PlanItGreen convened its annual Institutional Leaders Forum on Dec. 5 to highlight efforts by organizations that promote sustainability and help put the brakes on climate-related impacts.

And while it is customary for River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci and Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb to attend the forum, they were in the city preparing to sign the Chicago Climate Charter, the first-of-its-kind international pact on climate change.

In their absence, Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park village manager, and Eric Palm, River Forest village administrator, reported on steps taken in 2017 toward community resilience and reducing the villages’ carbon footprints.

PIG Forum 1Pavlicek highlighted the Oak Park board’s approval earlier this year of the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge and the adoption of a non-binding resolution that calls on the Illinois General Assembly to amend the Pesticide Act. In November, Oak Park hired resident Marynda "Mindy" Agnew as the new environmental sustainability manager.

Palm pointed to River Forest trustees elevating the village’s two-year-old Sustainability Committee to a full-fledged part of village governance, making it a commission. One of its first tasks was crafting an ordinance to regulate residential beekeeping, which trustees approved in late November.

Amid these developments, PlanItGreen is staking a path to energy sustainability. That path leads straight to the sun, which is returned to Earth as solar energy.

Gary Cuneen, who is guiding PlanItGreen’s solar initiative, emphasized the importance of taking local action in the face of federal rollbacks on pro-environment regulations.  “We’re going to create our own destiny,” he said, in describing the focus on community solar. 

Over the last 24 months, a Renewable Energy/Community Solar Task Force has been laying the groundwork for a utility-scale solar array and exploring municipal aggregation that would meet PlanItGreen’s renewable energy procurement goal of 25 percent by 2020, Cuneen said. PlanItGreen is also seeking entities in both villages that would take on 25-100 kilowatt rooftop projects.

The forum also provided an overview of the third Oak Park River Forest Community Sustainability Report Card, released earlier this year. It provides snapshots of progress against sustainability goals in nine topic areas by reporting “success stories” and highlighting areas where gaps exist.

PIG Forum Adrian Fisher 1

In general, there has been a slight retreat on meeting the plan’s energy goals, while both villages continue to decrease potable water use, Cuneen said. Other positive developments are the expansion of zero waste schools and the Sugar Beet Food Co-op being chosen as the best small business in the U.S. in a contest run by an organization that promotes sustainability and recycling for businesses.

As at previous forums, speakers representing various groups and organizations took brief turns coming on stage to share their one-minute success snapshots.

Some highlights:

  • In River Forest, 4,000 people were reached through the Sorted Out Station used at the LemonAid charity stand.
  • The Park District of Oak Park spotlighted is saving the village $68,000 a year through water repurposing at multiple sites.
  • Housing Forward made the switch from Styrofoam to compostable products.
  • At Triton College, the culinary arts program is recycling cooking oil and reducing waste reduction through its composting program.
  • The District House condo development on the corner of Lake Street and Euclid Avenue in Oak Park is seeking LEED silver designation.
  • Effective Jan. 1, 2018, Oak Park’s new single-use bag ordinance goes into effect.
  • West Cook Wild Ones reports monarchs are on the rise and the wildlife corridor it launched now has 300 participating gardens in the two villages.

At the invitation of the Institute For Sustainable Communities, PlanItGreen team members who are involved in energy issues attended a "Turning Energy Data Into Action" workshop at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.

The April 3-4 workshop was part of the Solar In Your Community initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Program. People from more NREL groupthan a dozen agencies across the U.S., including colleagues at the Cook County Department of Environment and Sustainability (formerly Environmental Control), attended.

“Building from and upon the work of PlanItGreen, we learned about resources, strategy, and how other communities have/are addressed/ing renewable energy use – with specific focus on solar energy,” said Kristin Carlson Vogen, President and CEO of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, who was part of the PlanItGreen team. “We had two one-on-one conversations with NREL consultants, which helped us build the vision for Oak Park and River Forest.”

In addition to Vogen, other PlanItGreen team members were SGA executive director Gary Cuneen, Village of Oak Park director of Public Works John Wielebnicki, and PlanItGreen solar energy consultant Mark Burger.

NRELThe presenters at the workshop “were some of the leading researchers at NREL involved in how to gather, assess and use energy data,” Burger said. “While the PlanItGreen group has been quite good at gathering data for its biannual report card, the workshop exposed them to a new dimension of sources to enhance their findings. They also did exercises on how to incorporate the data in planning and presentations to the public.”

Started in 1977, NREL is the nation’s primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development.

Wielebnicki said the NREL could be a valuable resource for the Village of Oak Park as it evaluates a plan for incorporating renewable energy into the community.

The PlanItGreen team capped off the workshop with a tour of the impressive facilities at Golden and a viewing of a state-of-the-art three-dimensional real-time planning and status operation of the energy generating, using and related functions of NREL.

The status of bringing solar power, community solar and its related economic and environmental justice benefits to Oak Park, River Forest and the rest of Illinois is still in the early stages.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill, including the Solar For All Illinois program, signed into law last Dec. 7, will take effect on June 1, 2017. But details of the program’s design and management are still being discussed among a recently formed working group.

The primary milestones in developing the programs fall to the Illinois Power Agency, which must submit a plan by June 29, and the Illinois Commerce Commission, which must rule on the plan by Sept. 29.  The likely outcome is that there will be no active program before 2018.  Some of the issues to be worked out include:SusLogo

  •      Which entity will act as the overall program administrator? How will community solar project developers work within this framework?
  •      How will customers in community solar be recruited, especially for the low-moderate income Solar For All Illinois Program? How will community groups participate, and what consumer protection measures will be established?
  •      How will training for installers work beyond what will be offered by ComEd? What training will be offered for the non-installation part of the program?
  •       Will the utility side of the program be ready for 2018, specifically the account coordination between community solar and the customer, as well as sufficient resources for engineering studies of grid impact?

