Southeast Chicago residents take petcoke fight to the streets

Residents of Chicago's Southeast Side strategize about fighting petcoke at a meeting April 15. (Photo courtesy Lloyd DeGrane)

Residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side strategize about fighting petcoke at a meeting April 15. (Photo courtesy Lloyd DeGrane)

Feeling that elected officials have betrayed them in the battle over piles of petroleum coke on the Southeast Side of Chicago, residents have vowed to take the fight to the streets and into their own hands.

In unseasonably frigid temperatures at a local park Tuesday evening, they discussed a march planned for April 26, ongoing protests and the idea of boycotting BP, whose Whiting, Indiana refinery is the source of the “petcoke” piling up along the Calumet River.

Activism by local residents catapulted the petcoke piles into national prominence last fall, with Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, local Alderman John Pope and other elected officials promising to crack down on petcoke storage by companies including Koch Industries subsidiary KCBX.

In February, Emanuel and Pope announced an ordinance that would have prevented the expansion of petcoke storage and imposed requirements on existing piles.

To improve efficiency, cities collaborate — and compete

Chicago is among ten cities participating in the City Energy Project. (Photo by Edward Stojakovic via Creative Commons)

Chicago is among ten cities participating in the City Energy Project. (Photo by Edward Stojakovic via Creative Commons)

Advocates in Chicago want their city to be the most energy efficient in the nation. But they’ll need a little help to get there.

The city is part of a national effort to cut energy bills by as much as $1 billion nationwide and achieve emissions reductions equivalent to taking a million cars off the road.

The City Energy Project, launched in January, brings together ten U.S. cities in reducing emissions by increasing efficiency at large buildings. A joint effort of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Institute for Market Transformation, it is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Kresge Foundation.

(The NRDC is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.)

The new project builds on energy efficiency programs that each city already has underway or in the works, by funding a full-time consultant in each city, supporting outreach and education and also facilitating interaction between the cities to share best practices and ideas. As part of the project each city will draft a comprehensive energy efficiency strategy and plan.

The other participating cities are Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City. Laurie Kerr, director of the City Energy Project for the NRDC, said that in the future it could be expanded to involve more participants.

“There are a lot of models out there – we’ll be helping walk some of the cities through the options,” said Kerr. “There are a mixture of options cities are looking at – some are ordinances, some are policies or programs, ways of providing financing, working with a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program or creating an energy efficiency financing entity.

“The idea is that in order to make large-scale change in how buildings use energy, there’s not a silver bullet,” Kerr added. “You need financing, help with leasing, some sort of information about how buildings use energy.”

Kerr said the project aims to create ongoing dialogue between cities, so city experts can ask each questions about what’s working and what isn’t.

The consultant in each city is subsidized for a relatively lengthy three-year period since, Kerr said, “these policies take a long time to implement well. We’re not just there when they adopt it.”

Most cities are still in the process of hiring the consultants, which would typically be local experts already working in the field.

The project will also provide funding for city officials to work with local non-profits – like U.S. Green Building Council chapters or chambers of commerce – to do outreach and education about energy efficiency in buildings.

Large buildings – including private businesses or residential high rises, government offices, hospitals, universities and museums — are considered major contributors to climate change. They use vast amounts of energy and are often highly inefficient, both in terms of structural components and practices like unnecessary use of heat, air or lights.

A press release from the City Energy Project notes:

“Buildings are the largest single source of U.S. carbon emissions, representing 40 percent nationwide – more than either the transportation or industrial sectors. That number is even more dramatic at the city level, with more than half of carbon emissions in most U.S. cities coming from buildings – and in some cities as much as 75 percent. Much of the energy these buildings use, however, is wasted.”

Chicago sets a high bar

Rebecca Stanfield, policy deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Midwest program, said Chicago aims to lead the nation in energy efficiency of buildings.

The City Energy Project will dovetail with Retrofit Chicago, a public-private energy efficiency program launched in 2012 with commercial, residential and municipal building components.

