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Economy & Business

Bright idea: Energy summit fuels discussion of power alternatives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2009 - If the words efficiency, economy, sustainability and diversity could produce electricity, the discussion at Monday's Regional Energy Summit at Southwestern Illinois College could have powered the whole region.

The audience heard from local executives in industries ranging from coal to corn, oil to electricity, along with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and -- on video, because he had to join President Barack Obama's first full cabinet meeting -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressman from Illinois.

But despite their differing perspectives, their themes were pretty much the same:

  • The nation needs to develop new, cleaner, sustainable sources of energy.
  • The federal stimulus package provides resources to turn technology and plans into reality.
  •  Illinois is the perfect place to make that vision come true.

"When we invest in energy efficiency," Quinn said, "something has to be done locally. "This really is the challenge of our time. Thinking green by acting green is the key to economic prosperity in the 21st century."
Noting that Illinois was one of the first states in the nation to have an environmental article in its constitution, Quinn said the "power of public works" can be used on energy-efficient projects to help the nation out of its economic crisis.

He pointed to Obama's announcement last week on funds for high-speed rail lines -- including a possible route between Chicago and St. Louis -- as one example of how money could be used for economic growth and environmental progress.

In a panel discussion following the governor's speech, one project that came up repeatedly was FutureGen, the so-called "clean coal" plant that would help develop methods of capturing and storing the carbon dioxide that is generated when fuel is burned. For area officials, Mattoon, Ill., is the favored site for the project.

Emissions from burning coal already have dropped 70 percent in the past 30 years because of better controls, according to Jacob A. Williams of Peabody Energy, and the next five years could bring a similar reduction. But increased energy demands by China and India will put new pressure on power plants to become even cleaner, he said.

One challenge to that goal, said Ozzie L. Lomax of AmerenUE, is the age of current plants that need upgrading.

Other points emphasized by panelists included:

  • People need to learn not only how to conserve energy but how to use it more efficiently. "Smart grid" technology, which adjusts the supply of electricity depending on peak usage times, will help achieve that goal.
  • The use of biofuels, such as ethanol, can also be an important part of the energy mix. But as Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, put it, people need to look at Mother Earth as a bank where you live off the interest but don't touch the principal.
  • Nuclear plants can be made to run longer and more efficiently, to increase the current 20 percent of the electricity load that they generate now. Timothy E. Herrmann, also of AmerenUE, said the nation's 104 nuclear reactors provide more than 70 percent of the power that is generated by non-greenhouse gas emitting methods. What needs to happen now, he added, is for the nuclear power industry to achieve a better profile with the public.
  • As oil from Canada becomes an increasingly important source, without the political instability of areas like the Middle East or Venezuela, the Midwest would be the perfect place to refine it.

The panelists agreed that all these avenues and more could help the United States achieve the degree of energy independence that politicians have been talking about for decades. Costello said the Obama administration will make a real difference, creating millions of green jobs and putting billions of dollars into energy-efficiency programs.
Still, said Tolman, progress must be made on a number of fronts at once:

"There is no silver bullet. There is a shotgun shell filled with silver pellets."

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