This does not mean that program progress isn’t happening. At present, around $200 million is available from the Renewable Energy Resource Fund (RERF) to jumpstart solar programs. However, unlike the Future Energy Jobs Bill legislation, which prevents funding from being used for anything else, the RERF can be used by the General Assembly for plugging holes in the budget. A concerted advocacy effort is trying to prevent that from happening.

Beyond that, there is a great need in 2017 for general education, awareness and outreach to reach the public on the program opportunities. 

Seven Generations Ahead (SGA) will be conducting a wide range of events in the coming months to get the public ready. Topics include how solar energy works in our electrical grid, how electric bills provide information on going solar, how to choose between rooftop and community solar and the impact of going solar on the community, the state and the wider world.  SGA will continue to work with large local electricity users on bigger, utility-scale solar participation, as well as houses of worship and non-profit organizations for potential community scale projects.

By Mark Burger, solar consultant to PlanItGreen

Daphne Dixon has come to know Seven Generations Ahead well over the last nine years.

It was in 2007 that the Connecticut resident, after completing a master gardener’s program, started thinking about starting an organization that would “educate people about what they can do around sustainability,” she says.Daphne Dixon

Dixon began with Google, looking—virtually—“around the country for examples of organizations that seemed to be working.” She found lots of sites around sustainability topics but most seemed pretty shallow, she recalls. Until she found SGA.

“When I found SGA, I was impressed with the depth of programming, not just a lot of greenwashing, trying to get web traffic to sell ads,” she says. “I could tell there was lot of integrity to the work that was being done. There was a long vision.”

She signed up to receive SGA’s newsletter and over the years would visit the website from time to time, seeing notices about PlanItGreen and Green Town forums. “Gosh, one day I’d like to be in a context that I could come” to a forum, she would say to herself.

In the meantime, she became more immersed in green and sustainability issues in southern Connecticut. She started Conscious Decisions, an organization to educate the public on sustainable and eco-friendly living practices. She founded the annual Fairfield County Green Faire, the Fairfield County Green Coast Awards, and co-founded the Green Market Exposition.

Six years ago, the energy commission in the town of Wilton, Conn., wanted to put on a festival called Wilton Go Green. One of the women involved sought guidance from Dixon, who by this time had done hundreds of events.

As the Wilton festivals went on, its leaders’ vision grew, Dixon says. In addition to the festivals, they wanted “to do deeper work in the community. We wanted to be a catalyst.”

Even with everything she was doing, Dixon was still keeping up with SGA’s work, hoping one day to get out to Oak Park, to meet executive director Gary Cuneen and the staff. And attend one of those forums.

After Dixon became executive director of Wilton Go Green earlier this year, her first task was to put together a symposium. Tina Duncan, a Wilton resident and symposium chairperson, suggested Dixon contact SGA, not knowing how much Dixon already had been following the organization.

Duncan herself knew of SGA from her role as president of the Lumpkin Family Foundation, which had been one of SGA’s first funders.

When Wilton Go Green was looking for a keynote speaker for its inaugural symposium, the leaders thought of Cuneen. He accepted their invitation and spoke Nov. 29 symposium, which took place at the Wilton Library.

“It was a dream come true to have Gary come out,” Dixon said. “He was such an inspiration to all of us, just his insights, experience and perspective. It was amazing to have him there.”

Then another amazing thing happened. Dixon got her wish. In early December, after quickly booking a plane ticket at the Wilton Go Green board’s suggestion, she flew to Chicago and got to visit the SGA office—and attend those forums she’d spent the last nine years reading about.

In the span of two days, Dixon attended the Fox Valley Sustainability Network’s transportation forum in Elgin, then the next day the PlanItGreen Institutional Leaders Forum in Oak Park. 

She says she will return to Connecticut with “a big notebook” filled with ideas and inspirations from her visit. “It’s been a dream come true to come and be with you,” she says.

—Cassandra West

On Dec. 1, the Illinois General Assembly passed the "Future Energy Jobs Bill" (SB2814), the most comprehensive energy legislation of its kind in more MarkBurger
than 20 years. A few days later, Gov. Rauner signed the bill.

The bill had been headlined as a subsidy, or "bailout," for the nuclear power plants that Exelon has been threatening to close.  What is not popularly known is that the bulk of the legislation revives and strengthens the renewable energy and energy efficiency markets in Illinois enabling the state to regain its prominence as the fifth largest energy market in the U.S.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill will enable the rate base to fund locally based energy efficiency and solar power programs that can save more money for consumers over the long run. The Bill fixes the Renewable Portfolio Standard that will allow better financing of already cost-effective wind and solar power systems, large and small.

For the first time, a Community Solar Program is formalized in Illinois to enable households that can't site a solar power on the home to participate. Additional funding has been allocated for low-income households for energy efficiency and solar power. These actions can mean more jobs and business growth in high unemployment communities in the Chicagoland area, as well as elsewhere in Illinois.

The Future Energy Jobs Bill will protect electric consumers with rate increase caps and access to energy efficiency and solar energy programs that can reduce their electric usage. All in all, the Future Energy Jobs Bill promises to channel a lot of pent up demand for clean, more locally based power and economic opportunity.

—Mark Burger, PlanItGreen solar energy consultant