(reprinted from 6 Ways Chicagoland is Cleaner & Greener Than You Think Part I and 6 More Ways Part II featured on Amanda Hanley’s Huffington Post blog)
While the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously and recent International Panel on Climate Change report spotlight the troubling impacts of climate change – there is hope!
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.
Earth Hours superhero ambassador, Spiderman, joined Karen Weigert, Chicagos ultimate Chief Sustainability Officer, on March 29 prior to the great switch-off for the World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour. Photo by: SPE Inc/Daniel Boczarksi Copyright: (c) 2014 Getty Images. All rights reserved.
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.
In November 2012, Pres. Obama announced a $120 million grant for the new battery and energy storage hub hosted by Argonne. Partnering with other labs, scientists and businesses, the goal is to improve battery technology to be 5 times cheaper, with 5 times higher performance within 5 years. This would critically transform green transportation, electric grid and renewable energy. Photo source: www.whitehouse.gov
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.
The Twin Groves Wind Farm in central Illinois has 240 operating wind turbines, and is the largest utility-scale wind farm east of the Mississippi River.
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.
Chicago is home to the countrys first and largest urban solar farm. The 40-acre Exelon City Solar in West Pullman powers 1,500 homes and was built on an industrial brownfield. Photo by Josh Mogerman/Flickr.
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.
Deerfield-based Walgreens new store in Evanston debuts the nation’s first net zero energy retail store in the country thanks to 800 solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal technology, LED lighting and energy efficient design. This green leader plans to have 350 solar-powered stores throughout the U.S. with help from Chicago-based SoCore Energy. Rendering from www.cityofevanston.org.
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.
Iconic skyscrapers that have signed onto Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Building Initiative include (clockwise) Wrigley, Hilton Towers, AT& T, The Rookery, Shedd Aquarium and the Merchandise Mart.
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.
Clean energy employment by sector includes energy efficiency (62%), renewable energy (21%), professional services (12%), alternate transportation (5%) and greenhouse gas emissions (1%). Image source: Clean Jobs Illinois infographic
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.
All CTA buses inluce a bike rack, and hybrids make up 15% of the fleet. Photo by Steven Zance/Flickr.
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.
Divvy bike docks are even solar powered.
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.
Bringing new biofuels to town…
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.
Jolanta Hardej is CEO of FarmedHere, the nations largest indoor vertical hydroponic farm in Bedford Park. Nothing beats fresh organic greens! Photo courtesy of Farmed Here LLC.
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.
Kudos to Illinois legislators rating 100% on IEC’s environmental scorecard and environmental groups moving along smart, clean energy policy in Illinois.
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!
Activist Abby Goldberg with Beth Drucker at the March CONSEG gathering.
Watch out for determined 13-year old eco-activists! Last year the Illinois legislature passed a dubious industry-backed bill that required plastic bag manufacturers to set up recycling programs, but prohibited towns from enacting their own recycling mandates, PlasTax fees or outright bans on plastic bags. Intent on stopping the law, Grayslake eigth-grader Abby Goldberg started the Dont Let Big Plastic Bully Me on-line petition that ended up gathering over 175,000 signatures! Thanks to Abbys efforts along with an environmental coalition, Gov. Quinn vetoed the the legislation stating communities should not be restricted to implement innovative solutions to the plastic bag litter problem. As it stands today, the effort to ban plastic bags in Chicago may have enough support to become law. Meanwhile, cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco have banned bags, and Hawaii has instituted the nation’s first statewide ban of plastic bags available at checkout counters. Abby was featured last year in wren’s Lowdown on Plastic Bags, and we finally met up this month at a CONSEG meeting, where she addressed a roomful of environmental advocates at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. She was nice enough to share her impressive comments below:
Abby Goldberg’s Speech:
Good afternoon everyone! My name is Abby Goldberg otherwise known as Activist Abby! I am so honored to be included as a speaker today. Obviously, we share the same passion for the environment and for our communities. It always amazes me that people actually care about what I need to say!
Ive been invited to talk about my passion for plastic bags or really my passion AGAINST plastic bags. What it basically boils down to, is that I represent my generation and we have been charged with being the future custodians of our planet.
In August of 2011, I started a school project that involved plastic bags, specifically to try and get my village to ban plastic shopping bags. Who knew that it would bring me on such a fantastic journey? I have learned what it means to be an activist, how my government REALLY works and all about plastic bags. It was then that I learned that my choices matter.
I live less than a mile from Countryside Landfill in Grayslake. On windy days temporary fencing is put up to catch thousands of bags. It was just about two weeks ago that we had one of those days with 40 mile per winds! I witnessed yet again bags flying everywhere. This is very upsetting to me, especially when I know all that I know about plastic bags. What is most upsetting is that people were driving by and I am pretty sure not as upset about it as me. Or at least not upset enough to demand a change from themselves or our legislators!
