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Posts from — November 2012

The Vision: Harness Renewable Energy (Part 2)

I recently toured several energy generation facilities on the South Side of Chicago with the Southeast Environmental Task Force. Two sites in particular — Waste Management’s gas to electricity facility to Exelon’s Solar City facility – suggested the diversity and complexity of clean, renewable energy in Chicago.

Exelon Solar City in Chicago, Scott Olson/Getty Images

Exelon’s Solar City facility, built and operated by San Jose-based Sunpower, generates 10 mW on a 41-acre site. Peggy Salazar of the Southeast Environmental Task Force raised the question of whether large-scale solar farms are an effective use of land in Chicago, when the same number of panels could be installed on existing buildings. Sunpower’s site engineered explained to us that there are some advantages to a large solar farm. For example, the panels are on a tracking system that boosts their production by 25 percent.

Solar City, privately funded, should not preclude installations on homes and commercial buildings. Its capacity is small compared to the total electricity demand in Chicago, and but the facility leverages an asset – vacant land – that wasn’t suitable for other uses. Since its commissioning in 2010, the panels have sent 19,000 kWh to the grid.

At the Waste Management facility on 130th Street, I learned that WM’s landfill gas-to-energy facilities generate more electricity than the entire solar industry in the U.S. Landfill gas is the methane released from capped landfills; if it’s not captured to generate electricity, it must be burned off anyway. Landfill gas isn’t most people think of as renewable resource, but the facility harnesses a fuel source that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and produced electricity with no emissions.

The system has been running since 1989, and WM expects the landfill will continue to release the methane that can fuel the system for six to 10 more years. It began with three turbines, which are similar to jet engines, and now its single turbine generates 3.2 kW per hour. With other resources such as natural gas low in price, the operator of WM’s system says it is no longer profitable to operate the turbines.

Although neither Solar City nor landfill gas-to-energy can be scaled to meet Chicago’s entire energy demand, they demonstrate the potential to diversify electricity generation here. Both sites leverage assets – vacant land and landfills – as new opportunities for renewable energy.

Rachel Belanger is a researcher in SOM’s City Design Practice and is located in Chicago.

November 21, 2012   Comments Off

The Vision: Harness Renewable Energy (Part 1)

The Great Lakes Century Vision calls for the region to tap renewable energy opportunities. As of 2011, the majority of the region’s electricity generation capacity remained at fossil-fuel facilities: 39 percent coal, 29 percent gas and 4 percent oil. Power generation is linked to many issues facing the Great Lakes, since these power plants release mercury and other pollutants into t he local environment. In addition, carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels contributes to global climate change.

The region is beginning to transition to more sustainable energy sources, and 2012 has brought several milestones. In March, the Obama administration signed an agreement with five Great Lakes states –  Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York – to streamline the process of developing wind projects. In addition, the Lake Erie Offshore Wind Project is moving forward with its first phase, a 20-30 mW installation. Renew Wisconsin announced last week that the state’s electricity providers have the supplies to meet the state’s target of 10 percent renewable energy generation by 2015.

Great Lakes Century Vision Principle 5
Great Lakes Century Vision Principle: Tapping Renewable Energy

Chicago’s energy generation landscape has undergone some major shifts this year as well. In August, Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, Crawford and Fisk, closed permanently. Environmental activists and community organizations celebrated when the plants closed, which a previous agreement had slated for 2018. Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center commented in the Chicago Tribune,

This marks a turning point from Chicago’s reliance on two highly polluting coal plants that use fuel from out of state to a cleaner energy future that’s less polluting and uses more Illinois wind and other clean resources.

In the summer of 2012, Chicago activists also celebrated when New York-based Leucadia National Corporation abandoned its proposal for a coal gasification plant. Although the project was billed as clean energy, environmental and community groups protested the use of coal in an already heavily-polluted area of Chicago. The site, near 115th Street on the Calumet River, is amidst residential neighborhoods as well as massive piles of raw goods: coal, asphalt, petroleum coke, scrap metal and other sands and gravel.

Moving away from coal has significant benefits for our local air and water quality, but like many Great Lakes cities, Chicago remains dependent on fossil fuels. Natural gas prices are at all-time low, helping to making gas-burning facilities more economical than coal ones. The natural gas Southeast Chicago Energy Project came online in 2002, and Exelon claims it is one of the cleanest, most efficient, modern power plants in the U.S.

Even with natural gas growing in popularity, the move away from coal is promising for the health of Lake Michigan ecosystems and the health of our residents.

Rachel Belanger is a researcher in SOM’s City Design Practice and is located in Chicago.

November 19, 2012   Comments Off