Right here, in our own backyard, carbon-cutting is alive and well – thanks to a thriving clean energy scene. The span of leading efforts might surprise you! Chicago was recently named the 2014 Earth Hour Capital of the United States. A global panel selected the Windy City in a yearlong competition among 60 cities for efforts in promoting renewable energy and preparing for climate change impact. Wondering what made Chicago rise to the top? It helps that Crawford and Fisk, two of the dirtiest coal power plants in the country, have been closed and the city now purchases a coal-free electricity mix. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, committed to making Chicago “the greenest city in the world,” has made progress on the ambitious goals set inSustainable Chicago 2015. This comprehensive action plan has accelerated many eco-strides. Other regional factors have also come into play.
These 12 clean milestones show our region is not only moving in the right direction, but often leading the way to disrupt dirty energy:
1. Epic Clean Energy Ecosystem
The Chicago region has become a prominent cleantech hub. A world-class research cluster includes Argonne National Laboratory, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago & Urbana-Champaign, and IIT’s Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation. Greater Chicago is also home to many large and international cleantech businesses, and a flourishing entrepreneurial and start up community. When it comes to clean energy venture capital investment and total patents granted, Illinois is a “top 10” state. The Clean Energy Trust is working to accelerate clean energy innovations and start-ups. Their Clean Energy Challenge awards up to $500,000 in grants to the most promising Midwestern entrepreneurs, researchers and students. The new co-working space in the Loop, Coalition, is dedicated to clean energy companies and organizations. It’s home to the Energy Foundry, a $22.5 million nonprofit impact venture fund that backs game-changing grid and clean energy start-ups.
2. Wind Powerhouse
It’s no coincidence that the Chicago region is home to 12 headquarters of major wind power companies. Or that IKEA just bought a wind farm 100 miles south of Chicago. Illinois is a leader in wind energy capacity and manufacturing that supports up to 4,000 jobs in the state. With over 2,195 turbines at 46 wind projects, the American Wind Energy Association ranks Illinois 4th in the country for total megawatts installed. This wind power will avoid 5,550,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, the equivalent of taking 980,000 cars off the road. In 2012, about 4% of Illinois’ electricity was provided by secure, clean, affordable wind. Illinois renewable portfolio standards (RPS) law requires that a certain percentage of our power come from renewable sources, ramping up to 25% renewable power by 2025.
3. Solar Uprising
Yes, you can power up with Illinois sunlight! In fact, innovative installations can be found on residences to big box businesses to industrial brownfields throughout our area. Some notable projects include Testa Produce, Shedd Aquarium, Oak Park Parking Garage, Kohl Children’s Museum and the upcoming University of Illinois solar farm. Photovoltaic (PV) power has been steadily rising as the price of panels has plummeted. Illinois rebates and Chicago’s one-day residential permit turnaround have also sweetened the deal. More than 87 solar companies exist throughout the value chain in Illinois, employing 1,700 people. Nearly 250 schools with solar panels throughout the state are learning firsthand how sunlight is converted to electricity, and numerous universities have formidable teams competing in the Solar Decathlonhome design and The American Solar Challenge solar powered car design challenges.
4. Green Building LEEDership at #1
Currently, Chicago has the most LEED-certified buildings in the world. This voluntary certification program by the U.S. Green Building Council requires buildings to meet exceptionally high green building performance standards, especially with regard to energy use. While many extraordinary buildings dot the city and suburbs, some exciting new projects are in the works. Method, the world’s largest green cleaning company, is aiming to build a LEED Platinum manufacturing facility in Pullman with solar panels, wind turbines and a sprawling green roof. The highly anticipated Vosge’s “chocolate temple” is seeking LEED Gold status to house its corporate headquarters, manufacturing plant and tasting café. The Academy for Global Citizenship, a green public school near Midway, is planning to build the first net positive, urban farm campus in the country designed by Living Building Challenge standards.