The first thing that I found out about plastic bags is that they are made from non-renewable resources. 7 out of 10 Americans dont know that plastic is made from these resources. Some argue that they are made from a by-product of these resources. True, but whether made from natural gas or petroleum byproducts, why fuel the need for these resources for something we use for about 12 minutes! Second, I learned that the litter of plastic bags is a danger to our wildlife. Again, some may argue that our community isnt anywhere near our oceans where plastic bags are swallowed by creatures like sea turtles. I would be devastated to know that a bag I got from a purchase at the mall caused a death to an animal. It doesnt take much for a bag to make its way from here, to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf waters. Or, make its way to Lake Michigan where it can photodegrade into bits that attract toxins, get eaten by a fish and make its way into our food chain. YES, that IS happening now in our Great Lakes as well as the ocean!!! Plus, the litter from plastic bags is just a plain eyesore. We all know of a few plastic bags stuck in some familiar trees. Down the street from my house, a plastic bag was stuck in a sewer grate. A couple more bags and it will be blocked. Our snows are melting and this could cause potential flooding. Bags cost millions for our cities to clean up each year.
Plastic bags were once an easy choice. Bags are made to be disposable, used once and thrown away and with no thought to the consequences. Nice for a while wasnt it? Oops, no WE have a problem with that choice. One household may use 300-500 bags a year! 22, 000 bags could be used in one persons lifetime! Thats a big problem and if we dont fix it now, along with this throw away attitude, this all will be my problem to fix. Its crazy that I am only 14 and I realize this problem and yet not too many adults do or care. I shouldnt have to worry about such things. Its crazy that last summer I traveled with a sailing expedition just to study plastic pollution in the Atlantic. I was asked so I could make speeches like this and be an ambassador.
When I first started this project, I talked to few adults that tried to convince me that I should change my project to encouraging the public to recycle plastic bags and start a roadside clean-up crew. We look down on those who dont recycle, right? I seriously considered it for a while, but I did a little research and decided that recycling is just a band aid to this huge problem. Recycling is just a way for us to feel less guilty about those single use disposable products and keeps us addicted to them all. Recycling and clean-up crews put ALL the responsibility on ME and NONE and the manufacturers or the retailers. The bag makers would like you to think that recycled bags get made into new bags. Most times that is not the case. In order for a bag to get made into a new bag the old bag or film needs to be extremely clean. Have you seen the recycling bin at the grocery store for plastic bags? I have 349 of those bags for a Green Fair visual aid next week. In going through them, you would have thought people mistook the bin for a garbage can. IF they do get recycled, virgin plastic is added to make sure the new bag is as strong as the first bag. Nice, more plastic! If bags are unclean, they are made into composite lumber. So, recycling is not solving the issue of REDUCING the amount of plastic in our world. Its not a closed loop system. Perfect for the plastic producers right? And, actually, it is so much cheaper to make new plastic bags than recycle. So, why would any bag maker feel the need to recycle their bags into new ones? What is the incentive? Some recyclers are no longer accepting plastic bags. New York City doesnt even recycle bags. No recycler in that city can find a market for them. They are worthless! If bag makers want your bags back so badly, why are they not begging for them back, where is the public service announcement, why are we not gathering them all up? Recycling is only put on a pedestal when bans are talked about. The bag makers have some great lobbyists working for them as well as the American Chemistry Council. Believe me I know! Bag makers also spend a lot of time talking about reusing bags as a reason we should keep them around. Reusing them as trash can liners does not solve the problems with these bags. Just because you reuse them, does not prevent another one from being made. Yea, just what the bag makers want! We will always do what is easiest and cheapest and not what is right. Reducing our waste in general is what we should all be working on. Recycling should be a LAST resort to our waste issue. If it truly is going to work, it should be about recycling that bottle, bag, yogurt cup into those same products over and over again! An interesting fact for you that I learned this year
..Some plastic bottles are now being recycled into clothing. Cool until you learn that every time you wash those sweatshirts or jeans, plastic fibers are slowly being washed into our waterways! These fibers are showing up in our water samples! Very scary.
My biggest obstacle in my campaign is an attitude that one person cannot make a difference. I am proof that you can make a difference. Please dont think that bringing your own bag will not matter that much. Actually, you can be a reminder to someone else that our choices do matter. My other obstacle is some peoples feeling that I am taking their rights away because if they want a plastic bag, they should be able to get one. But what about my rights to have a clean neighborhood, waterways and a healthy environment? I have learned that plastic bag policies reduce the amount of single-use bags in some areas by 90% almost overnight! LET US add our communities to the growing list of communities that have made a difference. Lets change consumer behavior because being green by choice is not working, there just isnt enough of us! We know the solutions, lets demand them from ourselves, our community leaders and our manufacturers. We may not have money or enough lobby power yet and I cant vote, but together we have our voices!
