Tom Shepherd, a neighborhood activist, worries about piles of petcoke building up along the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
Community activists on Chicago’s Southeast Side are always on the lookout for signs of new pollution, dumping or other threats to the environment and quality of life in this heavily industrialized swath of the city.
In recent years community opposition helped torpedo proposals for a coal gasification plant, a police shooting range and new landfills.
So members of the Southeast Environmental Task Force were highly disturbed earlier this year when, on a boat trip to check out other potential pollution sources, they saw towering mounds of fine, jet-black material lining the banks of the Calumet River.
Coal, crushed limestone, slag from steel mills and other bulk materials have long been stored along the river, shipped in and out on barges. But these piles, they suspected, were petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” the byproduct of refining heavy tar sands oil.
In July piles of petcoke made bi-national headlines as dark clouds swirled over the Detroit River by the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada. That petcoke was from the Marathon Detroit Oil refinery, which has expanded to process tar sands oil.
In August, Southeast Chicago residents saw similar clouds themselves. One local resident posted a photo on Facebook after an August 30 wind storm, showing a billowing thick black haze.
(Photo by Reto Fetz via Creative Commons)
There’s an adage attributed to self-help author Robin Sharma that “what gets measured gets improved.”
That’s the concept behind an energy efficiency bench-marking ordinance being considered in Chicago, similar to ones adopted in at least seven other major cities. The ordinance would require about 3,500 large residential, commercial, and municipal buildings to measure and report their energy use annually, with the information made public by the second year.
There would be no requirements that buildings improve energy efficiency, but studies have shown that taking measurements would likely result in substantial investments and energy efficiency improvements.
State Line power plant. (Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Creative Commons)
A recent Environmental Protection Agency settlement seals the fate of a Chicago-area coal plant that’s already been shut down for more than a year, but residents will see additional benefits from other provisions.
The consent decree announced by the EPA April 1 mandates that Dominion Energy “permanently retire” the State Line power plant on the Illinois-Indiana border and install pollution controls on another coal-fired plant in Kincaid, central Illinois.
However, State Line has actually been closed since March 2012, because of competition from cheap natural gas and the impending cost of pollution controls required to meet new federal environmental regulations. There was never any indication it would reopen, and last summer it was sold to a Texas company that specializes in demolishing power plants.
But residents of northwest Indiana and the Chicago area should theoretically still see some improvement in local air quality, thanks to mitigation requirements in the consent decree that mandate Dominion fund investments to reduce diesel emissions from rail yards, trucks and buses in the Chicago area.
A rendering of a SkySpecs unmanned aircraft, which developers say can help with maintenance of wind turbines and other hard-to-reach places. (Photo via SkySpecs)
While the initial sheen of the clean tech industry may have worn off for investors, that’s not necessarily bad news.
At the Clean Energy Challenge last week in Chicago, experts including venture capitalist Ira Ehrenpreis and U.S. Department of Energy official Dr. David Danielson acknowledged the challenges and dropping investment clean tech has faced in the past year, due in part to the economy and political maneuvering.
But they indicated that while there is less giddiness over the sector, it is moving into a more mature phase that could result in important breakthroughs in batteries and other technology.
Heidi Lubin at networking session at the Industry Growth Forum in Denver in October. (Photo by NREL via Creative Commons)
Heidi Lubin has long been an avid outdoorswoman – she is a certified kayaking and skiing instructor — so she feels strongly about protecting the environment. And in 1999 she spent time in Nigeria with the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, seeing first-hand the violence and chaos that was in part fueled by the country’s oil resources.
These experiences and values are part of the road that has brought Lubin, at age 34, to be CEO of an award-winning start-up electric motor company.
The motors designed by Chicago-based Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies (HEVT) don’t use the rare earth metals that are a key component of most modern electric motors. While rare earth metals are not actually rare, their mining is concentrated in China (which provides 97 percent of the current world supply), and has caused serious social and environmental problems.
While much attention has been focused on the need to create better batteries to power electric vehicles, experts note that improved electric motors are also key.
The BP Whiting refinery looms over Marktown, a neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana surrounded on all sides by industry. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
EAST CHICAGO, Indiana — Billowing plumes of white steam swirl around the towering steel matrix at the BP Whiting oil refinery, while blossoms of orange flame from flares light up the cold night sky.
