Farming aggrevation and energy aggregation

October 28, 2012

Garlic plantin’ report from Kim Marsin

It’s time for another visit from my favorite organic-farmer-in-training, Kim Marsin of Sweet Home Organics. She and partner Rachel Reklau have their operation at Primrose Farm , which is part of the St. Charles Park District. I call them “commuter farmers” because they don’t live on the land that they cultivate but actually drive to work on the farm.

Kim is talking to me this morning on what is the final day of the Sweet Home Organics farm stand. Just in case you’re out their way and want to purchase some healthy, local food, the address is 5N726 Crane Road (near the intersection of Crane and Bolcum) in St. Charles, Illinois .

Kim says that the 2013 garlic crop is going in the ground tomorrow, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to get some tips about garlic and onions. I also mentioned to her that I was disappointed in my beet crop this year and could use some advice. She tells me, though, that she had her own problems with beets this year, especially in getting them to germinate. Not only that, but she says, “We saw blister beetles (never knew what these were before). They went after our chard and beet greens.”

Hmm. Tough year for everybody, I guess. We’ll chat about it this morning.

Energy aggregation might be on your ballot…what does it mean?

If you live in Chicago, when you walk into the voting booth on November 6, or you fill out your absentee ballot, you’re going to come across this question:

“Shall the City of Chicago have the authority to arrange for the supply of electricity for its residential and small commercial retail customers who have not opted out of such program?”

What you are voting on is commonly known as a “municipal aggregation referendum.”
Theoretically, by “aggregating” its customers into one big group, a community can negotiate with suppliers and get better deals for electricity on behalf of its citizens. And if you trust organizations like the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Respiratory Health Association, the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and elected officials like 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, you will probably vote yes on the proposal.

However, be forewarned that even if the measure passes–and it already has in about 250 Illinois municipalities–it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your electricity will be cheap and, more important, come from green energy sources.

I am far from an expert on this subject, but Lisa Albrecht from the Illinois Solar Energy Association and I will try to clarify it to the best of our ability on this morning’s show. Believe me, this cannot be explained in one short sentence. Or paragraph. Or series of paragraphs. But we’ll do what we can.

You might want to start with a couple of great informational articles, one from called How to make Illinois into a clean-energy leader, and the other from the Citizens Utility Board called CUB’s Guide to: Municipal Electricity Aggregation. As CUB explains,

Illinois law allows municipalities and counties to purchase electricity on behalf of residential and small-business utility customers living within their borders. While municipalities choosing community aggregation would be responsible for negotiating the price of power from a supplier other than the traditional utility, your utility would still be responsible for delivering that power to your home, and billing you for it. In theory, communities could use the collective bargaining power of residents to negotiate for lower power prices from suppliers. (Find out how your community voted in the most recent Primary Election.)

Individual ComEd and Ameren customers can also choose an alternative electricity supplier on their own.

But the whole thing is complicated by the history of deregulation, which began in Illinois in 1997. As David Roberts writes in his Grist story:

In 2007, in response to a spike in power prices, the state created the Illinois Power Agency (IPA), which was charged with negotiating wholesale power contracts on behalf of Ameren and ComEd customers, insuring that they get “adequate, reliable, affordable, efficient, and environmentally sustainable electric service at the lowest total cost.” The IPA doesn’t generate or sell power, it just brokers contracts between power companies and the utilities.

The IPA couldn’t just step in and immediately negotiate new contracts from scratch. It had to take over the contracts that the utilities had already negotiated. Some of them were six-year contracts signed in 2007 … shortly before IPA took over, the recession hit, and power prices plunged. As older contracts have expired, IPA has negotiated new contracts and gotten lower power prices. But it is saddled with those expensive 2007 contracts until mid-2013.

That means IPA has been getting power for utility customers that’s considerably cheaper than what they were paying pre-IPA, but nonetheless considerably more expensive than what can be procured in today’s power market. This is a key fact that shapes the rest of the story.

Now, Illinois utility customers — individual, commercial, and industrial — don’t have to buy the IPA-brokered power. If they choose, they can procure their own power directly. And because IPA contracts were more expensive than the prevailing market price, especially early on, most customers could save money by doing so. In practice, procuring power directly proved too much of a hassle for most smaller customers. For large commercial and industrial customers, however, the hassle was worth it, and almost all of them eventually opted to procure their own power from Alternate Retail Electric Suppliers, or ARES.

So in 2010, about half the state’s power load (mostly residences and small commercial) was served by IPA and about half (mostly large commercial and industrial) was served by ARES.

I told you it wasn’t easy. Anyway, about 220 municipalities will be voting on aggregation on November 6, and if they all pass, the IPA will be left negotiating about 10 percent of the state’s power load. Yet, right now the IPA represents the best chance of renewable energy coming to Illinois. So voting for aggregation might slow our march to solar and wind power (especially wind–I’ll let Lisa wax poetic on that.)

If the referendum passes, there is still work to be done. According to the City of Chicago electricity aggregation website, the city must:

  • Hold public hearings to discuss Aggregation Program priorities and goals, and adopt a Plan of Governance and Operation;
  • Notify all residents and qualified small commercial accounts holders of the prices and terms of the supply contract,  AND  allow any account holder to opt-out of the Program at no charge;
  • Enroll the remaining accounts into the Program and monitor performance for savings.

Of course, the devil is in the details: where will the power come from and just how “clean” will it be? That’s why the Chicago Clean Power Coalition has a petition urging the mayor to make clean energy choices when negotiating on behalf of Chicago’s citizens.

This is just the beginning of this story. Stay tuned.

A couple of reminders:
#1 – Great Lakes Bioneers Chicago

The Great Lakes Bioneers Chicago present The Living City for three days at the UIC from November 2 to 4.

Featuring an all-star cast of movers and shakers in the sustainability world, like Vandana ShivaJohn EdelStarhawk and more, this event goes beyond lectures and workshops. More than 60 interactive sessions and inspirational talks are planned. These will be interspersed with some of Chicago’s finest poets, storytellers, dancers and musicians who will focus on the relationship between our environment and justice for all living things. Each day will open and close with ritual and excitement. The theme, The Living City, is about using the body as a metaphor for the critical systems needed to keep Chicago alive, healthy and thriving.

There’s still plenty of time to register.

#2 – The Rally for Starved Rock is today!

This is a chance make your voice heard if you’re interested in preventing an open pit sand mine from being dug next to Starved Rock State Park. The Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club is holding a Rally for Starved Rock at the park itself and nearby environs.

Hiking through the park happens from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m. Then, at 10:30, it’s the “Tour-de-Frac.” Here’s how Sierra Club describes it:

Our Tour-de-Frac is a self-guided driving tour. Sierra Club staff and volunteers will be positioned throughout the area to help answer your questions.

Eastern Entrance: The eastern entrance faces the proposed mine, and will be subject to the blasting vibrations and air emissions from the processing facility.

Adjacent landowners: hear talks from adjacent landowners regarding the numerous economical and health concerns related to this mine.

Catlin Park : learn more about the wetlands, the Native American artifacts, and current air quality in the area. How will these be impacted as the mine moves forward?

Lunch is at 12:00 noon, followed by a public meeting at 1:00 p.m. at Grizzly Jack’s Grand Bear Resort The meeting will be in the Joliet Room on the first floor.

I hope a few of you can get there.