Power struggle: Who’s your energy provider?

A Curious City listener is considering an alternative electricity provider. Are you in the same boat?

July 17, 2013

Chelsi Moy

(Flickr/Daniel Foster)
Natural gas being extracted in Lousiana.

Curious City producers and reporters are usually hard at work answering your growing list of questions. But every now and then, an answer or even a listener comment stops us dead in our tracks, and we’ll say to one another: Why don’t we ask more people about this?

That’s what happened after we took on this question from Janice Thomson of Chicago’s North Center neighborhood:

Now that Chicago has a new electricity supplier, how much of the city’s energy would ultimately come from natural gas via fracking?

We’re curious how Chicagoans and others take something that Janice told us after environment reporter Chris Bentley laid out an answer. If you're already familiar with Janice's story and figure you're ready to weigh in, our survey below awaits. If you're still a little shaky on the details, though, we should first unpack her question just a bit. So, what is fracking (otherwise known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing)? Here’s the skinny from Bentley:

 “... drillers blast water, fine sand and chemicals to break up porous rock containing fossil fuels, and horizontal drilling, which allows a single rig to explore long, flat sedimentary rock formations thousands of feet underground without drilling straight down from the surface many times.”

As for that “new electricity supplier” bit? Well, Chicago switched energy providers late last year, and Integrys won the city’s contract. The gist:

  • Integrys’ portfolio is “primarily” natural gas.
  • In 2012, 40 percent of the nation's natural gas production came from shale formations, and that percentage is rising. A good deal of that new production is derived from fracking.
  • It’s impossible to know exactly how much of Chicago’s electricity is generated from natural gas derived via fracking, but some of it is, since the nation’s gas supply is not divided by fracked and conventional sources.

Just last week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office announced Chicago is increasing its supply of wind energy. A month ago, Illinois lawmakers passed the most restrictive high-volume oil and gas drilling regulations in the country.

News about fracking in Illinois is still rolling in. Yet, Curious City’s investigation is making Thomson rethink her energy options right now.

“As a consumer, I do now plan to “opt out” of the default Integrys electricity supplier and sign up with a 100% renewable energy supplier. I initially wasn’t too keen on the idea of renewable energy credits (which remind me of carbon offsets), but it sounds like that’s the best I can do living in Chicago.”  

Purchasing renewable energy credits from companies offering green energy plans is one option and perhaps the most economical one. Illinois’ Citizens Utility Board, a watchdog group that looks out for energy consumers’ interests, lists alternative electricity suppliers. People can generate their own power, but that is often a pricey upfront investment, said David Kolata, CUB executive director. Still, conservation remains the easiest, most effective option, he said, adding that there are many steps people can take towards energy efficiency.

Below, we've prepared a (very) short survey about whether you've considered your own electricity supply options and whether you've taken action about it. We invite you to give your two cents. When you're done, click the link that reads "See previous responses" to see how others answered. 

Selected poll responses