Go Abby! Thanks for using your voice to protect the environment!
Old “school” graphic designed by the amazing Jason Rutter (my brother)
What started off as a green home and alternative energy talk for my son’s science class has evolved into an epic eco tour of Illinois and Chicagolandss flourishing clean energy scene. Last year, Ms. Goldberg asked me to give a few 30 minutes talks to her sixth grade classes. Since I’ve come across SO many compelling clean energy projects, I put together a jam-packed slideshow. The students seemed keenly interested and asked super smart questions. Over the summer, a mom mentioned my presentation was the only thing her daughter came home and spoke about passionately the whole year. I couldn’t resist upping my game when Ms. Goldberg asked me back to class this year. After boiling down even more cool information, over 70 slides now include the drawbacks of fossil fuels(16 slides), clean energy today (23 slides), energy saving features of our home (19 slides), and green jobs (18 slides/40+ changemakers featured). Best of all, most everything and everyone featured is local. Students love to hear that Illinois is #4 in the U.S. for wind power, Chicagoland’s rooftops and brownfields are going solar, Illinois is #1 in the country for green building, 25+ electric car models will be available in 2014, and biofuel is locally made from french fry grease, algae and cow waste. Following more enthusiastic response from this year’s science classes, I’ve converted my iPhoto slides to Powerpoint with side notes, so now you can see it and share it too. The possibilities of clean energy are truly exciting, and hopefully these examples will inspire way more to come.
Click HERE to see the PowerPoint and CLICK “NOTES” in the lower right corner (unfortunately my zillion links/sources did not come through in this format, but are available upon request)
Student tested & approved. Some rave reviews from Ms. Goldberg’s class:
… it was really fun to listen about the alternative energy sources
… I liked many cool green energy substitutes like algae
… I really liked the mini wind turbines for more urban areas
… we particularly liked the french fry grease converter
… I didn’t know you could do that many things around your house
… I liked your roof with the solar panels
… it was exciting to see the rug made from plastic bottles
… I might try to do some of those things in my house
… we liked how many cool things that people are doing to make a difference in the environment
Some wonderful eco-artwork included in thank you notes from Ms. Goldberg’s class this year.
Image from the Acumen Fund Manifesto
This past Thanksgiving, in addition to all the blessings and loved ones in my life, I reflected on a few other things Im thankful for
toilets and lightbulbs. Necessities most Americans easily take for granted.
Back on November 19, several Facebook postings reminded me to celebrate World Toilet Day. This international day of action is meant to spotlight a global sanitation nightmare. More than one third of the worlds population, or 2.5 billion people, live without access to toilets and proper hygiene. Inadequate sanitation leads to contaminated waterways and food supplies, and spreads life threatening diseases. Sadly, 1.6 million children die from diarrhea, many due to poor sanitation, every year.
Here in America, it’s impossible to imagine living without a toilet. Or living without a light bulb. World Light Bulb Day doesnt yet exist to draw attention to the fact that one fifth of the worlds population, or 1.3 billion people, live without electricity. Around the globe, many rural, low income people have simply been left in the dark. After the sun sets, most of these families depend on burning kerosene for light. This dim light emits smoky toxic fumes harming their eyes and lungs (inhaling kerosene fumes is equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day) and increasing the danger of fire and burns. Kerosene is also expensive – at least 10% of household income. Burning this fossil fuel also contributes to climate change. Without affordable light and power, the ability to break free of poverty dwindles.
When it comes to meeting the energy needs of the developing world, we tend to hear about the mad pace of coal burning power plants sprouting up in China. Yet emerging markets are leapfrogging to clean, renewable energy and ditching the grid all together. Distributed solar is lighting up remote villages and uplifting the poor. And this is accelerating, in part, thanks to social impact angels.
The Acumen Fund’s Founder Jacqueline Novogratz is intent on building a better world based on dignity not dependence, and choice not charity.
A few years back, my husband and I became partners in the Acumen Fund. This nonprofit global venture fund raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders, and ideas that are changing the way the world tackles poverty. We were attracted to how Acumen truly transforms millions of lives with innovative, sustainable, scalable solutions. To date, Acumen has patiently invested in 75 for-profit social enterprises in health, education, housing, agriculture, water and energy sectors.
In November, I attended a deep dive Energy Portfolio session to learn more about how Acumen is helping unserved populations gain access to power and light. Since 2007, Acumen has invested $7.5 million in six renewable energy companies in India, East Africa and Pakistan. Here are a few highlights from three solar investments (also funded by other external investors):
- d.light is designing, manufacturing and distributing solar lighting to low income customers throughout the developing world. Their sturdy solar LED lanterns offer 4 hours of light and last around five years. Since 2008, over 25.3 million people have been empowered with these affordable lanterns. d.light estimates their products have saved over $767 million in savings in energy-related expenses.
