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How suburban governments are switching to clean energy

While the spotlight is often on large-scale state and federal efforts to affect climate change, Chicago’s suburbs are also making changes to go zero emissions locally.

Municipal efforts to prepare for a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy have intensified over the past five years, with priorities on electric vehicle infrastructure, stricter building codes and energy alternatives such as ‘solar energy.

“That term ‘transition’ is often defined differently, depending on which communities you’re talking about,” said Mayor Kevin Burns of Geneva. “Some communities have a fairly rapid trajectory. For others, it’s a few decades, but we know where we’re going. We finally know where we’ll be and where we want to be.”

Burns leads the environment committee of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, an organization of members from 275 cities and towns that developed a climate action plan for the Chicago area last year. It is one of the country’s first regional climate plans.

In order to plan locally and act from there, municipalities can adapt ideas and other resources from the caucus to their own communities, said Brian Tomkins, project manager at the organization.

Electric vehicles

Comprised of more than 2,000 panels, the West Chicago Park District’s 4-acre solar farm sits southeast of the ARC Community Center. The project is one of the first ground-mounted solar arrays in DuPage County.
– Courtesy of West Chicago Park District


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

Electric vehicle infrastructure is an area in which Tomkins said he has seen growing local interest.

In 2019, the caucus partnered with ComEd to create an Electric Vehicle Readiness Program to advise cities on actions such as developing zoning and planning policies, permitting processes and inspection and safety procedures.

“We’ve found that a lot more people are using these electric vehicles, and we don’t have a place to charge them. We’re missing the boat, as you will,” Burns said. “All of these communities are looking for opportunities to serve these consumers in a respectful, responsible and affordable way.”

Most recently, the caucus and ComEd awarded 21 grants totaling $171,000 for community infrastructure projects that promote public safety, including 13 for electric vehicle charging stations.

“It’s no surprise when we think about climate change and what our communities are focusing on. We’re seeing a trend in projects that are overwhelmingly focused on electric vehicle charging,” said Keisha Parker, vice-president. President of External Affairs at ComEd. “We know this is the need.”

The grant program, titled “Powering Safe Communities,” is in its eighth year and has funded public safety initiatives ranging from the purchase of speed warning signs to thermal imaging cameras that help locate victims caught in the trap in a fire.

The communities themselves identify the projects that need funding. Just three years ago, no electric vehicle projects were funded by the program.

“What we’re seeing is this evolution,” Parker said. “The Powering Safe Communities program aims to improve public safety and quality of life. We now see our communities reacting differently to this definition and to their quality of life needs.

A full list of this year’s grant recipients, along with project descriptions, can be found at tinyurl.com/PSCGrants2022.

Solar panels


The College of Lake County is a local institution that has turned to clean energy by installing a solar field in Grayslake.

The College of Lake County is a local institution that has turned to clean energy by installing a solar field in Grayslake.
-Paul Valade | Personal photographer

While a shared priority, the transition to clean energy will look different in Chicago-area municipalities, Burns said, spanning a range of alternative energy portfolios.

In Naperville, community rebate programs have spurred progress in one such alternative: solar panels.

The city’s renewable energy program offers residents solar installation rebates ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the size of the system. For non-residential installations, rebates are capped at $50,000.

Ben Mjolsness, Naperville’s sustainability coordinator, said when the program launched in 2014, it helped fund 23 solar projects. In 2021, it financed 530 bays, residential and non-residential.

Funding is facilitated by the city’s electricity provider, the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency, and comes directly from ratepayers who voluntarily contribute to the fund through their utility bills. To receive a rebate, participants must contribute to the fund for at least two years.

“Many residents and businesses choose to contribute because they simply believe in supporting the transition to renewable energy,” Mjolsness said. “Beyond access to financial incentives, there is also personal belief in the power of clean energy.”

Naperville itself has also installed solar panels in four of its municipal buildings, and it recently awarded a contract to install three solar projects on three of the city’s electrical substations.

In 2019, the city was recognized at Argonne National Laboratory in DuPage County for achieving a “SolSmart Silver Designation”.

SolSmart, a designation program funded by the federal Department of Energy, “recognizes cities, counties, and regional organizations for making the transition to solar power faster, easier, and more affordable.”

Energetic efficiency


In addition to its solar installation rebate program, Naperville has installed four solar projects, including the array of more than 3,000 panels at the Springbrook Water Treatment Facility.  The farm was installed in June 2021.

In addition to its solar installation rebate program, Naperville has installed four solar projects, including the array of more than 3,000 panels at the Springbrook Water Treatment Facility. The farm was installed in June 2021.
– Courtesy of the City of Naperville

Municipal clean energy considerations also include prioritizing more energy-efficient buildings.

“When it comes to energy efficiency, we actually know that the largest percentage of energy consumption in northeast Illinois comes from stationary energy in buildings,” Burns said.

Creating more energy-efficient buildings mainly involved changing a municipality’s building code, which establishes the minimum requirements for developments – including parking lots, residential homes and businesses – that each city or town sets for its community.

Although each municipality is required to adopt the Illinois Energy Code whenever it is updated by the state, cities and towns may also choose to adopt the International Energy Conservation Code. energy, which establishes minimum requirements for energy-efficient buildings. Once adopted, municipalities can modify the code to better suit their individual circumstances.

Scott Flanagan, the building manager for the village of Schaumburg, said the village is expected to adopt the latest version of the international code in December.

While building codes cover a wide range of regulations, energy-related changes will include requiring electric vehicle chargers for at least 4% of parking spaces in new parking garages.

“When you remove old technology from a building and install new technology, you must follow current building codes,” Flanagan said. “That’s how building codes improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Every time you do a project on a building, it’s subject to the new code.”

The updated code will recognize solar panel shingles as a new technology, making it easier for developers to install the panels. It will also require new basements to be insulated rather than left unfinished, which will help to conserve the energy of new homes and buildings.

Tomkins added that the ability to adopt more energy-efficient codes varies from city to city. Updating building codes is a complex process that requires resources, such as the presence of a building official, that not all municipalities have.

“Communities are all going green. You can see it with their street lighting projects. You can see it in their public works facilities. You can see it with their HVAC equipment upgrades or their lights being fabricated LEDs,” he said. “The main message would be that communities will genuinely take the greenest option they can afford, and what makes the most sense. They are very practical people.”

• Jenny Whidden is a member of the Report For America body that covers climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support his work with a tax-deductible donation, see www.reportforamerica.org/newsrooms/the-daily-herald-2/.

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