Stanfield said a few other cities, including San Francisco, Seattle and New York, are “a little bit ahead of Chicago” in energy efficiency at the moment, but Chicago leaders aim to “leapfrog over other cities.”

“Our goal is to be the most efficient in the nation, to have New York and Seattle asking, ‘How do you do that?’” said Stanfield, adding that the City Energy Project could “put Chicago head and shoulders above other cities” on building efficiency.

Kerr noted that getting information on how much energy buildings are using is critical, and Chicago’s benchmarking ordinance is a good model in doing that.

Adopted in September 2013, the ordinance requires all buildings over 50,000 square feet to track and report their energy use, with verification by a third party. New York – where buildings account for about 80 percent of the carbon footprint — instituted an ambitious energy efficiency and benchmarking plan for buildings in 2009.

“Chicago is one of the earlier ones out of the gate,” said Kerr. “Chicago has passed its [benchmarking] ordinance and is working to implement it; most of these cities have not done anything like that yet. Other cities might have done more with, say, energy code compliance or improving the efficiency of their municipal building stock. There are different strategies. No city is the complete leader on everything.”

Stanfield noted that while some buildings will “never be in that top leadership class,” increased awareness and transparency about efficiency will push even the laggards to a higher level.

“With policies like benchmarking you have the potential to bring all the rest of the buildings up to a minimum standard,” she said. “For the first time ever, people will be able to make decisions about which building to lease office space in based on energy efficiency.”

Stanfield said Chicago leaders hope the City Energy Project can help them expand the Retrofit program and also increase the number of building operators seeking energy efficiency certification – another city initiative.

“Most building operators are not trained to manage energy use, and they’re not rewarded financially or otherwise on the basis of how well they manage building energy use,” Stanfield said. “Having someone in the building continuously looking for opportunities to make it more efficient can be a huge driver of improvement.”

Stanfield said data showing Retrofit’s progress should be available soon, and that the program is on track to make 20 percent energy use reductions in five years.

A ‘hub’ for other cities

Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer of Kansas City, Missouri, doesn’t mind admitting that Chicago is ahead on the energy efficiency front. But he said the City Energy Project is helping local leaders learn from Chicago and otherwise step up their game, augmenting efficiency initiatives that are already ongoing.

“We have very high expectations of what we’re going to be able to do over the next three years that will affect us for decades to come,” said Murphey, noting that local efficiency advocates also look to Philadelphia as an example. “It will have a huge impact if we make this as successful as we hope in ten cities. It will be a hub to push it out to other cities in the region, like Tulsa, Des Moines, Oklahoma City.”

Murphey noted that reducing energy use is especially important in a place like Kansas City that gets most of its energy – about 75 percent – from coal-fired power. That means cutting energy use more directly drives carbon emissions reductions than in cities that get more power from hydro, wind or natural gas.

Buildings account for about 50 percent of energy use in Kansas City, according to officials, who say that by 2030 the ripple effects of the City Energy Project will save ratepayers $55 million. Murphey said Kansas City’s 550 largest buildings, which are the focus of the City Energy Project, make up about half the city’s floor space.

City Energy Project funding has already been used to hire a part-time staffer who had been working on efficiency issues through the Chamber of Commerce, Murphey noted, and they are in the process of hiring a full-time efficiency expert. The city is tracking project progress on a blog.

Among other things, Murphey said Kansas City leaders will leverage the City Energy Project to push for state legislation that gives utilities more motivation to increase energy efficiency, “to make it possible for a utility to be a real partner with us.”

Kansas City already has important successes to point to. The city council passed an ordinance giving developers access to PACE funding. And they’ve renovated City Hall — a 29-story, World War II-era building — to obtain a top efficiency rating. City leaders are also working with the Missouri Clean Energy District, an entity authorized by 2010 state legislation that works with counties and municipalities on PACE and other clean energy initiatives.

“We intend to do a lot of education and outreach to make the business case to building owners who have not already made improvements,” Murphey said. “We’ll help them identify financial resources and service providers…And we’re having early adopters make the case so it’s not just the city or the NRDC telling the story.”