- Orb Energy is Indias leading provider of solar energy solutions, with over 100 branches installing and servicing a range of residential and commercial solar systems. Currently 35,000 solar home systems serve over 150,000 people in rural villages. Since the upfront cost is higher than kerosene, Orb works in conjunction with local banks to arrange solar loans allowing customers to break down payments. The average payback time is around 6-7 months.
- M-Kopa, established in 2011, provides d.light mini-solar home systems in Kenya. Customers pay as little as 45 cents a day for solar powered lights and phone charging, the debt to be paid within a year. As of November 2013, M-Kopa installed solar power to over 40,000 Kenyan households and is adding another 1,000 every week. Their team of nearly 200 employees sells products through more than 750 retail shops.
Bright, solar light is lifechanging for the rural poor. With a safe, healthy, reliable and more affordable alternative to kerosene, solar customers’ productivity and earning potential can rise. Businesses can extend working hours. Women can work from home. Kids can study at night and improve school performance. Health clinics and schools can operate longer. Homes improve nighttime security. Lights pay for themselves through savings on kerosene in two to six months. Money saved can go toward starting a business or other essential needs. Aspiring customers can move up the energy ladder and add new services such as mobile phone charging, radios and fans. Surprisingly, phone charging capability is a huge driver for villagers to become solar users. Mobile phones have become essential for banking, education, crop pricing, healthcare consultation, verification to avoid counterfeit/dangerous pharmaceuticals, and more. Solar lighting is also offsetting millions of tons of carbon pollution.
I love how Acumen measures success with lives impacted and jobs created, along with revenue earned. And they are truly making a huge difference. Thanks to Acumen’s solar company investments, over 23 million people now have affordable access to energy and over 950 new jobs have been created. Considering all investments made in every sector, Acumen has brought critical goods and services to 123 million low-income individuals. By the way, back to toilets, they have also invested in Sanergy, a sustainable sanitation company in the urban slums of Kenya. My gratitude extends to the brilliant works of Acumen – and all social entrepreneurs and non-profits – accelerating opportunities for a brighter future.
Despite the non-existence of World Lightbulb Day, this month the candles on Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras remind us of the human connection with comforting light. And that the true spirit of the holidays will shine through: giving with love, especially to those in need. If youre interested in spreading some light around the world, please consider an Acumen Fund donation, or for the person that has everything, an Acumen gift card.
Let there be lightbulbs, toilets and peace on earth!
My grandparents taught me well – Christmas is for kids! Throughout the world, lightbulbs and toilets are on children’s wishlists. Add more meaning to your holiday with a transformative gift. Images (clockwise) from Orb Energy, d.light, Sanergy, & Orb Energy.
For a 90-second burst of hope, see the Acumen Fund Manifesto video below!
From October 21 through 24, over ten thousand people will be flocking to McCormick Place for the Solar Power International expo. Perhaps the 2013 trade show chose to spotlight Chicago for good reason. Solar installations, incentives, innovators and industry trends are blazing solar energy forward in Illinois, a plus for both our environment and economy.
Here are 20 Solar Brightspots to Beam about in Illinois:
(also see accompanying Solar Surprises in Illinois by Amanda Hanley in Huffington Post)
Solar installations are booming
Source: SEIA Solar Energy Facts Q2 2013
Solar is the fastest growing energy sector in the United States, a solar photovoltaic (PV) system is installed every four minutes. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Illinois installed 30 MW of solar electric capacity in 2012 and ranks 13th in the country for installed solar capacity. Currently, there is enough solar energy installed in the state to power 6,200 homes. Consult with a solar installer to see if it’s time to put photovoltaic (PV) panels on your home our business.
Solar PV system price is dropping
The cost of solar has declined sharply and still trending down. source: Bloomberg, new energy, finance
In an increasing number of markets around the country, solar is getting more and more competitive. National prices have been dropping steadily, from $10/W in 2001 to around $3.05/W in 2013. According to the SEIA, the average installed residential and commercial photovoltaic (PV) system prices have fallen by 26% in Illinois the past year. Plummeting prices may be credited to state and federal policies, technological advances, scaled up production and a recent global glut in supply. Grid parity is well within reach, and solar may soon kick the traditional kilowatt to the curb. Rebate and incentives available in Illinois also help cut the cost.
Yes, Illinois has enough sunlight!
Solar energy can work just about anywhere. Keep in mind that Germany, the worlds largest solar power market per capita, has weather closer to Seattle. Brandon Leavitt of Solar Service points out, Chicago ranks thirds in useable sunshine
with only 20 minutes less so than Miami during the summer months. Solar energy is also available when the power is most needed in the market noon – and its the perfect peaking resource for hot summer days. According to the Citizens Utility Board, a residential solar panel system in ComEd territory can o?set an estimated 32 percent of annual consumption.
