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What It Takes to Lead the Growing Green Economy

By HOWARD A. LEARNER

    Chicago is well-positioned to be a center of the rapidly growing green economy if we seize the strategic opportunities. That requires savvy policy actions and business development now before other cities leap ahead. What’s at stake? The jobs of the future as the global economy transitions to cleaner and greener  technologies.
    Solving our global warming problems is the challenge of our generation. The leading presidential candidates and Congress are moving toward realigning our nation with the developed world toward achieving rapid, enormous reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. Cleaner energy and transportation sectors are necessary solutions in a “carbon-capped” economy.
    Mayor Richard M. Daley aspires for Chicago to be the “greenest city in America.” Realizing that goal, though, requires more than tree-planting, and the city is beginning to move forward.
    Making Chicago homes, businesses and public buildings more energy-efficient is a no-brainer. It’s a win-win-win for jobs, economic vitality and environmental protection. Retrofitting commercial office buildings, schools, hospitals and apartment buildings with more efficient lighting, air cooling and heating, windows, furnaces and boilers and other equipment will create new electrical, plumbing, carpentry and other construction jobs that pay decent wages. Energy-efficiency holds down utility bills and thus helps both businesses’ bottom lines and household budgets. It stems the billion dollar energy drain from Chicago’s economy to natural gas and coal-producing states and foreign nations. Reducing energy demand through efficiency also avoids pollution and helps our environment.
    In November, Mayor Daley announced the key first step of the Chicago Climate Action Plan. Chicago will begin a new financing program directed at energy-efficiency improvements for commercial buildings, including the Merchandise Mart, Sears Tower and Art Institute. Building owners will be connected with environmental consulting firms, which will design efficiency plans that will be financed by commercial banks. The retrofit costs will be financed upfront and then paid back through the energy savings.  Through a related city program, JPMorgan Chase will contribute at least $25 million to support environmental retrofits of large residential apartment buildings.
    Green business winners include energy engineering and technical consulting firms such as Johnson Controls, Sieben Energy Associates and the Shaw Group and skilled union trade workers who will perform the installations. Reducing global warming pollution and achieving energy bill savings that make businesses more competitive are spurring this green business growth sector for Chicago’s economy.
    Wind power is the nation’s fastest growing energy resource, and Illinois has more wind power under development right now—5,500 megawatts—than any other state. Chicago is now home to growing wind businesses, including Invenergy, LM Glasfiber and Midwest Wind Energy. The venture capital community and the new Illinois Innovation Accelerator Fund are looking to clean technology opportunities.
   
But this won’t come easy. It requires supportive public policies and public-private leadership to keep building, nurturing and attracting these green businesses. In 2007, Illinois enacted one of the nation’s leading renewable energy standards, requiring utilities to ramp up to purchasing 25 percent of their supply from renewable energy resources by 2025. That will spur more wind energy development.
    But we’ve also lost out on many manufacturing jobs. Iowa and Minnesota have attracted seven major wind power equipment manufacturing plants, providing good-paying jobs for skilled workers. For years, Toledo, Ohio, has been a glass-producing center for the auto industry. Some of that expertise and capacity is now being refocused to produce glass for sophisticated solar photo-voltaic panels, while other Ohio manufacturers produce ball bearings and other mechanical parts for the wind power industry.
    Chicago moved early on solar power, but Spire Solar and Solargenix are now sputtering here. The IBEW-NECA Technical Institute is working hard to retrain electrical workers for the solar equipment installation jobs of the future, as operating jobs are cut by Midwest Generation at its aging coal plants in Chicago, Joliet and Waukegan. For Chicago to gain solar jobs, both public policy and business attraction strategies are needed.
    The American auto industry is in wrenching changes with rising gas prices and the imperative to reduce global warming pollution. In early March, Ford Motor Company announced that it will cut a production shift at its Chicago plant due to slumping sales of the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable sedans and the Taurus X crossover vehicle. Taurus sales dropped 19 percent and Taurus X sales dropped 28.1 percent last year. Ford’s cutbacks follow Chrysler’s recent cutbacks at its Belvedere plant.
    Chicago and Illinois are caught in the “death spiral” of the old-tech auto industry. If we keep hitching our economic wagon only to the low-mpg and higher polluting cars of the past, we’ll keep losing more jobs and hurt our economy. We have to get policies in place that connect to the job and economic growth opportunities from the high-mpg and low-polluting hybrid and other clean cars of the future. This transition is painful, but vital for Chicago’s and Illinois’ economic future.
    This city is also the natural hub of a Midwest high-speed rail network that can connect the 11 major cities within a 400-mile radius and the mid-sized cities in between. Modern, fast, comfortable and convenient trains can work for the Midwest as Metroliner and Acela do on the East Coast.
   
Midwest high-speed rail development is good for bringing together our regional economy, good for job creation and good for the environment by reducing pollution and counteracting sprawl. It will pull jobs, people and business into Chicago’s downtown, which is the biggest regional winner. The Chicago Federation of Labor, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Environmental Law & Policy Center are on board and working together. Let’s get high-speed rail going.
    Chicago stepped up early to be a green city. However, other cities and states are moving rapidly to compete. Let’s seize the strategic opportunities and Chicago’s competitive advantages to be a world leader and center of the growing green economy of the future.

Published: April 06, 2008
Issue: 2008 Spring Green Issue