5. Sexy, Skinny, Smart Energy Efficiency
Energy efficiency usually doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It’s the cleanest, cheapest energy source we can invest in. Fortunately, Illinois ranks in the nation’s top 10 energy efficiency, thanks to energy efficient building codes, smart grid modernization efforts and energy efficiency standards. Electric and natural gas utilities are required to reduce demand by 2% each year by offering various programs to encourage energy consumers to do more with less. They offer consumers a range of incentives, such as rebates on lighting and HVAC upgrades, retrofit loans, and energy audit services. Chicago now requires large buildings to disclose their energy performance, and is targeting energy reductions in residential zones, large commercial businesses and municipal buildings. Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative now has 32 large existing commercial buildings pledged to cut energy by 20% over five years, equivalent to 28 million square feet of space. Considering all of these efforts, it’s not surprising that 62% of Illinois clean energy businesses primarily focus on energy efficiency.
6. Nearly 100,000 Green Workers Strong
The clean energy industry is a significant employer and an economic engine in Illinois with huge potential for continued growth. In 2010, Chicago was ranked the third-largest center for clean economy jobs in the nation. As highlighted in the newly released Clean Jobs Illinois report, Illinois’ clean energy industry is putting an astounding 96,875 people to work. This prospering workforce related to energy efficiency, renewable energy, green transportation and greenhouse gas management work is expected to grow by 9% in 2014. Although a relatively new sector, it is now larger than the real estate and accounting industries combined. Importantly, many of these good jobs are in demand and cannot be outsourced.
7. Surging Electric Car Sales & Charging Infrastructure
With a choice of over 25 electric cars available in 2014(!), these cool new wheels depend on places to plug in. Electric vehicle (EV) charging opportunities are popping up at residences, parking lots, high rise apartments, universities, and so on. Even 6 solar canopy trees allow electric cars to drive on sunshine. Officially there are 263 charging locations in Illinois, excluding private stations. Since 2012, the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity has awarded rebates for approximately 450 residential and non-residential charging stations. The expansion of stations is welcome news, as Illinois ranks 12th in the number of EVs per capita. In case you are looking, Tesla opened its fourth and largest Chicagoland showroom in Highland Park this past December 2013. A $7,500 federal tax credit and up to $4,000 Illinois rebate for EVs are other great incentives to ditch the gas pump.
8. Top Spots in Alternate Transit
Among cities across the nation, Chicago is currently ranked #6 for transit friendliness,#5 for bike-friendliness, and #6 for overall walkability. Beyond freeing up city traffic, each year Metra saves area travelers about 34.8 million gallons of gasoline – the same amount of fuel consumed by more than 61,000 cars annually. Metra has 240 rail stations accessible to more than 8 million people in 100 communities. The mass transit fleet is also getting greener. The CTA currently operates more than 250 hybrid buses, which achieve 20% greater fuel efficiency than standard diesel buses. Even 72% of the city’s taxi fleet are “green” vehicles, either gas-electric hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles.
9. Sharing Economy Lovefest
Chicagoans are finding less need to own a car with plentiful bike and car share options. The Divvy bike sharing network has been wildly successful in Chicago. Since starting in June 2013, Divvy currently has 300 stations with 3,000 bikes, and another 175 new stations are planned for this next year. As of this month, more than 15,000 annual members and 146,000 day-pass holders have taken more than 950,000 trips and have collectively ridden an estimated two million miles. Popular part-time car sharing programs, including Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare (formerly I-GO), are continuing to expand reach as well. Zipcar now has 350 convenient locations throughout Chicagoland and offers a variety of fuel-efficient coupes, hybrids and carpool-friendly vans. It’s estimated that each and every share-car takes 15 personally-owned vehicles off the road.