Commercial rooftops are powering up
Across the nation, big box retailers are fueling their operations by producing power on their massive rooftops. So far in Illinois, solar arrays can be found on IKEA’s Schaumburg and Bolingbrook stores and Walgreens’ corporate headquarters in Deerfield. Green leader Walgreens will soon have more than 350 solar powered stores in the U.S., and is expected to open the nations first net zero energy retail store in Evanston this November. According to Pete Kadens, President of of SoCore Energy responsible for installing arrays at both IKEA and Walgreens, rooftop installations typically offset 10-40% of the annual electric load, depending on the size of system and facility. In Illinois, the payback ranges from 8-15 years, factoring in the system cost, cost of kWh power and system size. Kadens hints that more flagship solar projects are in the works for Chicagoland.
Walgreens new net-zero store in Evanston will produce enough or excess energy to power its operations with 800 solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal technology, LED lighting and energy efficient design. Photo: Business Wire
Solar farms are sprouting
Large-scale solar arrays are turning Illinois brownfields into brightfields. The West Pullman/Exelon City Solar, developed by SunPower, is the countrys first and largest urban solar farm located in Chicago. It was built on a reclaimed brownfield and now this
Invenergy’s Grand Ridge solar array is the perfect complement to the wind farms. source: invenergyllc.com
10 MW project powers about 1,500 homes. Invenergy developed one of the largest solar farms in the Midwest at Grand Ridge Solar in LaSalle County, next to the companys wind farm. This 20 MW, 140-acre project powers around 4,000 homes. Also, a 3 MW solar farm by New Generation Power and Wanxiang America is located in Rockford. On the horizon, Brightfields Development has proposed 20 MW solar farm in Carbondale and 20 MW in East St. Louis on former industrial sites. Brownfields with adequate space, unobstructed sunlight and access to electric grid not only accommodate the needs of solar farms, but solar arrays can also transform contaminated land with modest remediation. The Environmental Policy and Law Center has identified 56 potential sites throughout Chicagoland that could add 300 MW of power to our region, in some cases by powering adjacent industrial operations. Watch this Chicago Ideas Week 2012 talk by Deborah Sawyer, President of Environmental Design International, on the potential of turning underutilized industrial sites into renewable energy projects.
Solar sights wow
The Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) is hosting free Solar in the City tours on Monday October 21st, 9-11 am and 1-3 pm. Four separate tours will showcase the best examples of solar innovation. Tour attendees will meet at the Millennium Park Welcome Center for a brief tour of the integrated solar on the northwest pavilion. Participants will then be transported via a classic green and red Chicago Trolley to their tour location. Space is limited, register for your free tour here.
In addition to the ISEA tour, there are MANY fabulous solar sites to see around Chicago. Brandon Leavitt, President of Solar Service and a leader in solar development since 1970, recommends checking out attractive installations at Harvest Time Foods, Christy Webber Landscapes and many others displayed in photos around the Solar Service Niles office.
The solar industry is an economic engine
Solar energy means business in the Midwest, the industry is one of the fastest growing in the nation. This growth is surely benefitting the Illinois economy. In 2012, solar installations
SEIA’s National Solar Database collects detailed information on solar companies across the U.S. Illinois manufacturers (red), installers (yellow and other (blue) are featured here. source: seia.org
on homes and businesses were valued at $27 million. This represents a 3 ½ times increase over the previous year, and is expected to grow again this year. According to SEIA, more than 187 solar companies are throughout the value chain in Illinois, employing 1,700 people. Clean, homegrown energy puts people of many backgrounds to work and most of these jobs cannot be outsourced. Occupations may include scientific research and development, engineering, solar system installers/maintenance, manufacturing of solar components, sales and support. To explore diverse jobs across the industry, see the Department of Energy solar career map and the Bureau of Labor Statistics Careers in Solar Power. SEIA provides members with solar training opportunities, certifications, and training program accreditations, and posts a national solar job board.
Solar tech hub is emerging
Illinois is becoming a world-class solar technology innovation and manufacturing hotpot. Raja Krishnamoorthi, President of Sivananthan Laboratories, points out the tremendous local R & D
The student InSPIRE chapter at UIC held a DIY solar cell workshop for the general student body. Students with no science or technology background were introduced to basic concepts of electricity and how to built a working solar cell panel out of scrap solar cell pieces. source: inspireillinois.org
talent working to create next gen solar cells. Illinois has one of the countrys largest concentrations of physicists anywhere in the country, prolific research universities (i.e., UIC, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern, University of Chicago), acclaimed national labs (Argonne, Fermilab) and some leading solar companies. In addition, the Midwest has a large glass industry, auto industry, and other manufacturing resources to fabricate solar cells. Krishnamoorthi is hopeful the non-profit Institute for Solar Photovoltaic Innovation, Research, and Edu-training (InSPIRE), will bolster the Illinois solar ecosystem by promoting research, development, workforce training, and technology commercialization. InSPIRE student chapters at 12 universities/colleges have been created (or are in the process) to encourage students to learn about solar technology and explore careers in the field.