Study: Michigan could expand renewable energy at low cost

A wind turbine near Alma, Michigan. (Photo by Corey Seeman via Creative Commons)

A wind turbine near Alma, Michigan. (Photo by Corey Seeman via Creative Commons)

With Michigan’s renewable energy standard set to expire at the end of 2015, and a high-profile fight over the standard in 2012 still fresh in many minds, debate has swirled about the costs and benefits of renewing or strengthening the law.

Amid the discussion, a recent study finds that Michigan could more than triple its renewable energy resources by 2030, with virtually no extra cost to consumers

Michigan’s current Renewable Energy Standard (RES) – created by a 2008 law – is among the least ambitious in the country. It requires just 10 percent of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2015.

That compares to Illinois and Minnesota standards that call for 25 percent by 2025; a number of states calling for 20 percent by 2020; and on the high end, a New York standard of 29 percent by 2015 and California’s 33 percent by 2020.

Increasing Michigan’s standard to more than 30 percent is not only feasible, according to the March 12 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, but would result in only a 0.3 percent increase for ratepayers over 15 years.

myPower: Energy for those on the run

The myPower device uses motion from walking to charge a smartphone or other device. (courtesy photo)

The myPower device uses motion from walking to charge a smartphone or other device. (courtesy photo)

Part four of a four-part series

On April 3, startup companies will duke it out during the Clean Energy Challenge for $500,000 in prize money and the chance to attract new investors and partners. Here is the last of Midwest Energy Newsseries of profiles of four finalists.

Running with myPower

It’s a common dilemma for young urban professionals and students: they’re on the move all day, and constantly on their smartphones. As evening sets in, their active work life shifts to an active social life. But that’s often right when those omnipresent phones run out of battery power, cutting them off from friends and updates.

Chicago entrepreneur Tejas Shastry and his colleagues say they have a solution in myPower: a sleek, wearable device that harnesses kinetic energy from a workout or simply a busy day of dashing around, providing enough energy to charge a smart phone for up to five hours.

Startup says it has a better way to convert waste to energy

Equare says its waste-to-energy technology can convert cattle manure and other sources into energy with zero emissions. (Photo by NDSU Ag Communications via Creative Commons)

Equare says its waste-to-energy technology can convert cattle manure and other sources into energy with zero emissions. (Photo by NDSU Ag Communications via Creative Commons)

Part three of a four-part series

On April 3, startup companies will duke it out during the Clean Energy Challenge for $500,000 in prize money and the chance to attract new investors and partners. Here is the third of Midwest Energy Newsseries of profiles of four finalists.

Nothing wasted with Equares: Early stage company

Equares Energy Company turns one of the most noxious and despised types of waste – manure from concentrated animal operations like dairies and feedlots – into power, without producing any emissions.

A contraption called the CleanStream Reformer 140 heats waste to a point that it breaks down into hydrogen-rich syngas, which is then fed into a fuel cell that makes electricity in a non-combustion process.

The heat from the process can also be harnessed for onsite use, such as drying grain or warming an incubator for baby animals.

MeterHero helps customers take control of their energy use

McGee Young

McGee Young

Part two of a four part series.

On April 3, startup companies will duke it out during the Clean Energy Challenge for $500,000 in prize money and the chance to attract new investors and partners. Here is the second of Midwest Energy Newsseries of profiles of four finalists.

Saved by MeterHero

A few years ago, Milwaukee resident McGee Young realized that even as a college professor with advanced degrees, he could not read his water bill. His usage was listed in cubic feet – “you could not get a worse way to communicate that to a regular person.”

This sparked Young about two years ago to develop a product, H2Oscore, that gives people real-time, accessible information about their water use and how it compares to other local homes. About three quarters of people who used the program reduced their water usage, Young’s team found.

“It’s getting more and more important from an ecological and pocketbook perspective to manage our water more effectively,” Young said. “For us that started with better information.”