10. Biofuels Advancing
French fry grease, cow waste and algae include some local materials used in producing biofuel. Loyola’s Institute for Environmental Sustainability is the first and only school operation licensed to sell biodiesel in the United States. The student-run biodiesel lab collects waste vegetable oil from oil from Loyola, Northwestern, DePaul, and other cafeterias and converts it into biodiesel used in campus shuttle service. Not too far away, trucks run on biofuel harvested from cow manure generated at the Fair Oaks Dairy farm in Indiana. This largest on-farm anaerobic-digestion-to-renewable-CNG project in the U.S is owned and operated by Chicago-based New Frontier Holdings. In Peoria, Solazyme’s algae biorefinery is producing algae-derived fuels. On a larger scale, the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative is a public-private collaboration working to develop alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel and position the Midwest as a national leader in the advanced aviation biofuels market. In November 2011, a Continental Airlines plane powered by jet fuel derived partially from algae landed at O’Hare, marking the first U.S. commercial flight powered by biofuel.
11. Good Food Revolution
Local, sustainably grown food = less fossil fuel miles, less petrochemicals and more carbon sinks. Estimates have suggested that Illinois businesses only supply around 4%of our food, with most produce traveling an average of 1,500 miles to our plate. Thanks to an exploding food movement over the past 10 years, more food than ever is now being grown in backyards, rooftops, vacant lots and abandoned factories throughout Chicagoland. A slew of urban farms are following the footsteps of City Farm. Ag training programs, such as Windy City Harvest and the Prairie Crossing farm incubator, are grooming local organic farmers. With a broader supply of locally sourced fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat and artisanal foods now available, new food hubs, such as Local Foods, are connecting farms and producers to wholesale markets. Consumers can consult with The Local Beet to find growing lists of CSAs, famers markets and local artisanal foods. Also, the Chicago Green Restaurant Coalition is helping the food service industry become more sustainable and locally sourced. Noticed the trend of locally roasted coffee, craft micro-breweries, and restaurant menus that identify local purveyors? Or visited Uncommon Ground‘s Devon restaurant with the nation’s first organic certified rooftop farm? Food and farm entrepreneurs are feeding the growing demand. Working to improve the local food system for the past 10 years,Family Farmed, serves as a good food business accelerator and hosts the annual Good Food Festival, the oldest sustainable food trade show in America.
12. Tireless Environmental Defenders
We are lucky to have many dedicated folks in Illinois working hard to promote clean energy through state and national policy. Gratitude is due to elected officials, environmental groups, non-profits, foundations, businesses, trade groups and citizens that devote countless hours to make a low-carbon, clean energy a reality. This is no easy task. Keep in mind, super-funded Big Oil/Coal/Power is fighting to protect its turf and maintain the status quo.
Let’s build on our momentum!
While these 12 achievements are to be celebrated, a great deal of work lies ahead to scale up. We need to prioritize strong policies that spur clean energy growth to deliver vital economic and environmental benefits throughout the state. Critical items on the policy agenda include: fixing the Illinois Renewable Portfolio Standards to maximize the full potential of a 25% renewable power by 2025 goal; developing a robust statewide implementation plan to comply with forthcoming carbon pollution standards for existing power plants; and a permanent Production Tax Credit, so renewable energy investors will have the same business certainty that the entrenched fossil fuel industries have enjoyed for over a century. Let’s tap the tremendous potential of clean energy in Illinois to meet the significant challenges we face with a changing climate.
To learn more on how clean energy can drive the Illinois economy, join a lively discussion on Monday, May 5, 5:30 – 7:30pm, at the Arts Club of Chicago. Hosted by NRDC, the Clean Energy Trust and the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. Details here
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Written by Amanda Hanley
Many thanks for input from Karen Weigert/City of Chicago, Kate Tomford/DCEO, Nick Magrasso/NRDC, Kevin Borgia/Wind on the Wires, Lisa Albrecht/Solar Service, Jim Slama/Family Farmed, Alena Morrissey/Loyola Institute for Environmental Sustainability student – and countless others that have inspired this piece!