University competitions are cultivating future solar leaders
The Solar Decathlon is a prestigious biennial competition sponsored by the U.S. Department
In 2009, Team Illinois Gable House took 2nd place overall at the Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C. After touring, Decathlon homes are relocated back to the Champaign campus for educational purposes. source: 2009.solardecathalon.illonois.edu
of Energy (DOE) that challenges twenty collegiate teams to design, build, and operate the most cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive solar homes. In 2007, 2009 and 2011, the University of Illinois has been a formidable competitor in Washington D.C. against other universities from around the world. This year, U of I students partnered with students from Peking University in Beijing to design and build a net zero energy home for the first ever Solar Decathlon China. The culmination of a two-year collaboration, students constructed their home in Datong, China where it was judged on its performance in 10 categories. The American Solar Challenge is another collegiate competition to design, build and drive solar powered cars cross country in a time/distance rally event. Of the 24 teams participating since 2010, three are from Illinois – Illinois State University, Northwestern University and Southern Illinois University. Illinois State Universitys Solar Car Team placed second in the 2013 Formula Sun Grand Prix, a national solar car race held in June in Austin, Texas. Imagine what these students may create next.
in 2013, Illinois State graduate and undergraduate students from the Departments of Technology, Physics, and Economics placed second in the national solar car race. source: http://stories.illinoisstate.edu/
Solar schools spur student eco-imagination
The Illinois Solar Schools Program promotes the installation of 1 kW solar photovoltaic (PV) systems at K-12 schools. Schools are turned into science labs as students see
Solar panels also shade the playground at the Academy for Global Citizenship. Plans are underway to build a new net-zero energy campus for this sustainable charter school in Chicago through solar energy and other renewables. source: illinoissolarschools.org
first-hand on a daily basis how sunlight is converted to electricity. By incorporating clean solar power into the classroom, the hope is that solar will be a normal and widely accepted energy source as students become adults and eventually homeowners themselves. Since the Solar Schools Program’s launch in 2006, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation has awarded over $2,100,000 in grants to almost 250 schools. Annually, each solar school installation will generate about 1,200 kWh of electricity and help avoid 1,350 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions. Schools can apply to the Clean Energy Foundation for a grant to cover up to $8,000 or 90% of the system and its installation costs, whichever is less. Climate Cycle has granted solar installations to 7 high schools and 4 elementary schools in Chicagoland. NRDC is working to help every school put up panels by launching a new Solar School initiative to raise funding through crowdsourcing. The ISEA Sunshine Scholars program trains teachers in grades 4-6 about hands-on solar projects. Participants receive lesson plans as well as tools for the classroom including a build from scratch solar car. A November 20th workshop is open to all grade school teachers and will be held at the Center for Green Technology, details here.
Solar inventors aid disaster relief
Anna Stork and Andrea Sreshta met while studying architecture and design in graduate school. They shared an interest in solar lighting technology and wanted to design something to make a difference around the globe. They founded Chicago-based LuminAID, to develop affordable, renewable light to improve the comfort, safety, and survival of disaster victims. The compact, lightweight, inflatable, water-resistant, solar-powered light they designed ended up winning the 2012 Clean Energy Challenge. This solar innovation is now lighting up peoples lives in 25 countries. By purchasing the Give Light, Get Light Package, you’ll get one for yourself and another will be sent to someone in need. Over the past year, LuminAID distributed more than 4,000 lights in 15 countries. Watch this inspiring video:
Testing accelerates performance and adoption
The Illinois Tollway Authority is tapping into solar in a series of installations alongside the highway, Interstate 90 is shown above.
In 2010, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority began a three-year partnership with Argonne National Laboratory to collaborate on energy efficiency initiatives. As part of this effort, Argonne’s Midwest Photovoltaic Analysis Facility has been conducting a real-world, side-by-side study of solar panel technologies. A 5 kW test bed featuring five different modules and a weather station can be found at the Illinois Tollways Downers Grove headquarters. Another testing center is located at the 95 kW array on the Argonne campus. The goal is to determine which types of solar panels perform best under various environmental conditions in the Midwest region. Currently the Tollway authority uses some solar powered lighting, traffic sensors and cameras, especially in more remote areas. With 286 miles of interstate tollways in 12 northern Illinois counties, including I-88, I-355, I-90 and I-94/I-294/I-80, a long road lies ahead for solar possibilities.
