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Candidates shed light on energy proposals  

Consider it the war of the energy plans.

The three candidates for Illinois governor all have proposals that would harness the state’s agricultural bounty to help fuel automobiles while developing the economy, though they differ on the scope of public assistance that should be offered.

Democrat Rod Blagojevich, Republican Judy Baar Topinka and Green Party nominee Rich Whitney also favor requiring electric companies to get increasing portions of their power from renewable sources, such as wind turbines, in the wake of an Illinois Commerce Commission resolution that sets voluntary goals, rather than binding levels, for utilities.

Blagojevich, who seeks re-election Nov. 7, has touted the steps his administration already has taken to spur the ethanol and wind-farming industries and recently won the endorsement of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. Topinka says the governor has allowed Illinois to fall behind Iowa and Nebraska in ethanol production, and she faults Blagojevich for not pursuing a legislative mandate on renewable power.

With input from the governor’s office, the ICC last year approved a “Renewable Portfolio Standard” under which Illinois power companies will be encouraged to get 8 percent of their electric supply from sustainable sources by 2012. ICC officials suggested the deal with utilities may be in flux, though spokesmen for Commonwealth Edison and Ameren say the companies remain committed to renewable power.

“The much-ballyhooed Blagojevich initiative as adopted by the Illinois Commerce Commission is nothing more than a goal,” Topinka wrote in a Copley News Service questionnaire about energy issues. “The governor got his press release, but his ICC rule produced no new usage of renewable energy.”

Topinka has called for legislation that obligates utilities to follow the ICC’s renewable-energy standards. Blagojevich said he’ll now push for a law that requires an RPS of 10 percent by 2015. Whitney, the Green Party candidate, advocates a binding RPS of 22 percent by 2020.

Wind farms are expected to proliferate in rural areas of Illinois, giving property owners a revenue source as they lease their land to turbine operators.

On ethanol and other biofuels, Blagojevich proposes spending $225 million on nearly 30 production facilities. Topinka says she would assist such projects through creation of a $500 million loan pool for rural development, and she would offer another $15 million in yearly grants for biofuel initiatives. She promises to convert the state’s automotive fleet to vehicles that use concentrated ethanol fuel or biodiesel by 2012. Blagojevich takes credit for starting the fleet conversion and widening the use of E85, which contains 85 percent ethanol.

Whitney said he supports ethanol development, but he does not suggest spending targets. He cautions that limited corn supplies will need to be supplemented with crop wastes and switchgrass; Blagojevich and Topinka also recognize there may be other organic fuel sources to tap.

“By some calculations, even if all the corn in the U.S. was used to make ethanol, it would only replace 21 percent of our current fossil fuel consumption,” Whitney wrote in his energy questionnaire.

Blagojevich also would funnel $775 million into developing power plants to convert Illinois coal into cleaner natural gas. The $1.2 billion price tag for his combined energy initiatives would be financed in part by stepped-up tax collections on corporations, sales taxes on coal and other fees, his office said.

Topinka’s campaign questions the feasibility of the governor’s large-scale plans for coal-gasification, but, like Whitney, she supports development of the process.

Meanwhile, all of the candidates for governor have blasted the results of September’s “reverse” power auction, which allowed deregulated utilities to buy electricity at fixed prices. Ameren estimates that its central Illinois residential customers will see their average monthly bills rise by 40 percent to-55 percent next year – $26 to $33 for the typical customer – to reflect market and delivery costs. ComEd projected its residential bills would increase by about 20 percent.

Blagojevich, Topinka and Whitney all support legislative efforts to extend a state-imposed freeze on electric rates. The current freeze is set to expire Jan. 1, but Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, has asked Blagojevich to call a special legislative session to pre-empt the increase. The governor has said he won’t comply with the request unless he’s sure there are enough votes for a rate-freeze continuance.

On another pocketbook issue, Topinka says Blagojevich has done nothing as gasoline prices hit record levels in the past year. She has proposed a graduated reduction in the state sales tax on gasoline when prices spike.

Whitney and Blagojevich say the idea is short-sighted and takes the focus away from the need for a long-range and diverse state energy plan. The governor said his comprehensive strategy would result in Illinois replacing half of its current supply of imported oil with homegrown biofuels.

“I believe that Illinois, and every other state, needs a real energy plan that does not leave citizens to the whims of OPEC,” Blagojevich said, referring to foreign oil producers.

One environmental advocate said it’s an unusual election year, considering both major-party candidates are emphasizing energy as a campaign issue.

“Both the Democrat and Republican candidates are stepping up in a clear and forceful way promoting clean-energy development in Illinois – that’s new,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, said in a recent interview. “That reflects both the clean-energy development opportunities for Illinois and the strong public interest and concern that we need to redirect our energy policy at the state level.”

Learner, who serves as an unpaid task force member for Blagojevich, said the governor’s energy plan is more wide-ranging than Topinka’s. He said he wasn’t familiar with Whitney’s energy proposals.

By Mike Ramsey, Copley News Service
Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or cnsramsey@aol.com.


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