Chicago tries to be green-power leader

Within five years, the city aims for 20 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources.

The soul of this city is sketched in the unpretentious hues of work and industry - the rust brown of sprawling rail yards, the geometric black of the Sears Tower. Now, Mayor Richard Daley wants to add another, seemingly incongruous color: green.

Within five years, Chicago will buy 20 percent of the electricity it uses for streetlights, subways, and public buildings from clean sources such as wind and solar power, making the city the largest purchaser of green power in the country - aside from utility companies themselves.

Even as Washington lays out an opposite path for the rest of the nation, Mayor Daley wants to lessen this once-dingy hub's reliance on the sooty coal furnaces that pockmark the Midwest. What's more, he wants this to be a defining part of his plan to turn Chicago into the most environmentally friendly major city in America.

"It is groundbreaking in terms of its size," says Blair Swezey, principal policy adviser of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "Chicago being such a large city, it creates a model for other cities to follow."

Other cities - particularly in the West - have made sizable commitments to green power, but none rival the magnitude of the Chicago plan. Last month's pact includes not only Chicago, but also 48 suburbs, indicating that the desire for cleaner energy is not unilateral, but regionwide.

In addition, the amounts of green energy requested are enormous, compared with what has come before. Oakland, Calif., for example, gets 100 percent of its power from clean sources, mostly geothermal energy. But it needs only nine megawatts. (One megawatt powers about 1,000 California homes.)

By contrast, Chicago's 20 percent quota will demand 80 megawatts of green power. Currently, there aren't enough wind turbines or solar panels in the state to generate that much power. But that's the point, say city officials. In their agreement with power supplier Commonwealth Edison, they've demanded that all the power come from in-state to spur development here.

"We want to build a market [for green energy]," says William Abolt, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment.

Cutting a green profile has been a major element of the Daley administration. Around town, he's well known for his near-maniacal dedication to planting new trees. He even installed a garden on the roof of City Hall. One of his next orders of business is to shut down Meigs Field - a one-runway commuter airport on the lakefront - and turn it into a park.

City officials bristle, though, at the suggestion that the new energy plan is based more on eco-idealism than sound policy.

This current push for green energy in many ways began in 1998, when Chicago labored through a summer of blackouts. Diversifying energy sources, Mr. Abolt says, makes the city less dependent on any one technology.

Moreover, cleaner energy will bring tangible benefits to area businesses and health. "It costs our local industries more money to operate in Chicago than if they went to a place that didn't have a smog problem," says Abolt. "The best way to have industrial jobs is to have cleaner air."

In all, the city estimates, the new reliance on green power will remove 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year from the skies. It will come at a cost: The city now pays 6 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity; under the new agreement, that will rise by a quarter of a cent.

But those gains will be more than offset by programs to make city buildings more energy efficient, meaning that the city will pay less money overall for its electricity. Prices for alternative energy are also declining as technology improves.

Chicago is aiming for a mix, with half its green energy coming from sources such as windmills slated for northern Illinois and new solar facilities in town, and the other half coming from landfill methane.

It's a formula that pleases even the sometimes-skeptical environmental community, which agrees that Chicago has become an instant national leader on the issue.

"The most important next step is to transition quickly ... to energy provided by new wind power and new solar power," says Howard Learner, who heads of the Midwest Environmental Law and Policy Center here. "The sooner it happens, the better for the environment."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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