Now you can drive on sunshine
More and more zero-carbon rides are roaming the streets of Chicagoland thanks to the emergence of electric vehicles (EVs) and solar charging canopies. Sharon Feigon, CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland (ATC), a nonprofit affiliate of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, points out while electric power is good, it mostly comes from dirty sources. Since introducing EVs to the IGO CarSharing fleet as the former CEO, she’s dreamed about of making electric cars truly emissions-free by harnessing the sun’s clean
Electric cars using the Evanston solar canopy station can be compeletey charged by 100% clean energy from the sun.. source: cnt.org.
energy. Thanks to three years of legwork by Feigon and ATC, and $1.5 million in grants from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, solar canopies are now “both possible and practical. In addition to charging the public’s and I-GO’s EVs, any surplus power will be sold back to the grid. ATC solar canopy locations include Oak Park (20 kW, under construction), the Evanston Library is (10 kW), Uncommon Ground (20 kW) and IIT (20 kW). Non-ATC solar-powered EV charging stations include Northerly Island (2.4 kw) and Phillips Chevrolet (32 KW) in Frankfort. By the way, if you might like to win a 2014 Chevy Volt, purchase a raffle ticket from the Illinois Solar Energy Association here.
Local battery research will expand solar
As USA Today notes, better batteries could revolutionize solar and wind power. When the sun doesn’t shine, battery storage can indirectly power homes and buildings. In the race to advance technology, the Department of Energy chose Argonne National Laboratory as the first
President Barack Obama speaks about the need for better batteries. Now Argonne and Chicagoland will lead the way. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
national innovation hub for batteries and energy storage. This hub, also known as the Joint Center for Energy Storage and Research (JCESR), received a $120 million grant for a collaborative effort among national laboratories, academia and business. JCESR’s ambitious goal is to develop batteries five times more powerful and five times less expensive in five years to support the nations electric grid and next generation vehicles. The Clean Energy Trust, the Midwests leading clean tech business accelerator, is partnered with Argonne National Laboratory to commercialize this technology.
Get fit with solar & human power
Eco Gym co-founders Michael Benso and Chris Gellings want to transform bodies and protect the planet at the same time. Eco Gym is the first and only 24/7 health club powered by human kinetic and solar energy in the world. Their unique power generation reward system reduces members monthly dues the more they work out. This encourages members to power the facility through their training and maximize their health. The Eco Gym opened its first location in Naperville in 2012 and has over 1,700 member committed to making a difference. The grand opening of their second location in Glenview (Pfingston Road) is October 19. Although the video below emphasizes a focus on sustainability, unfortunately I cannot elaborate on the solar system used, despite repeated information requests.
Utilities warming up to solar
Savvy energy players are moving into solar. The acquisition of Chicago-based SoCore Energy, which designs and installs large scale rooftop solar panel systems for big box retailers and commercial/industrial properties, by California’s Edison International is a promising energy market trend. Another example of utilities diversification with solar is wind giant NextEras recent acquisition of Smart Energy Capital, a commercial solar project developer. Julia Hamm of SEPA suggested that utilities companies need to be a solution instead of a barrier. Solar is where we are headed.
Chicago-based SoCore Energy was recently purchased by California-based Edison International. source: socoreenergy.com
Solar energy required
Illinois has set renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that require 25% of our energy be generated from renewable sources by 2025, and a certain portion must come from solar energy. For example, this year 7% of power come from renewable, and .5% of this from solar. By 2025, the solar carve out will escalate to 6%, driving a stronger market for solar power. In theory, RPS will stimulate local growth in the renewable and solar energy industry. However, some loopholes in the existing laws and municipal aggregation complications are jeopardizing the effectiveness of this policy. The Illinois legislature is currently negotiating to reform the flaws and bolster the RPS law. According to Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, “fixing RPS could be a tipping point for solar and renewable energy in Illinois. David Roberts of Grist takes a deep dive on this issue inHow to make Illinois into a clean-energy leader.
Solar rebates sweeten deals
Illinois offers significant savings for homeowners and businesses to install solar water heat, photovoltaics and solar pool heating as a measure to drive in-state solar projects. In 2013, the Solar Rebate Program offered a 30%, up to $10,ooo residential incentive, and a $10,000-$20,000 or 25% of solar PV business incentive. These applications are now based on a lottery system, available until the money runs out for the fiscal year. Commercial grants up to
DSIRE database offers an overview of available rebates and incentives by state. source: dsireusa.org
$250,000 are also available, based on merit. The program is funded through a special energy fee collected by utilities and does not impact the struggling state budget or other worthy programs. This program expires in 2015 and must be regularly reauthorized. Despite growing interest from homeowners and businesses, funding levels have remained the same since the Renewable Energy Resources Trust Fund was founded in Illinois in 1999. In other states with higher funding levels, such as New York (20x more), New Jersey (30x more) and California (100x more), solar installations have eclipsed Illinois. Currently, the Federal government offers an uncapped tax credit of 30% of the installed value of solar projects. This program is set to expire in 2016 and there has been much discussion about its future design and implementation. Although the industry is believed to be on course for grid parity without incentives in the next 5-10 years, it is believed that the continuation of this program in the short run will continue to spur growth and development, further decreasing installation costs. Parity with conventional energy federal subsidies would be great too! See the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) for an overview of available rebates and incentives by state here.