This is the backdrop to Marktown, an unusual enclave built in 1917 to house employees of a nearby steel mill owned by Chicago industrialist Clayton Mark.
About a quarter of the pastel, stucco Marktown homes are now vacant and crumbling. There is a general appearance of abandonment and decay. But on the evening of Jan. 23 the Marktown community center was bustling, packed with residents confused and alarmed about the news circulating over the past few days.
“This is more people than I’ve ever seen in Marktown,” remarked one local, who declined to give his name.
Kim Rodriguez, a 54-year-old lifelong resident, had called the meeting to try to save the neighborhood.
That’s because BP officials recently acknowledged they are looking to buy up and raze Marktown homes.
Physicist Mahalingam Balasubramanian conducts battery research at Argonne National Laboratory. (Photo by ANL via Creative Commons)
Chicago has often been called the nation’s candy capital, murder capital, basketball capital, steakhouse capital and even the capital of “false confessions.”
Now Chicago boosters are planning to add the title “battery capital” to the list (though that title is already claimed by Holland, Michigan, thanks to two factories that opened last year).
Advanced batteries are crucial to a cleaner and more efficient energy future, many experts say. Developing better batteries for electric vehicles could replace emissions-spewing trucks, cars and machinery. And improving giant batteries to store energy on the grid or in buildings is key to large-scale deployment of solar and wind energy.
In November, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago had won the heated competition for a $120 million, five-year grant to develop a battery research and development hub.
This means a stand-alone battery facility will be built at Argonne, and the lab will partner with prominent universities and private companies in a multi-faceted initiative that aims to explore fundamental yet vexing science and engineering questions while encouraging venture capital start-up companies and established multinational corporations to channel their findings into commercial applications.
(Photo by Josh Koonce via Creative Commons)
CHICAGO — Chicago’s City Council passed an ordinance Wednesday approving municipal aggregation and a contract with Integrys Energy Services to provide the city’s electricity.
Where that electricity will ultimately be sourced from, however, remains unclear.
Aldermen voted 50-0 and heaped praise on the aggregation plan, which the city projects will save households on average $150 by the end of the contract in May 2015.
“We sent a clear message to the country,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the vote. “Not only does the vote send a clear message, it made sure families who live paycheck to paycheck will get what suburban residents have been getting for a while – savings on their utility bills .”
The contract with Integrys will ban electricity from coal-fired generation, which currently provides about 40 percent of the city’s mix. The city has also announced a commitment to renewable energy and energy efficiency investments, though any specific requirements remain to be seen in the contract, which is expected to be finalized within the next few days.
CHICAGO — Former President Bill Clinton invoked the ancient Sumerians, campaign stops at wind-blown Texas border towns, the looming budgetary fiscal cliff and an eclectic assortment of other concepts while proselytizing for more investments in the grid and clean energy, during his speech at the Wind on the Wires gala in Chicago Wednesday night.
Veering between big picture philosophical conclusions and wonkish descents into policy details and proposals, Clinton made the case that renewable energy is symbolic of a struggle central to human nature: “a constant tug of war between the demands of the present and the possibilities of the future.” Between sticking with long-time practices that seem most safe and lucrative in the present, versus forays into new territory that offer more hope for the future.
(Photo by Neal Jennings via Creative Commons)
By Rebecca Stanfield
Cross-posted from NRDC Switchboard
Walking into Franklin Center, I immediately stood a little straighter. The high ceilings and skylight direct my attention upward while the marbled and gold-leaf trimmed lobby extending through the entire city block provided a sense of vastness and grandeur.
So, my guess is that few people who visit Franklin Center ever think to themselves, “Boy, this building needs a retrofit.” After all, it’s not particularly old, especially compared to many of Chicago’s landmark skyscrapers.
Completed in the late ’80s and early ’90s as the AT&T Corporate Center, the two buildings, 60- and 34-floors tall, comprising Franklin Center are currently owned and operated by Tishman Speyer. It’s obvious that the building is well managed, so the notion that it is a strong candidate for an energy efficiency makeover might well be counterintuitive.
In fact, newer buildings are often great candidates for energy efficiency retrofits, and Franklin Center is proving that, while providing leadership among its peers by participating in Retrofit Chicago’s Commercial Buildings Initiative.