Sunday, August 29, 2010

Chicago releases progress report on climate action plan

(Photo of Michigan Avenue from Flickr and photographer Lapstrake/Tom Gill)

I’ve noticed mostly hybrid buses up and down Michigan Avenue lately, and most of my rides are now on one of the 208 new hybrids the city bought over the past year or so. I wondered, though, what the buses looked like in other parts of the city. And now I know. The Chicago Climate Action Plan’s report has been released and it says hybrids make up just 13% of the bus fleet.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of buying these hybrids or of showcasing them in areas where tourists abound. We know the city had planned to buy more, but had to cut back the order because of budget problems. But too often the CCAP’s accomplishments have been happening under the radar – or if reported haven’t been put in context. So we don’t know how much, percentage-wise, CO2 emissions have been cut.

In an earlier post I outlined some of the raw figures Suzanne Malek-McKenna, head of the Environment Department, showed on a slide during a meeting in May. It was the first indication I’d seen of progress from the CCAP, which has a goal of cutting GHG emissions 25% (from 1990 levels) by 2020.

This 2-year progress report repeats some of those numbers and gives a bit more information, but again context is often missing and the report is written in such corporate terms it’s hard to separate the results from the process.

Energy efficiency is key
CCAP, which revealed its plans two years ago after many months of planning with the help of civic leaders, community groups, nonprofits, corporations and unions, clearly was going to focus most of its efforts on energy conservation. That made sense because 70% of emissions in Chicago came from energy use in buildings. Not a sexy topic or something you can see, like hybrid cars or windmills or shutting down coal plants.

But energy efficiency is something that can be done quickly, and the bonus is that it saves money. So quietly the city began working with its partners to weatherize buildings, both public and private.

In the past two years the city, often using federal grants, has worked with community organizations and others to weatherize 393 commercial and industrial buildings and 13,341 residential units, cutting their energy use by 21%. Steps taken including sealing air leaks, adding insulation, upgrading windows and improving heat and air conditioning systems.

Chicago now leads the country in the number of LEED certified buildings, with 134 – compared with 96 in Portland, 95 in San Francisco and 82 in New York. Looking at context again, Portland and San Francisco have much lower populations and may well lead percentage-wise, but any way you look at it we beat out the Big Apple.

Additionally, ComEd has worked with the city to get people to turn in old, inefficient appliances and lighting for more energy-efficient models. More than 2.4 million light bulbs have been changed out, making that the biggest saving in electricity and money, with air conditioners and refrigerators coming in a distant second and third.

There's more
A few other important findings in the report:

• The Park District uses 25% renewable energy at its facilities.
• Chicago has become a major hub for wind companies, with 14 now here, compared with just 4 at the end of 2008. The city’s manufacturing capabilities, proximity to areas with great potential in wind and extensive transportation networks all contribute to an environment for wind companies to settle here.
• Exelon and SunPower developed the largest urban solar power plant, with more than 32,000 panels.
• The Chicago Public Schools now purchase 20% of their electricity from alternative sources.

There’s quite a bit more. Click here to see the entire report. There’s more being done than we have been told about. I wonder why they don’t announce their accomplishments more. In the vacuum we are left to focus on two of the lingering problems: the filthy old coal plants inside city limits and the stunted recycling program.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Iceland a volcanic wonderland with all renewable energy

(Photo of Strokkurd geyser erupting, as it does every few minutes at Geysir Hot Springs Area in southern Iceland. Photo by Sabrina Linton)

I just got back from a trip to Iceland with my grandchildren Bryan and Sabrina. The pristine island nation is hauntingly beautiful in a volcano-y, geothermally, green-mossy sort of way. There's very little pollution. If all the world were like Iceland we wouldn’t have to worry about climate change.

Blessed with plenty of natural hydro and geothermal energy, the country derives virtually all of its electric power from renewable sources. It fuels 90% of its heating and 25% of its electricity with the geothermal power simmering below its surface and has 7 geothermal power plants, 6 of them currently operational. Hydroelectric power fuels the balance.

Iceland is in a race with France, Israel and others to change over to electric vehicles supported by a nationwide EV charging network. Northern Lights Energy Co. hopes to make Iceland the first country in the world to have a national electric charging grid, which is very possible because of the scarcity of roads. Iceland could service the entire island with 20 well-placed charging stations.

Iceland is also using hydrogen for power. There was a charging station at the harbor and the whale-watching boat we went on was powered by hydrogen.

The fruits and vegetables are mostly organic and livestock aren’t fed antibiotics, our guide told us. Much of what Icelanders eat comes out of the sea, with fishing as its main industry. (No runaway oil wells muddying the waters here.) Low-cost geothermal energy has led to a healthy greenhouse industry, where salad greens, tomatoes, bananas and such are grown indoors. We ate bananas there, assuming had been shipped a long, long way. Maybe not!

This tiny country with just over 300,000 people does have a huge advantage when it comes to pollution from power use. The don’t need much of it.

Of course there are disadvantages to living on a volcanic island. Eyjafjallajökull (I think I can finally pronounce it), the volcano that erupted several months ago, was lying dormant again – at least for now – but caused quite a bit of damage with its ash, which covered farms in the area, requiring evacuation of livestock. The real threat, however, is Vatnajökull, which in the past has followed its smaller sibling and would blow up Europe’s largest ice cap, likely causing deadly floods.

Iceland is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world. Proximity of the Gulf Stream keeps it milder in winter than New York or Toronto. Yet in summer, despite its 24 hours of daylight, high temps are usually in the high 50s or low 60s. We had one warmer day, when it was unusually sunny and in the low 70s, nice enough to have dinner at a sidewalk café in Reykjavik. Another day when we went close to the huge Vatna glacier and rode in a boat among icebergs on a glacial lagoon, we nearly froze. But it was nice to beat the heat back home for a week!

(Sources: GEA International Market Report May 2010, Globetrotter Travel Guide to Iceland, The Daily Green, BBC)