More solar carrots
As another incentive to install systems, revenue sources may help solar generators recover the system’s costs sooner. Not to long ago, solar power generators had a hard time selling surplus power back to their utilities. Net metering laws now allow homeowners and businesses to interconnect to the electric companys grid and get credit for the excess power generated by their solar systems (up to 2 MW). Recently, with the vast increase in community aggregation, it has come to the Illinois Commerce Commission attention that not all electricity providers are compliant with Illinois Net Metering laws. In fact, many Alternate Retail Energy Suppliers (ARES) do not offer net metering to solar/wind customers. Word to the wise if you own solar or plan to purchase it in the next year, you should contact your supplier to find out their policies and application process. ComEd may be the safer choice until the dust settles on this one. Not to complicate things, but another potential revenue stream is Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs). Illinois renewable portfolio standards (RPS) and solar carve out requirements demand utilities to purchase a portion of electricity from qualified solar providers. Utilities can meet these requirements by purchasing SRECs, or the monetized value of solar energy produced, from homeowners and businesses with certified solar systems. A viable SREC market is not yet functioning in Illinois, however attempts to reform RPS law are underway to fix this problem.
Chicago has cut red tape and soft costs
The City of Chicago has made putting solar on rooftops easier, cheaper and faster than ever. Thanks to a
DOE Race to Rooftops is sponsoring a $10 million prize for effectively cutting the soft costs of solar. To win, businesses and communities must repeatedly demonstrate an average of $1 per watt for non-hardware costs, such as customer acquisition, finance, permitting and interconnection.
SUNShot Rooftop Challenge $750,000 grant, the City has updated permitting and zoning processes to better accommodate solar. Small rooftop solar PV systems (under 13.44kw) can apply to the Citys Easy Permit Process (EPP). Qualifying projects now move through an expedited process, shortened from thirty days to one day. Fees have also been reduced by 25%, from $375 to $275. Some paperwork can even be filed electronically. While the hard costs of solar panels are falling, the non-hardware costs, such as permit fees and infrastructure incompatibilities, can be a barrier. SUNShot’s goal is to reduce this. Ideally all municipalities throughout Illinois will work to simplify and streamline the permitting process, ensuring clean energy is cost effective on all levels. States like New York are looking to adopt a statewide solar permitting process, eliminating costly research efforts for system owners and installers.
Illinois has clean energy friendly policy makers
Fortunately some folks and groups are working to protect and expand solar (and other forms of renewable energy) in Illinois. Smart policies and incentives are critical in breaking down solar barriers. The Illinois Solar Energy Association (ISEA) educates and mobilizes members and the general public on policies that affect clean energy development. Environmental advocacy groups, including the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Illinois Environmental Council and Environment Illinois, are also working to help solar thrive. Relevant bills currently in session are listed here. Our elected local, state and federal officials need to know we are interested in creating a clean energy future!
Let’s support our state legislators helping Illinois make solar and clean energy strides. Wonderful to see my state reps, Rep. Robyn Gabel and Sen. Daniel Biss, on this list!
As Pres. Obama returned solar panels to the White House this past year, Gov. Quinn preceded him by installing solar panels at the executive mansion in Springfield as part of the 350.org Global Work Party on 10/10/10.
Fortunately many more solar brightspots can be found throughout Chicagoland and Illinois (not featured here). Looking forward to seeing plenty more!
. . .
Thanks for your insight:
Lisa Albrecht, Solar Service Inc., ISEA and a presenter for the Climate Reality Project
Brad Klein, Senior Attorney at Environmental Law & Policy Centre (ELPC)
Pete Kadens, SoCore Energy , President
Brandon Leavitt, Solar Service, President, Owner
Raja Krishnamoorthi, President at Sivananthan Laboratories and President, Director at InSPIRE
Sharon Feigon, CEO of Alternative Transportation for Chicagoland
Seth Darling, Argonne National Laboratory, Nanoscientist
Brian Wagner, Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, Environmental Tollway
Rhone Resch, Solar Power International, President and CEO
Julia Hamm, Solar Electric Power Association, President and CEO
written by Amanda Hanley