Given that Tuesday was Earth Day, let’s assess how Chicago has progressed on becoming a “green city” and Illinois as a “green state” while recognizing some key challenges moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. Let’s be proud of what we’ve accomplished and candid about some important environmental problems requiring solutions.
Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,568 megawatts today. A decade ago, who believed that Illinois would become fourth in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 13 major wind power corporate headquarters?
Challenge: What will it take to get Illinois policymakers to finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard — which helps drive wind power development — to make it work well to advance Chicago’s and Illinois’ national leadership in the restructured electricity market?
Solar Energy can be our next boom. Chicago has been advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Meanwhile, solar panel efficiencies are steadily improving — think smart phones, digital cameras and computer speeds — and becoming economically competitive. Solar energy is truly a disruptive technology and when combined with battery technology improvements can be a “killer app” for residential rooftops, industrial buildings’ spacious flat roofs and conversions of “brownfields to brightfields” in Chicago.
Challenge: Can Argonne National Labs’ engineers and scientists achieve their goal of batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost in five years? That’s a game changer.
Energy Efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Chicago’s local economy. Commonwealth Edison forecasts that electricity demand declines (-0.2 percent) while the Chicago regional economy grows (2.3 percent) in 2014. Chicago’s economy is growing while electricity use is declining through more energy efficient appliances, cooling and heating equipment, lighting, pumps and motors and other technologies.
Challenge: Let’s make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits.
Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region’s global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama administration’s investment of $1.6 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities and restoring wetlands and habitat.
Challenge: Let’s better protect the Great Lakes from threats and perils of oil refinery spills, oil pipeline leaks, coal ash dumping from coal plants and the S.S. Badger, nuclear plants, marine terminals and other facilities on the shoreline. We cannot afford a BP Gulf of Mexico-type disaster in Lake Michigan.
Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting 14 major metropolitan areas and the mid-sized cities in-between. Amtrak is achieving record-high ridership between Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis. New railcars being assembled in Rochelle, Ill., will soon run on Midwest tracks. Modern higher-speed passenger rail development will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs and spur regional economic growth.
Challenge: Modernizing Union Station so that it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with the CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development. Let’s accelerate high-speed rail development here.
Public Transit: I’ve been a Red Line rider for years. Chicago is looking to both innovative financing and new transportation approaches, including Bus Rapid Transit and Divvy bikes, in addition to upgrading the aging Red Line and other transit lines. Chicagoans are driving less with fewer cars, but Chicago can’t be a greener “city that works” unless the CTA is modernized.
Challenge: Let’s face it — no good public transit, no green city. Chicago’s public transit system must become faster and provide improved, more efficient passenger services.
Clean air, clean water, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Chicagoans. Let’s be proud of our accomplishments and progress, and let’s seize opportunities to advance a cleaner, greener and safer community for all.
Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest’s leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization. www.elpc.org.