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By Matt Baker
In 2015, Illinois added 11 MW of solar power production, which was a 75% increase over the previous year. While this growth is encouraging, the state remains middle-of-the-pack for overall capacity, ranking 27th in the nation. So what can be done to encourage more solar panel installation?
Part of the answer may be shared renewables. These projects allow multiple energy customers to pool their resources into a small—though still utility-size—renewable energy source. Each household or business then receives a share of the output, offsetting the power they pull down from the grid.
When speaking specifically of solar power generation, these projects are often referred to as “community solar.” A community solar farm is a collection of solar panels installed most often on public or jointly-owned property. They are usually ground-mounted, though they can be affixed on a roofscape under certain conditions.
There are various models for a community solar co-op. Some utilities offer on-bill crediting, wherein residents and businesses buy one or more shares of a renewable farm and receive a credit on their energy bill. Under another model, some utilities allow customers to purchase a set amount of electricity at a fixed rate from a shared facility for a long, multi-year term. Utilities aren’t a prerequisite partner, however; community members can form a special purpose entity to develop a community solar project.
Despite the dropping cost of solar, it remains a cost-prohibitive project for many small businesses and homeowners. But there are other factors that would impel individuals from taking part in a community solar project, aside from cost. Renters and condominium owners don’t have domain over their roof and therefore can’t install solar panels. Even for property owners, the roof may be in the shade or oriented in a way that is not optimal for solar power harvesting. Even if a commercial building avoids those obstacles, it might be exempt because of mechanical equipment occupying too much of the roof real estate.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are more than 90 community solar projects up and running across 25 states. There is only one operation in Illinois, in the northwestern community of Elizabeth. The South View Solar Farm is operated by Jo-Carroll Energy, a member of the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives alliance.
Constructed in 2014, South View Solar Farm occupies three-quarters of an acre in Jo Daviess County. The array consists of 456 solar panels and has a capacity of over 125 kW. Subscribers purchased a minimum of one panel for $890, and each panel has a capacity of 275 watts. Subscribers receive around $50 per year per panel in utility credits, with an estimated return on investment of about 18 years.
Mapping Cook County
Thanks to a new, interactive map developed by the Cook County Department of Environmental Control and non-profit organization Elevate Energy, the potential for community solar in the Chicago region can now easily be ascertained. The parcel-level map allows users to do more than search the county by address; filters can fine-tune the information by property type, solar power potential, roof type and municipality or Chicago neighborhood.
Every viable site provides an estimate of the annual electricity generation that a solar array could provide if installed there. As alternative metrics, the site breaks it down to the number of homes an installation could power per year and the carbon offset in tons CO2 emissions.
“I think this project demonstrates the opportunity [for] all the various stakeholders—utilities, local government, developers, community planners and community members themselves—to begin to visualize what their role in a future solar economy might look like,” said Anne Evens, CEO of Elevate Energy.
After gathering the data, it became clear that only a quarter of Cook County households can viably install solar panels. Myriad reasons prevent the majority from doing so. Some rooftops are in the shade of other structures or face to the north. Many residents live in a multi-housing unit where they don’t own the roof or lack the financial means to front a solar installation.
In recognition of this, the Cook County Community Solar Portal is more than a map. It also provides business models, case studies, educational resources and other information on community solar. “The solar developers will tell you that the larger the better. But we’re looking at sites as small as 25 kW,” said Deborah Stone, Director of the Cook County Department of Environmental Control. “That size diversity is what’s going to help community solar succeed in Cook County.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has committed to reducing the County’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by the year 2050. As solar energy would be a critical way of reaching this goal, finding ways to engage all county residents in taking part is significant.
The Cook County Community Solar Portal was made possible with support from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust. Elevate Energy developed the online resource in partnership with the Cook County Department of Environmental Control, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. The community solar site is part of a larger effort to introduce and accelerate community solar installations in the region, a project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.
By Matt Baker
By all accounts, John Graves Shedd was a successful businessman of his day; Marshall Field called him “the best merchant in the United States.” He was also a philanthropist and civic leader, donating to schools, hospitals and libraries. But the one reason that today his name is known to every Chicagoan is that it is etched in marble on what is perhaps his greatest gift, the Shedd Aquarium.
By Kelli Foy
Those of us living in the Great Lakes region might take it for granted, but water conservation is an important part of creating a secure environment. A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report boasts some good news on this front for sustainability experts.
By Matt Baker
Greenwashers. They are the ones telling you that their product is sustainable and never mind about backing those claims up. You might be annoyed to discover that you’ve wasted your money on paper towels or a floor cleaner that claimed to be green but wasn’t. Now imagine that the product bathed in greenwashing isn’t some $5 cleaning product but a piece of real estate.
by Colin Rohlfing, LEED AP BD+C
Sustainable Director at HOK
Chicago is at a tipping point. The Retrofit Chicago program is in full-swing, “Sustainable Chicago 2015” has established a pathway forward for the city that emphasizes energy efficiency in the built environment and the Chicago Energy Disclosure Ordinance has been approved for implementation.
These initiatives have already decreased
energy use in the City of Chicago and will continue to do so in the near future. However, significant reduction in energy cannot be solely achieved with “behind the scenes” building system upgrades. Sustainable principles and initiatives must be implemented and championed by building occupants from multiple stakeholder groups. The Chicago Green Office Challenge has taken efficiency to this next level; but unlocking the sustainable “power of people” is a deliberate and intricate process.
