Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 10/30/2014 10:55:25 AM CST

Top Stories

Markham Heid / MEDILL

The Chicago Department of Revenue's implementation of solar-powered parking meters has been one of the city's broadest and most successful solar initiatives. 

Chicago quick to first base with new solar technologies

by Markham Heid
Aug 26, 2009


Markham Heid / MEDILL

The "Big Belly" trash compactors can hold up to four times more garbage than a traditional city waste bin. But while the park district is pleased with the 25 units currently in operation, no expansion of the program is currently in the works. 

Shedding light on the competition

Since 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy has distinguished 25 cities as “Solar American Cities” award winners. While several Midwest cities made the cut, Chicago has not been recognized. A quick look at what the other guys are up to.


The city’s “MadiSUN” project created a “solar agent” that offers “free solar evaluations for Madison property owners.” The city has also committed to doubling its use of solar power in the next two years by focusing on simplifying the installation of city solar technologies and working with building owners to streamline the implementation of solar technologies.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul

Through the “Solar in the Cities” initiative, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are developing a “10-station modular photovoltaic training laboratory and a 10-station modular solar hot water laboratory.” The Twin Cities have a plan in place to quintuple solar capacity by 2010.

Ann Arbor

The college town has implemented solar technologies in five city facilities while working toward a goal of achieving “20 percent renewable energy by 2010.” Ann Arbor has also implemented “a community-based solar marketing campaign,” and has identified “sites for high visibility commercial solar installations.”

As the nation’s economic forecasters discussed the “green shoots” of growth in the U.S. fiscal landscape, a new tuft of green technology sprouted up near the shores of Lake Michigan.

A single solar “plug-in” station, distributed by Carbon Day Automotive, was installed by the Chicago Park District on the city’s South Side in April. And with that, Chicago became one of the first cities in the U.S. to implement a solar-powered energy unit for recharging electric vehicles.

Mayor Richard M. Daley has voiced his commitment to bringing environmental technologies to the city, saying that he hopes to make Chicago “the greenest city in the nation.”

But despite the installation of the plug-in station, as well as solar-powered trash compactors and parking meters, Chicago is falling behind Philadelphia, Madison and Minneapolis when it comes to solar power.

In July, the Chicago Office of Fleet Management followed the park district’s lead, installing a power station on the banks of the Chicago River near the borders of Logan Square and Lincoln Park. The station will help power the office’s cache of seven “NEVs” – or neighborhood electric vehicles – 90 Segways, and one Toyota Hybrid Prius.

According to Eileen Joyce, a representative from the office of fleet management, the city chose to go solar on the power station project in order to “promote the green agenda.”

The power station produces about 10 kilowatts of power per sunny day, roughly enough to recharge 10 Segway vehicles.

Scott Emalfarb, CEO of Carbon Day Automotive, called Chicago a “very forward looking city,” and claimed that more projects were planned for later this year.

But despite such initiatives, Chicago still lags behind many U.S. cities when it comes to solar technologies.

Over the past two years, the Solar Energy Technologies Program, run by the U.S. Department of Energy, has named 25 “Solar American Cities” award winners. Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis were among the Midwest cities presented with the award for a commitment "to solar technology adoption.” Chicago has not yet been recognized.

The Windy City has demonstrated an eagerness to experiment with new solar technologies, such as the plug-in power stations. But, as evidenced by some of the area’s other solar initiatives, Chicago has not always been willing or fiscally able to take the next steps toward broad implementation.

Consider the Chicago Park District’s solar-powered trash compactor program.

In 2007, the park district installed 25 new “Big Belly” garbage compactors by the lakefront.

The trash cans help limit the amount of garbage blowing around the beach, said Ellen Sargent, the district’s deputy director of natural resources.

The Big Belly compactors hold up to four times more trash than traditional waste receptacles, and their postal-drop-box-style design ensures the refuse stays put.

Big Belly receptacles "were being used in cities like Boston and were working well, and we thought they could work well along the Chicago lakefront,” Sargent said.

Sargent said the park district was very pleased with the program’s results. But, due to budget constraints, no future purchases are planned.

While the park district has rested on its solar waste-can laurels, other cities have rolled out programs that far surpass Chicago’s modest installments.

According to Jim Poss, CEO and inventor of the Big Belly trash can, Philadelphia – one of the "Solar American Cities” award recipients – has purchased 500 trash cans and 200 recycling units just this year.

“They’re saving about $800,000 a year in their collection operation,” Poss said.

When asked about the park district’s return on investment using the Big Belly compactors along the lakefront, Sargent said the park district has not calculated the savings in collection operations, or even assessed whether or not collection trips could be scaled back thanks to the greater capacity of the solar trash compactors.

Although the Big Belly program has stagnated, and the solar power station program is, according to Joyce, still in a “pilot evaluation stage,” the city and park district’s use of another piece of solar-powered technology has flourished.

The City of Chicago has currently installed some 2,500 solar parking meters, and plans to roll out another 500 before the end of the year, said Department of Revenue Representative Ed Walsh.

The success and expansion of the parking meter program is likely due to the city’s ability to track the program’s cost savings and environmental benefits.

“The boxes wirelessly notify crews when they require collection or maintenance.  This notification … means collection and maintenance crews need to visit meters less often,” Walsh said. “Travel reductions shrink the carbon footprint of collectors and mechanics and reduce congestion … [and] the boxes are solar-powered, eliminating the need to dispose of thousands of lithium and nine volt batteries each year.” 

All of this leads to cost reductions that help pay for the solar-powered meters.  

Along with the department of revenue’s parking meter program expansion, the park district has also installed solar-powered meters.

Additionally, Sargent said the park district is planning to install solar-thermal panels in its facilities to assist in heating swimming pools. The expansion is planned for later this year.

With these and other solar campaigns in place, Chicago is moving toward a greater utilization of solar power. And, as evidenced by the installation of the power stations, the city is also willing to take a leadership role in the adoption of new solar technologies.

However, as cities like Philadelphia continue to invest massive sums of money in large-scale solar initiatives, the Windy City still hasn't met the goal of “the greenest city in the nation.”