The tubes have been buzzing over a new report announcing that 91 Illinois communities now get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources, but that's just the tip of a very large iceberg. According to the report, "Leading from the Middle," more than 500 other communities in the state have signed on to the same community choice program that the "clean 91" have used, and several have already begun using it to improve their electricity footprint.
Within that larger group is Chicago, which is highlighted in the report. Though it still relies heavily on natural gas, Chicago has already used community choice to get from 40 percent coal down to zero in practically the blink of an eye.
As for how that is possible, let's take a remark by Chicago's chief sustainability officer, Karen Weigert, who sums it all up in "Leading from the Middle" with this comment: "[Electricity] is a market, and when you ask a market for something, they can provide it."
The report describes how Illinois communities are using renewable energy credits to get renewably-sourced electricity under a 2009 state law that established a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program in Illinois.
Basically, the new law enables local communities to combine their electricity consumers including residents, businesses, and institutions. With a unified bulk consumer, purchasing power skyrockets and communities that prioritize clean energy have enough leverage to get it.
That experience is amply illustrated by Chicago. As described in the report, Chicago officials came up with a plan to eliminate coal from the city's mix and include more wind power, specifically from Illinois wind farms.
The initial response from the energy supplier, Integrys Energy Services, basically came down to, "No," but Chicago's 900,000-strong aggregated customers provided the supplier with a strong motivation to find a way to work with the city.
The result was a 27-month contract for 5 million MWh (megawatt hours) for Chicago's residential and small business customers, with natural gas replacing coal, helped along by the inclusion of more in-state wind power.
For the record, many in the environmental community aren't fans of natural gas (fracking impacts and fugitive emissions being two key issues), but the contract does stipulate high efficiency, combined-cycle natural gas plants rather than conventional gas power plants, which are much less efficient. It's also helpful to keep in mind that getting off coal was a critical public health issue for Chicago.
Normal is showing how communities can help move our country toward a more sustainable future from the local level. Along with other communities up and down Illinois, this city is cutting down both its utility bills and its environmental footprint by pursuing renewable electricity. I hope other states take notice of the good work being done here in Normal and all across Illinois.
Image: Chicago at night by Mike Miley
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.