Mayor’s new green-economy report proposes strategies but no new programs

originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business, August 24, 2011

(Crain’s) — A new green economy report slated for release this week by Mayor Rahm Emanuel aims to double the current number of mostly private-sector green jobs in the Chicago area to 50,000 by 2020, and possibly result in savings to the city and private sector of as much as $1.2 billion of the $6.7 billion spent annually on energy and other resources.

However, the report does not call for the creation of any new city-sponsored programs or financial investment to make those numbers a reality. The mayor eventually will launch some new programs to encourage growth in the local green economy but it’s too early to tell when that might occur, said Karen Weigert, the city’s new chief sustainability officer. Ms. Weigert said the mayor is looking to the private sector to take the lead.

Chicago recently was awarded a $6-million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private foundation, and is expected to allocate some of those funds toward energy efficiency projects.

The upbeat report points to business ventures that can make buildings more energy-efficient as the largest potential driver of job creation and cost savings. According to the recommendations, strategies including energy-efficiency building retrofits, water meters and a smart grid could lead to an estimated 12,000 new jobs in Chicago. Clean and renewable energy sources could create 3,000 to 5,000 additional jobs in the Chicago area by 2020, said the report, which was prepared with assistance from Boston Consulting Group.

The report is intended to connect the dots between the environmental objectives of the Chicago Climate Action Plan and the mayor’s interest in promoting green-sector economic opportunities and job growth, Ms. Weigert said.

“Adopting sustainable practices . . . will also create more jobs in the private sector and cut what we spend on managing our resources by as much as 30%,” she said.

The Chicago Climate Action Plan was unveiled by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2008 with participation from independent organizations that identified climate change challenges. The plan included strategies to reduce carbon emissions and help Chicago adapt to changes resulting from shifts in weather patterns.

The new study shows the city is advancing in fulfilling the goals of the action plan and simultaneously expanding the green economy: The number of jobs in that sector rose by 2.1% between 2007 and 2010 in the Chicago area. Overall, jobs in the area decreased by 2.3% during the same period. However, Chicago lags behind San Francisco — which had 6.4% growth during that period — Philadelphia, New York and other cities in green-job growth, according to the report, which cited the Brookings Institution and government sources.

Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based non-profit Environmental Law and Policy Center, hadn’t read the report, but he said he isn’t surprised the new mayor is emphasizing that job growth should come from private enterprise. The city’s Department of Environment doesn’t have a large team of energy auditors, for example, and there is already lots of private activity and investment funds focusing on energy efficiency in buildings, he said.

“The mayor is faced with many challenges and competing priorities, so not everything can be done in the first 100 days,” says Mr. Learner. “It sounds like they’re taking the Chicago Climate Action Plan goals and sharpening them into an implementation plan. They’re on the right path, but let’s see how they move forward.”

“We’re at the front end of this growth trajectory,” says Amy Francetic, executive director of the Clean Energy Trust, a Chicago non-profit. “Lots of clean-tech companies are just finding capital, but they also need the mayor to support them with a more streamlined permitting process for certain projects or city government letters of support when they apply for grant applications.”

The Clean Energy Trust has mentored about 100 startups and individuals over the past year in the clean-tech sector in seeking financing and with other advice.

“A large number will fail and won’t survive beyond startup stage, and some will grow exponentially,” predicted Ms. Francetic, who also served on the mayor’s transition team. “Many of them will need significant funding to get to the next stage of business development.”

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Celebrating an anniversary, and looking ahead

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Green Scene column’s debut, so I thought I’d take a moment for a quick look back and an eager eye ahead.

The local green economy cuts such a wide swath across so many sectors of business, government, non-profits, and various combinations of the above, that there has been no shortage of sustainable business stories to write about. Some companies were newbie start-ups finding their niche — like Power2Switch, which offers consumers price comparisons on energy providers, and Carbon Day Automotive, which is installing electric car charging stations throughout the city.

Other standouts in the local green business sector covered in the column included Andre DeRosa’s wind turbine manufacturing company Balanced Wind; Bruce and Erica Horigan’s Skokie-based company, Horigan Urban Forest Products, which recycles city trees into home and office furniture, and a group of angel investors that formed SLoFIG to finance start-ups in the local food distribution sector. I loved writing about eco-chic couple Bianca and Michael Alexander’s Conscious Planet Media company, and sustainable caterer City Provisions, run by Cleetus Friedman, opening a storefront deli in Ravenswood.

Some features focused on more established business owners re-tooling their operations to get a piece of the action in the sustainability sector. They included Ron Cowgill, who added a new company to his suburban remodeling business to focus on installing wind turbines and solar panels.

There were local green government stories, too. The city of Chicago’s Green Office Challenge was an effort to motivate commercial building owners and their corporate tenants to green-up their office space. We also reported on the City Council’s passage of the new Green Business Certification program, which was widely criticized in the green business community as a watered-down initiative that doesn’t push companies to be truly sustainable.

Sustainability thought leaders were invited to share their opinions and knowledge on specific urban and corporate green topics. They included Amy Francetic (Clean Energy Trust), Peter Nicholson (Foresight Sustainable Business Alliance), Anne Evens (CNT Energy), and Harry Rhodes (Growing Home Inc.).

Beyond the narrow focus of what local businesses and government are pursuing in the green space, I tried to add flavor of other happenings in the city that were tinted green and tied in to business interests, too. Some standout events over the past year included the outdoor screening of the documentary “Carbon Nation” at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion, the mayoral candidates’ debate last fall on environmental issues, The Field Museum’s Sustainability Design Exhibit, the FamilyFarmed Expo last spring about local food for businesses and consumers, and the greening of Lollapalooza earlier this month.

While former Mayor Richard Daley set one of his goals for Chicago to be considered one of the greenest cities in the U.S., new Mayor Rahm Emanuel so far seems more than willing to run with the torch that’s been passed to him. Even before he was sworn into office, I listened to the mayor-elect’s brief comments at a gathering of clean-tech entrepreneurs and financiers last spring tell the audience he would do all in his power to clear the path for new green business development to move forward with less bureaucratic obstacles. Now let’s see him deliver on that promise in the months and years ahead.

As part of his promise to make sustainability and economic opportunity a priority, Mayor Emanuel created the new position of Chief Sustainability Officer within his cabinet. He named Karen Weigert to that post, who brings business and government experience to the role. Ms. Weigert is spearheading the mayor’s agenda to integrate green efforts throughout city government and boost the local economy and job creation through green initiatives. I hope to share with readers those new programs and partnerships as they develop, or even ahead of time so local players can get a heads up and try to get some of the action.

In the months to come, there will be lots of new green-minded local start-ups to write about, as well as more established businesses re-inventing themselves to succeed in the green sector. I’ll shed more light on financing opportunities for entrepreneurs seeking funding in the green sector, and cover city-wide happenings that appeal to the eco-minded and are good for the economy too. Conversations with movers and shakers in the sustainability realm will continue as well.

It’s been a great year writing this column, but I want to make sure I’m covering green business topics, events and newsmakers that are most important and useful to you. So I will end with a request to my readers: I’m inviting anyone who cares enough to drop me a line here at Crain’s, or through my website, with suggestions of what kinds of stories you want to read about in the local green business world in the year ahead.

My column will resume after Labor Day. I should be done reading all your emails by then.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Chicago’s chief sustainability officer reaching out to new partners

Karen Weigert has only been the city of Chicago’s Chief Sustainability Officer since June, but she’s already forging partnerships across city departments and reaching out to the business community.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel created the position to push green efforts throughout city government beyond the Department of Environment and focus on creating jobs and boosting the local economy, Ms. Weigert said.

Those kinds of activities were already under way, but the hope is that they’ll accelerate with someone making them a priority. In a recent example, the Department of Streets and Sanitation has, in conjunction with the mayor’s office, launched a managed competition between private businesses and city employees to handle the city’s Blue Cart Recycling program. Two private vendors, Waste Management and Midwest Metal Management, came in with the lowest bids to take over recycling pick-ups in some service areas. The new contracts are expected to cut city costs in half to about $6.6 million a year, compared to the current annual cost of $13.8 million for providing the service to 240,000 homes, according to the Department of Environment.

Karen Weigert

Ms. Weigert aims to seek out economic development opportunities that stimulate the local economy, save money for residents and city government, and are also good for the environment. Energy-efficiency programs are being singled out as a way to achieve those multiple goals, especially since reducing energy consumption of fossil fuels saves dollars and reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

To that end, Ms. Weigert points to a $6-million foundation grant just awarded to the city of Chicago by the Bloomberg Philanthropies (as in New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s private foundation) to create teams of efficiency experts that will streamline how government operates. A portion of that funding will be used to create “energy efficiency target zones” across the city to curb energy consumption, she said. The details are still being fleshed out.

