The City on Rahm's Shoulders: Chicago's Energy Economy

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The success of Mayor Richard Daley’s sustained campaign to make Chicago into a Global City has been an embrace of green policies to transform the city experience for residents and visitors alike. In Mayor Daley’s Green Agenda, Chicago’s environmental quality has not been marginal “decoration” or ideological posturing. Rather, it has been dedicated action to remake “The City That Works” into a place that works for quality of life. Cleaning up the City has been good for business by being good to residents. And as City Hall is transferred to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, many of the same green efforts remain central to Chicago’s globally competitive future. None has more riding on it than rebuilding and reforming the City’s energy sector.

The energy economy is essential to Chicago staying competitive---it is central to business productivity. Indeed, modernizing Chicago’s energy infrastructure and policies is essential to keeping businesses in the Loop and manufacturing in other parts of town. Aggressive improvement of energy efficiency in Chicago buildings is an economic necessity as well as critical to reliability of the system. And moving to a modern smart grid that allows delivery of energy when it is needed while cutting waste is essential to attract and retain a global business community in the city. The new Mayor has the opportunity to lead the entire region forward simply by rethinking policies within City operations, as well as in advocacy before the Illinois Commerce Commission and the State legislature.

But looming above all are the deadly, dirty, outmoded Fisk and Crawford coal plants, which are a threat to citizen health, to reliability of electrical service, and to the gains that the City has made in recent decades. The power that they generate is exported out of state (that’s right, we don’t use any of the electricity that creates the filth belched into Chicago’s skies) but the blight of their pollution is a severe liability for those of us who live and work in this town---and especially those in the dense communities that surround these technical anachronisms.

Why is that energy efficiency so important? Besides saving the City, businesses, and homeowners tons of cash? Well, we are always glad to talk about the energy saved by Illinois’ aggressive energy efficiency measures in terms of “Fisks averted.” That would be the Fisk Generating Station in the Pilsen neighborhood. Smart regional energy efficiency measures have offset the energy it produces about eight times over. I’ve written about the health and carbon threats from Fisk and Crawford before and while the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of lead pollution in the air around a nearby school does not explicitly finger Fisk, the coal plant cannot be helping the situation. The plants are universally reviled (aside from its owners with Midwest Generation who must love the century-old coal clunkers which are pure profit, undoubtedly motivating the company’s foot-dragging on installation of more modern pollution control technologies) and are targets of a growing percentage of the City Council which may soon advance an ordinance forcing the plants to clean up or close down. The health issues alone should have been enough, but the plants’ stranglehold on the town’s grid is a threat that we can no longer afford to ignore. Taking no action on these dirty relics is simply no longer an option if we want to retain the title Global City.

Twenty years ago, when the City Council passed an energy agreement to allow transmission and distribution lines to traverse the public way, engineering analyses by the utility and the City identified Fisk and Crawford as aging threats and choke points on the energy grid serving the City.  Much has changed to energy policy and infrastructure over the past twenty years. It is time for the public to know whether those threats have been alleviated, and the choke points addressed. 

Mayor Emanuel will have the opportunity to initiate public review of this question, and lead the City forward by assuring that the necessary work has been done to allow Fisk and Crawford to be closed and the pollution they dump daily on our communities to end.  It is a good place to start the new administration’s march to a renewed and clean energy economy.

And frankly, Chicago needs to march forward smartly and enthusiastically in this way, because other cities are not standing idly by.

Mayor Bloomberg recently announced that 10% of New York City’s billion+ dollar energy budget will be redirected towards retrofits of City-owned buildings. That is a ton of cash, but it makes perfect sense. The investment pays for itself by driving down the City’s energy costs while creating a lot of jobs doing all of the necessary construction, wiring, plumbing, and insulating. Jobs and taxpayer dollars saved. That is a big plan. One worth consideration here. A retrofit of all 500+ city-owned facilities in the coming decade could yield similar results. And, like NYC, bonds against future efficiencies can eliminate some of the burden on an already cash-strapped city.

Perhaps more importantly, a big City retrofit program can stimulate broad results in the local housing market. The Chicago Climate Action Plan includes an ambitious and potentially transformative goal of getting 50% of the area’s residential, commercial, and industrial properties to 30% efficiency by 2020. But the CCAP progress report released last summer says:

"energy usage in buildings is currently the source of 70% of emissions in Chicago, and 61% of emissions in the metropolitan area.   From 2008 through 2009, more than 13,000 homes and 390 businesses have been retrofitted—with an energy savings of at least 21 percent.  This is expected to increase to 30 percent energy efficiency by applying lessons learned from initial implementation to future years.”   

Efforts to green Chicago’s buildings are great in concept, but they are moving too slow to reach the goals. A strong message and the backing of City investment could be what the City needs to achieve those laudable goals while spurring job creation by putting local efficiency businesses and building trades on steroids (not literally...let's stay legal folks).

Thus---Mayor Emanuel has the opportunity to seize an economic, safety and health agenda for Chicago that starts with renewal of the energy system that is central to the future of the City, not mere excercise in aesthetics


Rahm Emanuel 4 image by afagen via Flickr