By Melissa Ulbricht
More than 40% of total U.S. energy consumption comes from the buildings sector, which includes single and multifamily residences and commercial buildings. This is more than any other sector, such as industry and transportation. Here in Chicago, energy use in buildings is nearly 70% of total energy consumption. Older housing stock combined with extreme weather conditions—from long, cold winters to shorter, hot summers—makes homes in this region very energy intensive.
By Clarence P. Denning
Pay any attention to green building trends and you’ll hear an oft-cited number: 40%. That’s the share of U.S. energy consumption taken by buildings. The picture is bigger than that, however, and little of it is rosy.
In 1980, buildings accounted for not quite 33%, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Back then, the energy-intensive industry sector accounted for more at over 41%. By 2010, those figures had nearly swapped; industry had shrunk to under 31% while buildings now consumed over 41%.
Residential buildings have always accounted for a larger portion than commercial buildings, but the latter have grown much faster over that time period. Residential structures grew from 20.1% of the total U.S. energy portfolio in 1980 to 22.5%. Over those thirty years, commercial buildings grew from 13.5% to 18.6%. The DOE predicts that to jump to 20% by 2035. In a dense, urban area like Chicago, structures account for about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly 40% coming from commercial buildings.
Clearly, steps need to be taken to abate this growth. In 2009, the City of Chicago created a program to address commercial energy use, in coordination with Local Governments for Sustainability (known as ICLEI after their former title, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives).
The Green Office Challenge is a friendly competition among office tenants to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The Challenge not only offers an opportunity for Chicago businesses and property managers to gain recognition for their green achievements, they can save energy, save money and gain a competitive advantage in green innovations.
More than 100 property owners and office tenants participated in the first year, including Jones Lang LaSalle, the Merchandise Mart, Transwestern Corporation, Office Depot and Microsoft. Office tenants are evaluated through a “green office scorecard” based on 50 green strategies that are related to five key office-related sectors: waste, energy, transportation, outreach and tenant engagement. Property managers can implement behavioral changes and capital improvements to reach those goals, and all are encouraged to use Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager to track the data.
Nearly 150 property managers and tenant companies located in Chicago’s downtown business district took part in the Green Office Challenge last year. Combined, they saved $17.5 million in energy costs and reduced energy use by 124 million kWh, the equivalent to the energy used by 45,000 homes. These efforts averted the emission of more than 85,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
“Chicago’s efforts in sustainability have created economic opportunity throughout our neighborhoods and dramatically improved the overall quality of life for residents,” said Mayor Emanuel. “The Green Office Challenge is a great example of the private sector working with government to reduce costs and create jobs while protecting the environment.”
Participants worked to set and achieve specific green goals, supported primarily through monthly training events, use of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager and other tools. It is because of these efforts, for example, that participants were able to divert 43% of their waste from landfills.
Round three, which launched in February, is a collaboration between the city and various partners, including non-profit Delta Institute, technology start-up GreenPoint Partners and sponsor Office Depot. This round will run through 2013 and suggests activities that employees and building managers can undertake to green their business practices. The competition has previously been focused on office buildings and tenants in the Loop, but this round will expand to those not just in the central business district but across the city and even the suburbs.
Mayor Emanuel’s environmental action agenda, Sustainable Chicago 2015, sets a target of doubling participation and impact in round three, as part of a larger goal to accelerate the economy through sustainability.
Aside from opening up the program to the full extent of the Chicago area, the key to the future success of this version is competition. “In Chicago, we like to compete and we like to win. And we love to win on sustainability,” said Karen Weigert, the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, at the February launch party. “We want Chicago to be the most sustainable, competitive, livable city in the world.”
Last summer, ICLEI released the Green Business Challenge App, a customizable web application that now allows any municipality to launch a friendly competition among its business community to save money, energy, water and waste. Based on the success of Chicago’s Green Business Challenge, nearly a dozen cities and counties have also launched similar programs, including Houston, Charleston and Arlington County.
Houston Green Office Challenge participants reduced energy use by 28 million kilowatt hours, water use by 74 million gallons, and diverted 40% of their waste from landfills, in addition to many other achievements like adding bicycle parking, implementing flex time and telecommuting policies. The secret to the Green Business Challenge program’s success is twofold: fun and friendly competition, and media recognition for the businesses’ green achievements.
The web app allows any local government to launch a Green Business Challenge program in weeks, not months, and to administer it with fewer staff and less money. Participants access the app through the local government’s website, and use it to register, take a baseline survey, browse a library of tips and resources, update their achievements, view a scorecard that tracks their progress toward goals, read customized suggestions for ways to increase their score and operate a carbon calculator. Program administrators can use the tool to customize the pr-ogram, view reports on participants’ progress and maintain engagement with mass emails.
By Matt Baker
“You don’t run up Mt. Everest,” Ed Begley Jr. likes to say when encouraging people to live as sustainably as they are able, not as they feel that they must. “You get to base camp and you get acclimated. Then you climb only has high as you can.”
By Jon SedeyWhat would you do if major utility companies like Nicor, ComEd and Peoples Gas would pay you to change your energy consumption habits? If you knew you could get free money out of these companies, would you modify your behavior now, to fix things today? The obvious answer is yes, you would change. And in a depressed economy where contractors, builders and homeowners are seeking alternative methods to save money and spend less on everything, more utility providers are making free and easy money a reality.
If you are one of the quarter-million people expected to attend Lollapalooza this weekend, the three-day festival will feature more than just music acts. This year, fans will have a chance to engage with the Prius Playground, an energy-generating activity center on the concert grounds.