Chicago start-up aims to cut diesel pollution in Nigeria

The majority of businesses in Nigeria use diesel or gasoline-powered generators for electricity. (Photo by Wayan Vota via Creative Commons)

The majority of businesses in Nigeria use diesel or gasoline-powered generators for electricity. (Photo by Wayan Vota via Creative Commons)

Part one of a four-part series

Startup companies that store and generate energy, save water, turn indecipherable energy data into usable information and fill a host of other clean energy-related missions will compete for $500,000 in prize money — as well as court investors and mentors — at the Clean Energy Challenge in Chicago on April 3.

The event, hosted annually by the Clean Energy Trust, brings together startups in several categories to make rapid-fire presentations to judges, investors and other interested parties, after working for weeks with mentors as part of the ongoing clean energy startup accelerator program.

Since launching in 2010, the event has helped participants obtain $40 million in follow-up funding, according to the Trust, and connected startups with a network of several hundred industry partners.

Midwest Energy News is a media sponsor for this year’s event.

Clean Energy Trust president Amy Francetic said that this year’s crop of entrants were heavy on battery and energy storage technology, on different scales and in various creative forms.

“This year we have seen what I would call a lot of innovation and some maturing technology in storage and micro-grid,” said Francetic, adding that “folks are doing unusual and inventive things with storage.”

Coal strip-mining fight heats up in southern Illinois

Opponents of the Rocky Branch strip mine in Illinois block logging equipment on a nearby road. (Photo by Jeff Lucas via Creative Commons)

Opponents of the Rocky Branch strip mine in Illinois block logging equipment on a nearby road. (Photo by Jeff Lucas via Creative Commons)

On March 13, a handful of local residents blocked a road through the forest in southern Illinois and attempted to prevent a contractor for Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, from bringing in logging equipment to clear the area for a new 1,000-acre mine.

The Rocky Branch strip mine would basically be an extension of Peabody’s existing Cottage Grove mine, which produces about two million tons of coal annually and supplies Tennessee Valley Authority power plants in Ohio.

Logging had already started before the residents blocked the road; and continued during and since the blockade, which lasted for about four hours. Nonetheless, residents said they prevented some equipment from being moved and made a strong statement against the mine.

Residents opposed to the mine are demanding Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan intervene and review the permit process surrounding Rocky Branch, and order Peabody to halt its logging operations in the meantime.

The case may also represent a broader shift in attitude in a part of Illinois that has long acquiesced to the coal industry.

Study: Clean energy sector remains strong in Illinois

A wind farm under construction in McLean County, Illinois, in 2007. (Photo by Samdogs via Creative Commons)

A wind farm under construction in McLean County, Illinois, in 2007. (Photo by Samdogs via Creative Commons)

Almost 100,000 Illinois workers are employed in clean energy jobs, more than the state’s real estate and accounting sectors combined, according to a new survey.

The Clean Jobs Illinois report, released today by the Clean Energy Trust in partnership with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Entrepreneurs, found 96,875 workers statewide spend some portion of their day supporting clean energy.

The survey used a “narrow” definition of qualifying jobs, defined as “only those workers who have clean energy jobs at organizations that are directly connected to the clean energy industry.”

More than a third of the jobs are in engineering, research, assembly and manufacturing.

“These are good jobs with good benefits, and they make Illinois’ economy more productive and competitive,” the report notes.

Who’s behind the effort to kill Indiana’s efficiency law?

indiana capitolA bill before Indiana Governor Mike Pence could end a state efficiency program that has led to significant energy savings in the past two years.

Clean energy and environmental groups, along with some major companies, are pleading with Pence to veto the bill, saying it would mean higher energy bills and jobs lost as demand drops for products from light bulbs to efficient appliances.

Advocates say the state’s efficiency program, Energizing Indiana, is a “win-win-win situation” for companies, consumers and the environment. The program was created by a December 2009 order from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and was implemented in 2012.

The bill passed by lawmakers this year actually started as a much narrower provision that would have allowed large industrial users to opt out of the energy efficiency program. Large manufacturers like steel mills have paid millions of dollars to support the efficiency program, while typical households are paying an extra $2 or $3 a month.