Chicago Poised to Go Green

 /  March 7, 2016, 2:23 p.m.

Central and North Chicago.

The Problem

The headlines have been chock-full of news about environmental progress recently. With the Paris Climate Accord signed in December, the Obama administration’s new Clean Power Plan, and a “Big Fight” over implementing that plan underway in the Illinois state legislature, political leaders are beginning to appreciate the danger posed by climate change and taking action to stop it.

Chicago is also coming to grips with climate change. As of 2010, the city emitted roughly 33.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually, which at 12.4 tons per capita made Chicago one of the more carbon intensive cities globally near its per capita GDP. And much like other cities, the Windy City is threatened by shifts in its climate. As early as 2008, a report commissioned by the city government found that the average temperature in Chicago had increased 2.6˚ F since 1980, while winter temperatures had gone up by almost 4˚ F. These movements were accompanied by an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events and alterations in the growing seasons for local crops. To make matters worse, the American Lung Association gave Cook County an F” for air quality because of its air’s high levels of ozone, and the EPA found that the city’s air has concentrations of particulate matter almost three times the national limit.

As part of an ongoing effort to address these and other environmental challenges while fostering economic growth, the city government launched the Sustainable Chicago 2015 Action Agenda in 2012. Jamie Ponce, Chicago City Director at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, reports that “Mayor Emanuel’s Sustainable Chicago 2015 Action Agenda outlined 7 themes, 24 goals, and 100 concrete actions to make the city more livable, competitive, and sustainable.” The plan included everything from the expansion of recycling services to the construction of hundreds of miles of new water mains. Most relevant to climate change, however, was that the plan accelerated Chicago’s progress towards its goal to reduce its emissions by 25 percent by 2020 (against a 1990 baseline).

Gathering Information and Raising Awareness

The Sustainable Chicago 2015 plan included several programs that directly cut greenhouse gas emissions. However, some of its most important elements sought to raise awareness and collect data about energy use—in particular, about energy use in buildings in the city. Although not as glamorous as initiatives that install solar panels or set efficiency standards, data about building energy consumption is hugely important because buildings are responsible for 71 percent of GHG emissions in Chicago. Without robust awareness about and knowledge of this problem, private firms and city planners have little hope of fixing it.

The Chicago Energy Benchmarking Ordinance

The Energy Benchmarking Ordinance is one of the most ambitious data gathering and awareness raising programs. Passed by the City Council in 2013, the Ordinance requires most buildings in the city over 50,000 square feet to annually measure and report their energy consumption. This information is then organized, analyzed, and made available to the public. The ordinance has just come into full effect this year, but 1,840 buildings accounting for almost 20 percent of citywide energy use reported in 2015, including Willis Tower, the University of Chicago’s own Regenstein Library, and at least one building from every neighborhood in Chicago. Analysis of their input suggests several key opportunities for conservation.

First, the ENERGY STAR scores of similar buildings in Chicago vary widely. An ENERGY STAR score is a rating from 1-100 provided by the EPA to indicate the energy performance of buildings across the nation. When similar buildings have very different scores, it suggests that there is room for improvement by the less efficient buildings with the lower scores. Moreover, the lower a building’s score, the easier and cheaper it usually is to make significant emissions cuts. Having identified these buildings, property managers and city officials are now in a better position to improve them. Suggested improvements range from simple fixes, like installing more efficient light bulbs, to more comprehensive renovations, like gutting outdated HVAC systems and replacing inefficient appliances.

Amy Jewel, Senior City Advisor to Chicago through the City Energy Project, was part of a team that partnered with the city government to review the incoming energy data. Describing the outcome of the benchmarking data analysis, she explained, “If you compare libraries to libraries and hospitals to hospitals, and ask what would happen if all buildings of a similar type in Chicago were to reach the 50th or 75th percentile for energy use per square foot, you would find that there are 100 to 184 million dollars in potential energy cost savings annually.” These savings are accompanied by an annual 13-24 percent reduction of energy use in the buildings, and a reduction of 795,000 to 1,400,000 tons of greenhouse gases coming from buildings in Chicago.

Another opportunity for emissions reduction appears in the comparison of buildings in Chicago to similar buildings across the country. Although, by their ENERGY STAR Scores, reporting buildings in Chicago average 16 percent more efficient than all buildings nationwide, a sector-by-sector comparison reveals where the city’s buildings fall short. The median score for health care properties in Chicago was 35, meaning that the median reporting health care property in Chicago is less efficient than 65 percent of other buildings nationwide. Hotels, college dorms, senior care facilities, and lodgings of all kinds in the city had a median of just 37, well below the national median of 50. And, though above the national median, Chicago K-12 facilities have a significantly lower median score (54) than the K-12s in cities like New York and Boston.

There are many possible ways of interpreting these data; however, the results may indicate that there are systematic inefficiencies in the way certain types of buildings use energy in Chicago—inefficiencies that private firms and the city government are now in a better position to target and remedy together. In addition, city-to-city comparison sets the stage for Chicago to share best practices and coordinate research with sustainability offices in other city governments. The city’s decision to join the Global Compact of Mayors, “a global coalition of mayors and city officials committing to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, enhance resilience to climate change and track their progress publicly,” is another step in this direction.

The Energy Map

A significant portion of the buildings covered by the Benchmarking Ordinance in 2015 are concentrated in five or six neighborhoods in and around of the Loop, so the degree to which the findings there extend to the rest of the city is unclear. To get another look at how the city consumes energy, it helps to look at the Chicago Energy Data Map. Created by the city government and its partners in 2010, the map ranks the efficiency of each neighborhood in Chicago and displays information about how much electricity and natural gas is consumed on each block within city limits.

The information provided by the Energy Map can be used to inform city programs aimed at cutting emissions. For instance, even a cursory glance at this map reveals that some of the poorest neighborhoods down south are also among the least efficient. Industrial areas like Riverdale, Gage Park, and South Deering, where average annual incomes are well below $15,000, are among the worst performers. Realizing this, the city has been able to target its Retrofit Chicago program, which is discussed below, toward these “low-to-middle income” neighborhoods where there is the greatest opportunity to save money and cut emissions. Without the data collected in the map, such targeting may have been less accurate, and the efficiency improvement programs may have been less effective; more generally, though, this example illustrates the potential for data collection programs to have a serious impact on emissions down the road.

Smart Meters

Finally, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), in partnership with the city, has launched a project aimed at raising awareness and generating precise information about energy consumption. By expanding Smart Meters to all homes in Chicago, the utility company is bringing energy use to the attention of all homeowners in Chicago.

A Smart Meter is a digital device that measures the amount of energy being used by a building, securely records the usage, and makes real time information on energy consumption available to the account holder and the utility company. With these meters, ComEd only charges property owners for the exact amount of energy they use, rather than an estimation, and homeowners are made aware of both how much energy they consume and when they consume it. On the basis of this information, they can choose to avoid using energy during peak hours (roughly 2-7 PM) when it is more expensive or make other changes to their energy use habits. Though there is heated debate as to whether Smart Meters alone reduce energy consumption, there is widespread agreement that they do so when accompanied by incentives and “positive reinforcement.” ComEd has already installed 950,000 of these meters in the Chicago area and hopes to have fixed one in every residential building in Chicago by 2017.

Unlike the Benchmarking Ordinance or the Energy Map, Smart Meters only provide information about electricity usage to account holders and the utility company, in the hopes that private individuals will use the information to improve their efficiency independently. Despite some paranoia that the Smart Meters feed personal information to third parties or the government, recent legislation passed in Illinois prohibits the dissemination or sale of any private information relayed to the utility company by Smart Meters.  

Going Forward

The Energy Benchmarking Ordinance, the Energy Map, and the installation of Smart Meters share a common purpose: generating information about how energy is consumed in Chicago and increasing awareness about energy use and costs. Whereas before private individuals and the city government had little comprehensive knowledge of how energy was spent around the city, and therefore little hope of constructing a sophisticated plan to cut emissions, they now do.

As these programs yield more and more data about how energy is utilized in Chicago, the hope is that lawmakers and private firms will put this information to use by seizing upon the opportunities it presents to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas consumption. Hints of such opportunities already exist in the identification of particularly inefficient buildings, building sectors, and city blocks.

But as of right now, there are no enforcement mechanisms in any of these programs to ensure that concrete steps are being taken to conserve energy. The Benchmarking Ordinance, the Energy Map, and the installation of Smart Meters, can identify opportunities to save money and energy, but they place the onus on private individuals and businesses to take the necessary steps to cut their emissions. As Matt Baker, Editor of Sustainable Chicago Magazine, notes, “Sustainability still has this stigma of costing more than traditional methods—and this is generally true of the upfront costs. But technologies that help to conserve energy also save money.” All of Chicago’s measures to build awareness of energy consumption rely on the voluntary efforts of private individuals to take advantage of these potential savings, and given current progress by these optional programs, it is far from clear that individual action will happen quickly enough to meet Chicago’s emissions reduction goal of 25 percent.

Cutting Emissions


This is not to say that the city has made no effort to cut emissions or that private efforts are hopeless. Buildings that comply with the Energy Benchmarking Ordinance are sent personalized emails about how to increase their efficiency and are shown their building’s energy consumption in comparison with that of similar buildings. According to Kathryn Eggers, Programs Coordinator at Elevate Energy, “For buildings that have reported two years in a row under the Benchmarking Ordinance, preliminary results show that they have decreased their energy consumption.” A city report pegs this reduction at 1.6 percent between 2013 and 2014. Though difficult to determine that this decrease is a direct result of the information provided by the city to building owners, other statistics cited in the report, like the 7 percent increase in ENERGY STAR certified properties in the Chicago area and 17 percent increase in the use of the free energy benchmarking software provided by the United States EPA, indicate that city programs are making a difference.

Retrofit Chicago

The city, in close coordination with private partners and utilities, has also taken steps to help Chicagoans interested in reducing their energy consumption by launching Retrofit Chicago, which Karen Weigert, former Chief Sustainability Officer in Chicago, called “our big voluntary [energy] leadership program.” This initiative aims to improve the efficiency of participating residential, commercial, and municipal buildings. The residential segment of the project targets “low-to-moderate income” households and consolidates all of the cost and emission cutting opportunities offered by the city government, utility companies, and private groups to create a one-stop-shop for homeowners looking to improve their energy usage.

The program touts the $7 million it has saved the 16,000 Chicago homeowners it has reached through free installations of CFL light bulbs, water-saving shower heads, and piping insulation. In total, Retrofit Chicago has performed “over 149,000 installations of energy saving products…and over 20,000 deeper retrofit improvements” in city residences, improving efficiency by 20 percent for residences that make retrofit upgrades. As of 2015, Retrofit Chicago had also reached fifty commercial buildings, improving their energy efficiency by 7 percent and cutting their energy bills by $2.5 million, as well as sixty municipal buildings, reducing their energy consumption by an estimated 18 percent and saving them about $1.4 million in energy costs.

By placing all of the relevant permits, rebates, financing options, and technical expertise in one place, this program makes it much easier for private individuals and businesses that proactively seek to cut their carbon footprints to do so. Projects like the Energy Benchmarking Ordinance and the Smart Meter installations that transmit energy information to private individuals can increase the number of people who seek out energy savings. Nevertheless, the onus to cut the emissions still falls squarely on private individuals and firms. Other city projects like the expansion of Divvy bike-share stations, the construction of new bike paths and walkways, and the establishment of a one-stop-shop for solar energy, share this feature of being completely optional.


Although Chicago is still in the early stages of reducing its emissions, the city is also positioning itself very well to make deeper cuts. Collecting massive amounts of information has prepared the city to create stronger programs in the future, and energy use has become a more prominent topic of public and private discussion. In addition, the voluntary programs that already exist are successfully targeting the low hanging fruit of greenhouse gas emitters—those who are particularly environmentally conscious or particularly inefficient, and thus in a position to save the most money.

A big question remains as to what forms future emissions cutting programs will take. If they remain voluntary, then they will need to provide big enough returns to grab the attention of building owners and investors in order to have a significant impact on the city’s emissions. If they become mandatory, then they will probably face strong political opposition. As Mr. Baker remarked, “The mayor and the City Council are in favor of environmental regulation to the extent that politics warrant or will allow.” In many places, the politics might be quite constraining. “That said,” he added, “Chicago is a rather progressive city.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Julian Duggan


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