What It Takes For Chicago To Lead In The Growing Green Economy

09/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Howard Learner Executive Director, Environmental Law & Policy Center

The threats from global warming and the promises of new clean technologies are transforming our economy. As Senator Obama calls for a "new energy economy" that can create 5 million new green jobs, there is a foreseeable roadmap if he becomes President.

Within the next three years, one city will emerge as the center of America's clean tech and green business economy. Will it be Chicago?

Mayor Daley aspires for Chicago to be "greenest city in the nation." So do Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, Mayor Newsom in San Francisco and several others. The Chicago region is well-positioned to be a center of the rapidly growing green economy if we seize the strategic opportunities, but we've got competition. Winning this green economy leadership race requires savvy policy and business development before other regions leap ahead.

What's at stake: our economic vitality and the jobs of the future as the global economy transitions to cleaner technologies. Solving global warming problems is our generation's fundamental moral, business, economic, policy, political and technological challenge. Presidential candidates and Congress are moving toward realigning our nation to achieve enormous greenhouse gas pollution reductions. Cleaning up the energy sector is a necessary pollution solution in a "carbon capped" economy, and it can spur job creation.

Energy Efficiency: Making our homes, businesses and public buildings more energy efficient is a no-brainer. It's a win-win-win for jobs, economic vitality and environmental protection. Retrofitting commercial office buildings, schools, hospitals and apartment buildings with more efficient lighting, air cooling and heating, windows, furnaces and boilers and other equipment will create new electrical, plumbing, carpentry and other construction jobs that pay decent wages.

Energy efficiency reduces utility bills, thus helping both businesses' bottom lines and household budgets. It plugs the billion dollar energy drain away from Illinois' economy to states and foreign countries that produce oil, natural gas and coal. Energy efficiency is the best, fastest and cheapest way to meet our power needs and avoid pollution and thus help our environment.

Commonwealth Edison's energy efficiency investments have lagged, but the utility is now beginning to step up in response to new state energy efficiency performance standards. Ratepayers are financing initial utility efficiency programs to cut energy waste. Let's seize these energy efficiency gains.

Green business winners include energy engineering and technical consulting firms such as Johnson Controls, Sieben Energy Associates and the Shaw Group and skilled union trade workers who will perform the installations. Reducing global warming pollution and achieving energy bill savings that make businesses more competitive are spurring this green business growth sector for Chicago regional economy.

Wind Power: This is the nation's fastest growing energy resource, and Illinois ranks No. 2 in the nation with about 6,000 megawatts are under development statewide. Wind power benefits people throughout Illinois, from new jobs in rural counties to cleaner air in cities.

Chicago is now home to the North American headquarters of five wind power companies: Invenergy, Midwest Wind Energy, Nordex, Suzlon Wind Energy and Acciona Energy. The venture capital community is moving to clean technologies.

But this won't come easy. It requires supportive public policies and public-private leadership. In 2007, Illinois enacted one of the nation's leading renewable energy standards, requiring utilities to ramp up to purchase 25 percent of their supply from renewable energy resources by 2025. That will spur more wind energy development.

However, we're missing out on manufacturing jobs. Wind turbine manufacturers are increasingly locating nearby in states that adopt supportive policies and ease logistics between heavy-equipment factories and wind power generation sites. Iowa has attracted six wind equipment manufacturing plants providing skilled jobs. Ohio manufacturers produce large ball bearings and other mechanical parts for the wind power industry. Public officials in the Chicago region should assess new clean technology applications for metal fabricating businesses and assist transition into the wind industry supply chain. That can work. Look at S&C Electric that is now making wind energy switchgear and other equipment at its manufacturing plant in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

Solar Power: Chicago moved early on solar power, but we're sputtering now despite the efforts of places like the NECA-IBEW Technical Institute in Alsip, which is working hard to retrain electrical workers for the solar installation jobs of the future.

For years, Toledo, Ohio, has been a glass-producing center for the auto industry. Some of that expertise and capacity is now being refocused to produce glass for sophisticated solar photovoltaic panels. For the Chicago region to gain solar jobs, both public policy and business attraction strategies are needed.

State and local governments should drive the market by purchasing solar equipment for schools, libraries and other public buildings. Commonwealth Edison should adopt expanded "net metering" and peak-price buyback rate tariffs, which pay market rates for solar energy generated on hot summer days when demand and prices are highest.

When asked, "why do you rob banks," Willie Sutton is famously said to have replied: "Because that's where the money is." Lots of jobs and money are at stake in the emerging green economy, and other regions are moving rapidly to compete. Let's seize the strategic opportunities and the Chicago region's competitive advantages to be a world leader and center of the growing green economy of the future.

Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest's leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization. and