonded to black sheet metal under a tempered glass glazing. In the house, a simple heat exchanger transfers this heat into a hot water tank. It’s simple. It’s dependable.

It will save homeowner money every month. In the case of an electric hot water heater, the financial payback should be just a few years. This technology has real potential as a local business.

Local installers could be working on area homes and businesses. Imagine smaller checks going to ComEd every month. This means that more money stays in Rockford. If the demand is here, production facilities may follow. Rockford already has the facilities and experience in metal fabrication. Why not Rockford?

Utility-scale wind energy is happening! Wind power is happening around the world in Denmark, Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, and Spain. But it’s also happening big-time in the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has more than 4,000 megawatts (MW) of wind farms in 26 states today—about equivalent to four large nuclear power plants. Wind power is growing fast! Of the 4,000 MW in operation in the U.S., 1,700 MW (40%) were installed last year.

This year Illinois will join the list of states with wind farms, with two newly announced projects. Illinois Wind Energy and Toman Power Corporation announced a 51-MW project in Bureau County two weeks ago. At the conference, the DCCA announced that Navitas Energy, Inc. will build a 51-MW wind farm on the Mendota Hills in Lee County.

These installations generate clean energy, increase the local tax base, provide construction jobs, and pay leases to farmers. But they could do more. Each of these projects will cost over $50 million. Much of this money is the cost of the wind turbines themselves. These turbines are manufactured industrial equipment. Where are they made, and why not in Rockford?

Over lunch, Jack Barnette of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spoke about their “Green Partners” program. Green power is electricity produced via non-polluting sources like solar and wind. The EPA has partnered with the Center for Resource Solutions (a non-profit organization) to certify power generator’s claims of “greenness.” Various companies and cities are pledging to purchase a certain percent of their electricity from green sources. The city of Chicago and 48 surrounding municipalities have pledged to buy 20% of their electricity from green sources. Why not Rockford?

In Track Two, various experts talked about biomass. Biomass is the broadest and least understood form of renewable energy. Biomass energy is any energy derived from plants or animals. You could say that our food is just a form of biomass energy. When discussed on an industrial scale, it can mean several things:

l Solid Biofuels—burning usually wood or wood wastes of some sort.

l Liquid Biofuels—Ethanol (grain alcohol) usually produced from corn and biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oil or used fryer grease and methanol (wood alcohol).

l Gaseous biofuels—“biogas” is a mixture of methane (natural gas) and carbon dioxide released by microorganisms when they digest plant material, animal (or human) manures, or municipal solid waste (household trash).

Material abounded on digesting livestock manure to produce biogas. The manure must be enclosed in some kind of container to keep the air out (it poisons the methane-generating bacteria) and to capture the biogas. This has the beneficial effect of containing odors, eliminating the many complaints about the smell that plagues large-scale hog farms. Over a period of tens of days, the manure breaks down and the remaining effluent can be spread on farm fields.

This anaerobic (without oxygen) process retains the nutrients much better than composting. The biogas is typically used to run an engine—generating electricity and hot water. The hot water is used to keep the digester hot (about 90 degrees F) and perhaps to heat farm buildings. The electricity can be used on the farm or fed back into the electric grid. Illinois has plenty of biomass. Here’s an excellent opportunity to control farm pollution and generate distributed power at the same time.

This same process of digestion releasing biogas occurs in landfills of municipal waste. Because this gas can percolate through the soil and leak into basements and biogas is explosive, landfill operators are required to drill vents into the decaying waste to release any pressure buildup. Since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the methane is usually flared (burned off) instead of being released into the atmosphere. Instead, some enterprising companies are now capturing that gas and using it to generate electricity. Why not in Rockford at Pagel Pit?

Renewable energy is not new. In fact, prior to the Industrial Revolution, nearly all of man’s energy was renewable—mostly wood for fires, the sun for growing food and drying crops, the wind to power ships, and water or wind to power mills.

Hydro (water) power is still important. It provides about 7% of the world’s energy today. Hydropower is clean, but has gotten a bad name due to the enormous ecological impact that large dams have on rivers, both upstream and down. It’s possible to minimize these effects. Hydropower and fish migration are not mutually exclusive. And while the best large hydro sites have already been developed (think Niagara and Hoover), there are lots of opportunities for smaller hydroelectric facilities. Why not in Rockford, utilizing the dormant Fordham Dam?

Many renewable energy conferences are held throughout the U.S. The IRRG conference was top-notch. The facilities were excellent. The planning and execution were excellent. The speakers were experts in their fields. Many people showed up. They asked really sensible questions. There was a good balance between the various RE technologies.

The one important missing topic was energy efficiency. While capturing heat or generating electricity from renewable sources is great, it’s not as good as improving efficiency so that the energy isn’t needed in the first place. Unused electricity doesn’t have to be transmitted through ugly power lines, but green power does. Consider these examples:

l The electricity to light our homes can be cut by 75% by switching from standard incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent. Commercial buildings can save 30% on their lighting bills by replacing T-12 fluorescents tubes with the newer, more efficient T8 tubes.

l An insulating blanket for a hot water heater that can be purchased for around $20 in the hardware store will pay for itself in utility bill savings in the first year or two!

l About 65% of all electricity used in the industrial sector runs motors. Replacing older motors with correctly sized, super-efficient motors can save 30%.

Learn more at the Renewable Energy Fair at the Ogle County Fairgrounds on the weekend of August 10th & 11th. Here’s another chance to get educated about the revolution in the energy industry. With the financial incentives the state is offering for renewable energy systems, it’s imperative and money in the bank to go to find out what opportunities are knocking. See you at the fair, Rockford.

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