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
“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
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
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
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
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