By Emily Little
Clean energy is no small feat for a city like Chicago. It’s not enough to move homes and businesses to renewable power; there must be an equitable transition that addresses systemic discrimination in marginalized communities all over the city.
Kyra Woods is the Ready for 100 Coordinator for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club. She works to develop partnerships across the city of Chicago to ensure a just and equitable energy transition.
In 2017, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a commitment to 100% renewable energy in all municipal buildings by 2025 in the Chicago Renewable Energy Challenge. This was one of the first promises of its kind made by such a large city in the United States.
In an interview, Woods discussed what work has been done in Chicago communities to reach this ambitious goal as well as the next steps of addressing racial inequalities and systemic racism with environmental policy.
How did you get started with the Sierra Club and Ready for 100?
I got started with Ready for 100 and Sierra Club back in 2017. At that time, we were really trying to build and grow the campaign from the momentum of the Future Energy Jobs Act at the state level. We also knew that the mayor at that time, Rahm Emanuel, had already committed to pushing municipal buildings to a 100% clean energy future by 2025.
And then, the call for an equitable transition to these alternative energy technologies has been really important in a city like Chicago, given our transportation footprint and opportunities. So that’s where we started.
What work have you done to reach the goal of 100% renewable energy?
We had a public kickoff in December of 2018. And also in 2018, the Clean Energy Jobs Act was already beginning to build. So we try to support work around the Clean Energy Jobs Act, and particularly a series of engagement called “Listen, Lead, Share.”
And then our work really took off as we begin to draft a resolution for the commitment. And so that work spanned from 2018 until it passed in April, where we actually got on paper that the city is committed to 100% clean energy for the greater community of Chicago, not just its buildings. And in that resolution, we named three particular milestones.
One, there would be a transition plan developed. Two, that by 2035, all buildings, residential included, should be powered by clean power. And then three, that by 2040 our bus system should be an electric bus system.
How has the Future Energy Jobs Act helped with Ready for 100?
The Future Energy Jobs Act, from my understanding, does not directly catalyze the city’s municipal goals. However, it does catalyze the greater community-wide transition in terms of catalyzing investment and development of local [job] generation, and seeking to invest in renewables in the Midwest versus renewables from just anywhere across the country.
So while it may not look like like an immediate plug, it is developing a market here and ensuring that training programs and opportunities for accessing that new market is available to diverse backgrounds and diverse people.
What are the most common types of renewable energy used in Chicago?
Typically, given that we’re a dense urban area, you do find a lot of folks who use solar. There are a few projects around geothermal [energy] that I don’t know intimately well, but those are usually larger scale properties, and not your average residential house. I would definitely say that solar and wind power are the industries that are really being catalyzed right now and invested in.
What is the next step in achieving the goal of 100% renewable energy?
So I think one of the critical first steps that the Ready for 100 team understands, both as a Sierra Club campaign as well as our Chicago cohort, it is critical that this be a tool to address the inequities that we know stem from racial inequities and racially motivated discrimination in policy, housing, funding and lending. It’s critical that we assess and commit to using a clean energy transition to lessen the gap. How is this actively and intentionally putting impacted communities first, rather than carving out pieces for those communities or just ensuring that they are covered?
Not all politicians are willing to jump in with two feet, and so an effort that must be yoked by policy and government action as well as community driven projects and assessment. It’s very clear that, especially in a city like Chicago, there’s so much abundance in communities.
So the next step that we would like to see as the Ready for 100 Chicago Collective is developing a stakeholders table that involves community voices, as well as technical experts and the city to really mold what this looks like for Chicago.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Emily Little is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyM_Little.