Chicago coalition gets ready for 100 percent renewable energy: A Q & A with Sierra Club Illinois’ Kyra Woods

By Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

Kyra Woods intends to help move Chicago towards running on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. She is in charge of the Sierra Club’s  “Ready for 100” commitment in the Illinois chapter to help the city do just that.

As part of a kick-off event on Tuesday at Uptake in the North Loop, Woods introduced a number of environmental and community groups  committed to being part of the “Ready for 100” collective.

Across the Midwest  St. Louis, Minneapolis, Madison and other cities have committed to “Ready for 100,” according to the Sierra Club.

This week Medill Reports spoke to Woods about the project, and how she plans to move the initiative forward.

Woods is an environmental engineer and a Chicago native who joined the Sierra Club in Illinois in 2018.

Medill Reports: Do you have any reaction to the Evanston City Council’s vote on Monday to pass a new Climate Action and Resiliency Plan?

Kyra Woods: That was very exciting! Evanston is the first city in Illinois to formally make this commitment. Chicago does not have a resiliency plan currently – we need an updated one. [Chicago released a Climate Action Plan in 2008, with a few progress reports since that time]. Hopefully ours is on the way. Definitely, within the environmental community, there is a lot of advocacy for an updated plan, just given the period of time we are in right now.

MR: What are the biggest challenges going forward for Chicago to become carbon free, or fossil fuel free? What are the latest/best ideas for transportation infrastructure changes?

KW: Particularly with a city of our size, we have to be mindful of the importance of prioritizing energy efficiency measures first and foremost. Across the board that is something we can take into consideration: our buildings are one of our largest contributors to footprint and emissions, so we want to be mindful of how we build, not only in terms of design but how we utilize them.

The 2017 commitment that Mayor Emanuel put forward to transition municipal buildings to clean power was pretty major … now we are expanding that. As it relates to transportation, we have an opportunity to try and lead the way, not only in terms of design and layout, but currently, with what we have, how can we encourage people to use public transportation?

For so long, we’ve developed and grown: add more highways, add more lanes. I definitely know other Chicagoans are asking, “How can I work in my neighborhood and shop in close proximity to where I live so we don’t have to sit in traffic all day?” The public transportation system is something Chicagoans want to use more often.

Kyra Woods at the “Ready for 100” Chicago event. Photo courtesy of Linc Cohen.

I don’t have the full answer to this, but our heating and cooling is challenging as a city just because we have such hot temperatures in the summer sometimes, and such cold winters. That speaks to global climate issues. Heat waves will be more drastic, so how can we be more resilient as a city? It’s not a single technological fix, but definitely a point in terms of resilience.

MR: What are the easiest or quickest adjustments people can make to work toward 100 percent renewable energy in the next few years?

KW: Energy efficiency is something that every family can consider and evaluate. I know that there are programs that will essentially assist homeowners and make sure buildings are insulated properly, taking advantage of natural light, etc. There are some grants to help families. We want people to take a step further, that is a conversation for developers and people who are commissioning buildings, designers, etc. I don’t think everyone will want to walk miles in the blustery winter but we do have the weather that allows for walking for part of your trip. This is something in the “health” community as well, that is also something pretty beneficial to have one fewer car ride, or carpooling. I used to work in the suburbs and using my car was important and necessary. If that is something you have to do, carpooling can be a great way to reduce cost.

MR: How would you characterize how candidates in mayoral election have addressed environmental issues, or specifically carbon drawdown? Who is the ‘best’ on that issue?

KW: We’ve got a lot more time ahead of us to dive into that – I look forward to exploring that. There’s a host of environmental justice concerns that need strong leadership.  As 2018 winds down, we will see more community forums and candidate forums. We will see that over the next two and half months, so I look forward to being able to elevate this as an issue, one that isn’t fully couched in the environmental community.

MR: Illinois has a large nuclear portfolio. Where does the Sierra Club Illinois stand on nuclear energy and the power plants in place? How can any of that be supplemented or replaced?

KW: As the Sierra Club, holistically we don’t support nuclear energy being the silver bullet, mainly in part because we don’t see that as an environmentally great plan. There are some real consequences to consider in terms of waste and impact and that all hasn’t been solved. This is an opportunity to create jobs in more hyper-local ways than nuclear would. Rather than perpetuating this problem we have not solved yet, why not go to one where we have more safety?

If communities do decide they are going to move away from nuclear, we recognize there is a major transition that is afoot here, in terms of energy economy, and we are not asking for just flipping the switch. We recognize we need to be conscious and aware and accommodating to communities impacted by that. There are real jobs and real communities that survive off those industries and that type of investment. How do we recognize those communities are actively involved in how that takes place?

Chicago’s “Ready for 100” coalition looks to the city running on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Photo courtesy of Linc Cohen.

MR: What got you personally interested in this campaign?

KW: I’m a Chicago native, born and raised, very proud of my city, someone who wants more for my city. As a junior or senior in high school I went to a conference and learned about environmental issues. From that space I learned about the interdisciplinary need to solve our climate issues, and the climate issues are plentiful. I studied environmental engineering at Northwestern University. After graduating, I became a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa from 2016-2017. I was originally there in 2014 but evacuated because of Ebola. I was able to return to Guinea and worked as part of a food program. In 2018 I started working with the Sierra Club. That seed got planted when I returned from the Ebola evacuation, I volunteered there in 2016. I assisted a bit with our water team, but more focused on our political field/volunteer team.

MR: What has your work entailed over the past year in terms of coalition building, and what are the ‘next steps’ for the ready for 100 initiative after the event on Tuesday?

KW: 2019 is going to be a rather big year for us as a collective of advocates, in part because we have a mayoral election and more people understand climate impacts. It is something we really want to make sure is made relevant for Chicagoans so they understand how we can take action and do better, not just for the globe’s sake but for our homes. We want to make sure that [sources of renewable energy] are not impacting communities in a negative ways. It’s a web of solutions that we have to look for. We want to encourage and support the city in designing and implementing programs. What is that clean energy revolution going to look like in our respective communities? My neighborhood doesn’t look like other ones on the North Side., If mine is one where we can’t all put up solar panels, we want to make sure people can engage in that conversation about community benefits.

What is beautiful about the 100 collective is the ability for some hyper-local groups to be involved and engaged and community leaders to engage. Ready for 100 campaign is national, but the transition and implementation is going to look different per city. What’s beautiful is the opportunity to say “we know our city’ and for people to have a voice in that space.

Photo at Top: Kyra Woods (right) and Jennifer Linton of the Climate Reality Project Chicago chapter welcome attendees to an event introducing the “Ready for 100” Chicago coalition. Photo courtesy of Linc Cohen.