Okay, you took a picture at the Bean, stepped onto the Skydeck at the Willis Tower, and enjoyed the architecture tour. You drank a beer at Goose Island and laughed at Second City Improv. You discovered Al Capone’s secret tunnel behind the bar at the Green Mill, visited the aquarium, and met Sue the T. rex at the Field Museum. You saw the Cubs, and even the White Sox play! However you filled your days, you’re now running out of things to do with your weekend in Chicago.
If you’re looking for something different—somewhere you’re not bumping elbows with thousands of tourists—here’s a fun field trip for the weekend: drive north about an hour to the Zion nuclear power station. It’s recently been decommissioned and is in the process of being disassembled, so you can get a closer look at it now than when it was a working nuclear site.
It might take a while to walk the perimeter because the site occupies hundreds of acres. You’ll see the old cooling towers and can pick out the containment, reactor, and turbine buildings. If you’re a nuclear buff, you may be able to identify the screenhouse, fuel, and generator buildings. When you’re done looking at the plant, you can spend the rest of your day enjoying the gorgeous park that surrounds the plant – so pack a lunch!
Illinois is the Nuclear Power Capital of the U.S.
What’s so special about the Zion plant? Well, the Zion plant is an accessible example of what’s special about Illinois—namely, nuclear power. The state is home to six active nuclear power plants: Dresden, Braidwood, Clinton, La Salle, Quad Cities, and Byron, which house 11 of the 99 nuclear reactors in the U.S. Combined, they currently produce the greatest amount of nuclear energy in any U.S. state, both in generating capacity and in net electricity generation. All told, they generate a whopping 12% of the nation’s nuclear power, a little more than their fair share. That makes Illinois the most nuclear state and Chicago the most nuclear city. Which is fitting, as Chicago’s where scientists split the atom in the first place.
Visiting Zion provides a historic example of where Chicago’s power comes from and can help you better understand how the city actually runs. To really understand Chicago, you’ve got to go beyond Wrigley Field and North Beach. These tourist destinations represent only the surface of the city, the outer layer of it. Zion, and the other nuclear plants, are the generators that bring in the energy the city needs to keep moving. When you’ve seen Zion, you’ve seen a great part of the system that keeps Chicago’s lights on.
Until you actually get out and see how enormous this site is, it’s hard to imagine the scale of the energy systems that keep Chicago going. With about 3 million people, Chicago consumes a massive amount of energy on a daily basis. It takes a lot of juice to keep 3 million air conditioners running during a hot and muggy Chicago summer. That’s on top of all the light bulbs and the light rail. Such an enormous demand for energy could easily result in sky-high electricity prices. Instead, Chicagoans enjoy the economic benefits provided by the six plants’ sound energy production and distribution system.
Nuclear Power Keeps Electricity Prices Low and Illinois Livable
Nuclear power helps make the city livable and energy costs reasonable for Chicago’s large population. When implemented on a large scale, nuclear power is comparatively inexpensive. This is because a small amount of nuclear fuel can produce a very large amount of electricity. Once the plant is built, the ongoing costs are low. This means that nuclear power can fill the enormous energy demand of a city like Chicago at a lower price and with fewer plants than other energy sources.
Thanks to its nuclear power generation, Illinois has the 16th lowest prices for electricity of the 50 states and sits well below the national average. Access to affordable energy helps draw residents and businesses to the state, drives the manufacturing, transportation, and refining industries, and keeps office overhead costs down. Without inexpensive nuclear electricity, Chicago would not be the city it is today.
Illinois Supplements Energy Mix with Coal and Natural Gas
You may be asking, why does it have to be nuclear? Could Chicago’s electricity demand be met with coal and natural gas? Absolutely. Illinois has the second most recoverable coal of any state. It also has 18 interstate natural gas pipelines and two natural gas market centers. It’s a hub. In fact, in 2015, Illinois used almost as much coal and natural gas as it did nuclear.
However, the more coal you burn, the blacker your skies get. Not only does burning coal release carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change, but even on a local level, it means coal ash on your windowsill, in the lake, and on your hot dog.
Natural gas is certainly cleaner than coal. As a transportation hub with large amounts of storage space available, Illinois is well-positioned to take advantage of natural gas. Indeed, the city uses large amounts for both heating and electricity production. However, the price of natural gas varies more widely than that of nuclear or coal. Up to a certain capacity, it makes economic sense to use natural gas. Past that point, however, demand begins to outweigh supply and the price becomes more and more prohibitive. In recent years, the glut of gas production resulting from new shale field extraction technologies has significantly decreased the price of gas in Illinois. But as more states increase their gas burning capacity and gas-producing states build more intrastate pipelines to transport Illinois’s gas to other states, prices will likely rise again.
Ultimately, nuclear is cleaner than coal and more predictable than natural gas. It’s capable of reliably meeting a high volume of demand. So, while Illinois relies on all three energy sources (and to a lesser extent, wind, solar, and biomass), the benefits of nuclear are clear.
Third-Party Energy Suppliers Keep Illinois Electricity Efficient
So take that trip to Zion and go see for yourself what makes this city run. Chicago’s not all craft beer and hearty laughs. It’s a thriving and bustling industrial, transportation, and energy hub, the jewel of the Midwest. It’s a synthesis of high technology and common sense. There’s no better way to wrap your head around just how much is going on in this city than seeing just how massive and complex our energy infrastructure really is. Even though it’s no longer in use, Zion can give you a good sense of the enormity of Illinois’ energy systems.
As further evidence of a sensible energy policy beyond the use of nuclear plants, Illinois is one of the few states that allow third-party energy suppliers. These companies purchase energy wholesale from the markets where nuclear power plants and other energy producers sell their output. They then sell that energy to residential and commercial consumers, such as yourself. So not only does Illinois produce energy in the most efficient way it can, it also allows you to buy energy in the most efficient way you can.
Third-party suppliers introduce free market competition to the energy supply system. Competition helps keep costs even lower by allowing consumers to shop around for the best energy prices. It also increases the variety of energy plans you have to choose from. Fixed-rate plans, for example, let you know exactly what price you’ll be paying ahead of time, despite short-term variations in the cost of electricity. This stability helps you avoid price hikes and gives you the predictability you need to budget more effectively, even during those sweltering summer months when energy rates tend to spike.
To learn more about fixed and variable rate plans and how third-party energy suppliers like Liberty Power leverage Illinois’ nuclear capacity to keep prices low, contact us today.