Chicago 2030: Green Or Ashen?

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Editor’s Note: This article is one submission in a live Masdar blogging contest (find out the entry requirements here). Very simply, the focus of the contest submissions is to: “Describe your city in 2030: what will occur due to changes in energy, transportation and water technologies, and how will they transform how you live?” We are sharing this submission here on CleanTechnica because we think it’s awesome and because Masdar is sponsoring CleanTechnica in order to raise awareness about this great competition. I have personally engaged in the contest in previous years, and I hope one of our readers wins this year since it would be great to meet you in Abu Dhabi!

As the 2000s spawn technology and experience climate change, Chicago awaits transformation. City planners here have urged sustainability since Burnham’s vision of 1909. Various recent plans—Chicago River Agendas, groundbreaking legacies from former Mayor Richard Daley and the Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Climate Action and DeCarbonization Plans, the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy, AIA’s 2030 commitment, Go To 2040, and Mayor Emanuel’s urban farming incentive all forge an attractive agenda for environmental improvement and energy conservation.

Water, waste reuse and disposal, and urban livability point in the right direction for this third most populous US city. Green living ranks at the top of Chicago’s sustainability achievements. Commercial and residential buildings, massive atmospheric carbon sources, have efficiency improvements, performance-based codes, and better financing in the works. Chicago has consistently matched its population rank as third in the US Energy Star ratings. New and renovated buildings will be 100% climate-neutral by 2030.

Public parks, preserves, and waterfront cover 12,000 acres of the city, which planted about half a million new trees recently. Over 2.5 million square feet of city roofs live, including city hall and the skyscraping Willis Tower. The nation’s largest indoor vertical farm just opened here. Chicago has the world’s greenest restaurant and the greenest street in America. The city’s first carbon-free, geothermally powered home has just about paid for itself after only seven years.

Lake Michigan and local wells water Chicago. Planners don’t expect shortages until after 2050, and modest water use reduction has begun. Climate change has already started to affect water quality, with increased precipitation, more frequent and intense storms, extensive flooding causing sewer overflows and lower-story losses. A Climate Action Plan addresses storm water management toward Chicago 2030. Infrastructure and the insurance industry will also need to adapt.

Recycling and waste disposal have a bit farther to go to satisfy Chicago 2030 than green living. The city’s alternatives are not up to par. Citizens are less aware of and concerned about environmental issues than elsewhere, although open petcoke storage on the south side has recently drawn negative attention.

During the past century, as transportation outpaced other sources of atmospheric carbon, Chicago’s population sprawled. Transport mechanisms changed radically—not for the better in terms of either environment or energy. More and more people relied on cars for primary transportation. Walking and cycling became less popular and more complicated. Three-quarters of transport came to involve road vehicles. More road and rail freight traffic from expanded coal and petroleum hauling has added stress to the mix.

Strengthening transit, increasing ridership, and facilitating carpools are all in the works, as well as high-speed passenger rail and sustainability measures at the city’s massive airports. Downtown walking and cycling have increased since about 2000. The city ranks #2 on’s list and  silver among Bicycle Friendly Communities. At least 100 miles of protected bike lanes will surface in the next five years.

The potential stumbling block for a better Chicago 2030—and it’s a big one—is energy generation from extremely inefficient, outdated, dangerous fuels (see graph). Coal, a greenhouse-choker, also ranks lowest among nonrenewables for environmental quality. Chicago has closed its Fisk and Crawford plants but still draws power from regional coal. Shale gas is abundant. Not long ago the most profitable, nuclear remains a thermal polluter, water hog, and meltdown risk. It has also become a financial albatross. Despite EPA’s proposed 5.8% carbon offset, Exelon (the nation’s largest nuclear operator) has said it may start closing its six Illinois plants.

Recent Chicago 2030 planning calls for renewables. Wind from the exurbs now has a 5% share. Roof-mounted solar permits take only 24 hours. Municipal fuel consumption is falling, and a few smart grids dot the metro. In 91 areas statewide, residents can access 100% renewable electricity through direct purchase or credits. Energy storage holds promise.

By 2030, our population will grow by about a million. We’re clearly on our way to greener lifestyles and transportation. Weaning from unsustainable power requires wind, solar, smarter energy, decarbonization, financing, innovation, and synergy. Right now, Chicago 2030 adaptation plans can only whisper the resilience needed for a cleaner and more viable future.

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