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Set No Little Goals

When green was the new black

By ROBBIE HARRIS
   Optimistic? Maybe. But at the turn of the century, before the economic bubble had fully formed, a bold pledge by Chicago to cut conventional energy use by 20 percent and replace it with renewable energy by the year 2010 seemed like a winning goal. .....Mayor Richard Daley was among a small number of political leaders scattered across the country who were promoting renewable portfolio standards; a certain percentage of energy was to come from renewable sources. A decade later, a ripple has become a wave of new goals for clean, renewable energy production in thousands of cities, the majority of states, leading municipalities and Indian Reservations in the United States.
   Most of the standards that have been adopted around the country do not carry the force of law, making them goals rather than legal requirements.
   “There are all these state and federal programs,” says Chicago Department of Environment Commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna. “There are the regulatory requirements for the utilities. How do you bring them all together into one package and manage that package for those who want to take advantage of it? As a region, as a state and really as a nation, I don’t think it’s as much about resources as it is about aligning the resources and then leveraging them with private investment.”
   Chicago was early out of the gate on setting goals, but states and cities on both coasts are outpacing the Midwest. Energy costs have historically been lower here, making the higher upfront costs of renewable energy non-competitive. In the world of renewable electricity, it’s called “grid parity.”
   “When you achieve grid parity, renewables cost no more and no less than whatever (conventional energy) is dispatched from the grid,” says Mike Johnson, who previously managed the Chicago Department of Environment's climate change and renewable energy initiatives and now heads Recolo, a Chicago-based sustainability and renewable energy consultancy.
   Commissioner Malec-McKenna says it’s the same situation with local landfill and water costs. “On the East and West Coast, it’s easier to make the economic argument than it is here,” she says.
  Not only are energy costs higher in places like California, New Jersey and Hawaii, but incentives for going green are also richer. “Incentives help to bring down the first cost, which is very important with renewables since as much as 90 percent of the investment can come on the front end,” Johnson says.
   The goal of cutting conventional energy use in Chicago, announced nearly a decade ago, was about energy use by the city itself, not local consumers. It was also about the notion of a leader being visionary—the idea that it is the executive’s job to plant the flag and point the way. If there are no good roads or bridges, the path will no doubt differ from the plan.
   Commissioner Malec-McKenna believes there are many paths to Chicago’s green city of the future. To judge from her schedule and her energy level, she seems to be considering all of them. “That is a part of the strategy,” she says. One thing that many in the new green industry agree on is that no one knows exactly how this will shake out. “We have broadened our approach. Don’t forget the technology is constantly changing.”
   Malec-Mckenna’s Department of the Environment has been working off short and long term plans with benchmarks. A study of current measures already begun by the city is underway, and the data being crunched while the city and hundreds of others wait for the market for renewable energy to mature.
   This city of markets is home to the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX). It trades in (CFIs) carbon financial instruments “a voluntary but legally binding program for governments, companies, cities, states and universities to reduce their emissions levels.” It also trades in (RECs) renewable energy credits, certificates that represent the production of clean energy. CCX was a cornerstone of Chicago’s goal to go green by 2010.
   While the fate of carbon trade up in the air, Chicago’s real time workhorse is its Climate Action Plan. One of it’s efforts is a push to retro-fit old construction to meet new standards for energy efficiency. It focuses on buildings because they create the large majority of emissions in cities, creating “heat islands,” which in turn, consume more energy.
   The city’s Energy Action Network, a coalition of community organizations, utility companies and not-for-profit groups working together on an “overall strategy to reduce energy consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions.” Commissioner Malec-McKenna says EAN created 20 new jobs for local coordinators. One hundred and fifty three new bio-fuel filling stations will open around the city and the region. She says a regional approach is key to success. Communities around Chicago have adopted plans of their own. Some dovetail with city initiatives.
   The commissioner is leveraging cooperation among residents, the utilities, corporations, foundations, community groups, the U.S. Department of Energy and anyone else she can bring in. She knows there remains huge headroom for compliance with even the simplest moves to save energy and cut emissions in the city, the region and the country. “2010 isn’t over yet,” she says.

Published: April 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue