Chicago commits to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith
For business

Chicago is now one of the largest cities in the country to set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy. Building on the city’s pledge to run all municipal buildings on renewable energy by 2025, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a longer-term plan that will push Chicago to supply 100 percent of its energy from green sources by 2035.

The ambitious target is part of a broader package of measures, called Resilient Chicago, recently unveiled by Emanuel. Other proposals include replacing the city’s public transport vehicles with electric buses by 2040 and the promotion of community solar projects.

Chicago has successfully sustained economic growth over the past decade while cutting the city’s overall carbon emissions, according to Karen Weigert, senior fellow at the Chicago Center for Global Affairs. However, the 100 percent target will pose some challenges. “[T]here’s incredible challenges in the inequities in our neighborhoods,” explains Weigert, the city’s former chief sustainability officer. “But when you think about getting to something like a 100 percent renewable goal — Where are the jobs today? How can we have solar installers working right now? And then what are those technologies that we’re going to need in a city like this without a lot of open land, where we have roof space that we can use of different sizes? How are we going to think about pulling all of this together so that everybody is involved? So that our electricity center is front and center and helping us live the lives we want?”

Big changes ahead

Emanuel’s announcement will cause a marked transition in the city’s sources of energy generation; currently, Chicago relies heavily on nuclear, coal, and gas plants. Across Illinois, 11 nuclear power plants are in operation, making nuclear the most important source of power in the state. Renewable energy only accounts for about 4 percent of the state’s energy.

Lawmakers have already begun to map out a path for the state’s future energy needs. In 2016, state politicians adopted the Future Energy Jobs Act, which stipulates that Illinois must obtain 25 percent of its electric supply from renewable energy sources by 2025. Andrew Barbeau, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Coalition, explains that the growth in solar brought about by the 2016 law will see Illinois’ use of renewable energy double when the new projects come online.

Some Illinois lawmakers now want the state to go even further and follow Chicago’s example by setting a 100 percent goal. In late February, 10 state senators sponsored the introduction of a bill at the state legislature known as the Clean Jobs Act. If passed, the bill would create training centers in low-income and disadvantaged communities throughout the state with a specific focus on jobs in the renewable energy sector. The legislation states, “To bring this vision to fruition, our energy policy must prioritize a just transition that incentivizes renewable development and other carbon-reducing policies, such as energy efficiency, while ensuring that the benefits and opportunities of a carbon-free future are accessible in economically disadvantaged communities, environmental justice communities, and communities of color.”

“These goals are ambitious but they are achievable,” asserts Democratic State Senator Christina Castro. “States can’t wait for the federal government to lead the way on protecting the environment.”

The role of cities

Chicago’s 100 percent renewables target shows the important role that city governments play in the transition to clean energy. Emanuel also announced that Chicago would be joining the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 initiative, which has already brought together over 100 towns and cities across the U.S. committed to sourcing all of their energy from renewables.

One of these cities is Denver, Colorado, which has pledged to slash its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Another member of Ready for 100, Minneapolis, has a goal to produce up to 400 megawatts of clean power through a community solar program.

Another major city considering going 100 percent renewable? Los Angeles. Although L.A. has yet to formally join Ready for 100, city politicians, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, have publicly stated their support for achieving 100 percent clean energy. However, it remains unclear whether this clean energy goal counts nuclear energy as a renewable.

Back in Chicago, the precise details on how the Windy City plans to reach the 100 percent renewables target by 2035 will become clear by the end of 2020, which is the deadline for city politicians to come up with a roadmap for implementing Emanuel’s commitment.

Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.