As Crawford and Fisk Retire, Negawatt Plants Power Up and Pay Off for Illinoisans

Last week Chicago celebrated the retirement of two ancient coal-burning power plants as Midwest Generation’s Fisk and Crawford power stations powered down for the last time.  This rightfully brought cheers from its neighbors who lived and worked under the plumes of lung-searing emissions the plant produced every day for over a century.  These plants are highly visible relics dating from the earliest days of the electric utility. They were cost-effective at a time when most people did not have electricity, and modern when the first commercial scale car rolled off of the first assembly lines.   In this century, they had become eyesores on our landscape, representing the kinds of technologies that we need to leave behind if we are to build an economy that can thrive competitively today.

We should also cheer about the quiet hero of the electricity system we're building to power the 21st century.  Energy efficiency-powered “negawatt” plants are cropping up all over the state.  Perhaps you haven’t noticed them at all.  They’re invisible.  They don’t belch out any pollution.  They quietly reduce your electric bills.  They put people to work all over the state and they do it all with very little recognition.  Let’s take a brief tour – no hard hat or asthma inhaler required. 

A “negawatt” is a unit of electricity that is saved by, say, switching to more efficient appliances and lighting.  The concept is that energy savings, through efficiency, is a cheaper, faster and cleaner resource for meeting our electricity needs than continuing to build more and more expensive and polluting generating plants.  The term, coined by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, recognizes that efficiency is not just a service, it’s a resource, and that there is so much potential for it that it can displace traditional centralized generating stations.  When you add up all of the potential for cost-effective savings across Illinois, there is more than enough to offset any foreseeable increase in electricity demand that would otherwise require a new plant.

It’s been four years since Illinois utilities began to implement Illinois’ energy efficiency portfolio standard (EEPS) which requires ComEd and Ameren to invest in efficiency as an increasingly large part of the resource mix that serves Illinois customers.  Here are the results to date:    Over the last four years ComEd and Ameren Illinois saved more than 5.7 million MWH of electricity – this is more than is consumed in a year by people and businesses in the cities of Aurora, Rockford and Peoria combined.  It’s also 35% more electricity than was generated by the Crawford and Fisk plants combined in 2010.

Moreover, every dollar spent to achieve this savings had to pass a strict cost-effectiveness test.  In other words, it had to be less expensive to save the energy than it would have been to generate, transmit and distribute power from a power plant.  ComEd projects that every dollar it spent will produce more than $7 in savings to its customers. 

This progress has earned Illinois national recognition.  Last fall, the American Council for and Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) ranked Illinois as one of the two “most improved” states in the nation, in terms of energy efficiency policies and performance.  Dr. Martin Kushler, a Senior Fellow with ACEEE, explained: “By far the major factor explaining Illinois’ improvement in the national rankings is the substantial progress it has made in the area of utility energy efficiency program funding support and performance.  The Illinois “energy efficiency resource standard” enacted in SB1592 of 2007 is one of the best in the country, and Illinois has made steady progress in ramping up its utility-sector energy efficiency programs.

Although the negawatt “plant” is invisible, you can see this resource being “mined” across the state with opportunities for savings available to every type of electric customer from the smallest house to the largest skyscraper, and including low-income families, schools, and large industrial electric users as well. 

  • Last fall my colleague Nick Magrisso wrote about how a commercial building owner in Rockford area benefitted from an energy efficiency investment in that employed both local manufacturers and local installation contractors while lowering the bills for the building owner and tenants. 
  • Last year when tornados swept through Southern Illinois, Ameren Illinois was able to use its energy efficiency programs to help residents repair and restore their homes with energy efficiency improvements that will result in lower electricity bills for those hard-hit families.
  • Here in Chicago, fourteen large skyscrapers with more than 14 million square feet of indoor space have joined the Commercial Building Initiative, pledging to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent over the next five years.  These buildings will take advantage of the rebates provided by the ComEd programs to meet and exceed their energy targets.
  • The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is administering energy efficiency programs for schools, municipal buildings and low-income families across Illinois.  More than 700 public sector building applied for and received funding to make energy efficiency improvements in the program year that just ended. 
  • And all of these investments create jobs in our communities.  Whether it’s a brand new building or a retrofit, people are employed to mine the value of energy savings, performing audits, installing insulation and sealing the building envelope, changing out lighting systems and appliances, and manufacturing new, more efficient products.  For example, take a look at the training program that the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters is running to train carpenters to save energy in both new and existing homes.  The Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance is training Illinois military veterans to be certified building operators who can identify and eliminate energy waste in commercial buildings throughout the state. 

So, as Chicago says goodbye to two ancient coal plants that were built to power the 20th Century electric utility system, it’s a good time to recognize our energy efficiency gains, and marvel at its virtues – no miners will die digging for it, no child will suffer and asthma attack from its operation, no piles of toxic coal ash will materialize as a byproduct, it will make our economy stronger and our wallets fatter, it will make our houses and offices more comfortable, and it will put our people to work.