Climate advocates, NU researchers promote clean energy to combat climate change


Photo courtesy of Madison Czerwinski

A rally in Springfield organized by Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition in June to show support for Illinois’s carbon-free nuclear plants.

Jack Austin, Senior Staffer

Climate advocacy groups, researchers and students in Illinois are at the forefront of a clean energy movement.

They’re pushing for low-carbon energy sources and energy efficiency to slow the effects of climate change — and they all approach the problem from different angles.

The electricity and transportation sectors accounted for 29% and 25% of United States greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, respectively. As wealthy countries collectively emit billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year from energy production and transit, many environmental scientists predict climate-related problems will only get worse.

Here’s a look into the state’s unfolding nuclear energy debate, the search for greener transportation and how NU students are part of the picture.

The grassroots green nuclear movement: A “roller coaster” journey to save Illinois nuclear plants

Despite relying heavily on coal-fired plants, Illinois is one of the country’s leaders in clean energy because of its many high-capacity, zero-emission nuclear plants. The state receives more than half of its electricity from nuclear power, and has the most nuclear generation in the country, according to the Energy Information Administration and the Illinois Environmental Council.

In 2016, and again this year, Illinois nuclear plants faced potential closure for economic reasons, namely an inability to compete with cheap fossil fuels and heavily subsidized renewables.

Madi Czerwinski, founder and executive director of Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal, said closing the plants would cause emissions to spike.

Former chair of NU’s mechanical engineering department Elmer Lewis, who studied nuclear reactor physics, supports nuclear energy as the “most prudent” road to follow to combat climate change. Lewis said a significant flaw with renewable energy is its intermittent, unreliable nature.

Nuclear energy is “extremely safe” compared to fossil fuel energy risks like air-pollution related diseases that kill thousands every year, according to Lewis’ book “How Safe is Safe Enough?”

Nuclear reactors across the world employ multiple redundant safety measures and are designed to automatically shut down, cooling the reactor if something goes wrong. Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regularly reviews plants to make sure they maintain all safety protocols and standards. As a result, experts say nuclear power is safe.

Nuclear has struggled in deregulated markets, according to Alan Medsker, a technical solutions engineer at Unify, an Illinois resident and a longtime advocate for nuclear power. Part of the reason could be that natural gas is cheaper and nuclear’s environmental benefits were not recognized as widely as other green energy sources, he said.

“The electricity markets don’t value what we as a society say we value,” Medsker said. “The people with a solar or a wind or a gas plant end up getting the same amount for their power, even though the nuclear (and hydro-electric) is the only one that is both clean and reliable.”

Without subsidies, the owners of energy stations such as Byron and Dresden said they would invest elsewhere, shuttering the plants.

McCormick junior Bill Yen, co-president of Engineers for a Sustainable World at Northwestern, said he sees nuclear power as a theoretical solution to shift reliance away from fossil fuels and high emissions that contribute to climate change. But he’s not sure how much traction it will be able to gain in the long run.

Czerwinski worked with Medsker and local grassroots activists in Illinois for more than 13 months on the campaign to save Byron and Dresden.

After extensive work and lobbying, an energy bill containing subsidies for the plant passed through the Illinois legislature Sept. 12, the day Byron was scheduled to close.

Czerwinski said the process felt like a “roller coaster” between bleak moments and sparks of confidence.

“Pretty quickly after, I felt a little bit of a pit in my stomach,” Czerwinski said. “This was a 13-month battle in a state where 90% of its clean energy comes from nuclear (and) half of its electricity generation from nuclear … It should have been a slam dunk and it was this difficult. What hope do we have for building new nuclear?”

Looking for greener transportation

Transportation, the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., offers opportunities for greater sustainability and less emissions.

Citizens’ Greener Evanston, a local nonprofit founded in 2008, promotes green transportation. Specifically, CGE promotes the use of public transit, and is working with Evanston to install electric vehicle infrastructure, according to Lauren Marquez-Viso, the nonprofit’s vice president. The organization is also looking into electrifying local school districts’ bus fleets.

Earth and Planetary Sciences Prof. Daniel Horton, the head of Northwestern Climate Change Research Group, which explores extreme weather, public health effects of climate change and climate solutions, recently researched electric vehicles. He concluded that electric vehicles offer tremendous benefits to the climate and human health.

“Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen in the future. It’s already here,” Horton said. “If in the future we don’t change the amount of CO2 we are putting in the atmosphere, it’s only going to get worse. Climate intersects with all aspects of life. Not just human life, but all life.”

Students seek to implement energy efficiency, sustainability

While affecting statewide or national energy policy may seem out of reach for the ordinary people, many NU students find ways to make a difference through energy efficiency and sustainability research.

Weinberg senior Grace Hauser, an undergraduate researcher in Horton’s CCRG, studies the potential impact of switching all incandescent bulbs in the U.S. to the up to 90% more efficient LED bulbs. This change could significantly reduce emissions and, as a result, improve air quality and public health in communities near coal plants.

Hauser said she believes in reducing power consumption through energy efficiency in tandem with pursuing clean power.

“I see them as parallel goals, because in an ideal world, we would be able to shut down coal fired power plants immediately and replace them,” Hauser said. “I think the fact of the matter is that clean energy has become politicized, as well (as) nuclear power — it is extremely difficult to build a new nuclear plant.”

Yen is directing a team within ESW to create an auto-aquaponics system, a sustainable farming system that uses up to 90% less water than traditional farming. The system grows fish and plants without human labor, reducing emissions because it grows more food in less space and recycles nutrients.
All of the activists and educators interviewed agreed reducing emissions is essential to slowing down and minimizing the damage of climate change.

“We are going to have climate change and we are having climate change,” Medsker said. “It is up to us to see how bad it gets. It’s going to get worse if we don’t reduce emissions.”

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Twitter: @JackAustinNews

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