Ms. Weigert has worked in both business and government at various points in her career. She was a senior vice-president at ShoreBank in Chicago and at its later incarnation as Urban Partnership Bank. Ms. Weigert also has worked at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., and investment bank Goldman Sachs. On the government side, she was a political appointee to the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton Administration.

She also got a jumpstart on finding innovative solutions in the sustainability realm via the film industry. Ms. Weigert was a co-producer of Carbon Nation, a documentary released in 2010 that tells stories of businesses and government agencies that found ways to solve particular problems around climate change while injecting much-needed stimulation into their local economies. The documentary had its Chicago debut last summer at Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion. She still laments the 250 hours of stories told that never made it into the final cut. 

Crain’s met with Ms. Weigert in her office across the street from City Hall this week to learn more about her game plan in the months ahead.

Crain’s: How is your role as Chief Sustainability Officer for Chicago different from the Chief Environmental Officer position Sadhu Johnston held under Mayor Daley before he moved to Vancouver?

Ms. Weigert: The focus now is really about making our own operations more sustainable, thinking about crosscutting these issues between (city government) departments, and making it easier for residents, businesses, and non-profits to be sustainable as well. This is really an opportunity to work collaboratively and collectively throughout the city to advance sustainability in Chicago.

Some of the things I jumped into right away are things like looking at the Chicago Climate Action Plan. It’s anchored in great, hard science, but we want to make sure we can tell that story in a bigger way, which is how it also aggregates into jobs and economic development opportunities. It can strengthen Chicago in a variety of ways, certainly from our environmental performance, but also in terms of our strategic competitiveness in the businesses and industries that are here, and in the opportunities to save businesses, the city, and individuals money.

Chicago spends about $2.5 billion on energy, so a 10% savings is $250 million and that’s something we can get our arms around. The city has already announced we will increase energy efficiency in our own buildings and double the number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings in city government. Our new partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies will create energy efficiency zones throughout the city.

Crain’s: What are some new green initiatives that we’re seeing in the city?

Ms. Weigert: We have the managed competition with the Blue Cart Recycling program. There’s some new protected bike lanes on Kinzie Street. And there’s a new partnership with a private company to bring electric vehicle charging stations to Chicago and that will give us a pretty impressive electric charging infrastructure. One of the manufacturers moved up their timetable of releasing electric cars in Chicago because of the work we’re doing.

We’re doing these things with so many different city departments. The recycling is with the Department of Streets and Sanitation, the bike lanes and charging stations are with Department of Transportation.

Crain’s: When can we expect to see more blue recycling carts in other neighborhoods?

Ms. Weigert: The mayor intends to bring recycling citywide, and this managed competition is a first step. We’re looking for more cost-effective ways to deliver the services. We have an opportunity to expand the program when we save money.

Crain’s: That protected bike lane on Kinzie near the Merchandise Mart seemed to pop up overnight. Are there plans for more of those in the near future?

Ms. Weigert: Making it easier to bike and get around the city are absolute priorities. In the mayor’s transition plan we talked about making this a great bike city. We’ve already got tremendous bike lanes, so we’re starting from a position of strength. It was great that we got one protected bike lane up so quickly.

Crain’s: Are you inviting the business community to talk to you about some green partnership ideas they might have?

Ms. Weigert: We’re early on some of that, but we’re trying to get out and make some connections. I gave some introductory remarks at an energy efficiency conference this week and said let’s talk about solutions in a collaborative way. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in energy and green businesses in Chicago.

Crain’s: Do you feel Mayor Emanuel genuinely supports sustainability issues?

Ms. Weigert: Yes, thinking sustainably is really about thinking about things from a good business perspective. It’s about good long-term answers that save money, create opportunities and protect the environment. When I think broadly about some of the programs just coming out and some we’re about to announce, there are many that support an incredible opportunity for Chicago to be more sustainable.

You’ve seen some announcements about encouraging urban agriculture, which is tremendously creative from a city’s perspective. Those are great examples of trying to solve the problems of food deserts and giving people access to local foods. This enhances neighborhoods and makes Chicago a more sustainable place to live.

Crain’s: What’s on your wish list for things you’d like to accomplish during your tenure?

Ms. Weigert: I want sustainability to be part of all the decisions that are made in the city, part of our day-to-day living. I think we’re getting there.

I love walkable neighborhoods. I like it when I can walk to get food and see beautiful trees. We already have a lot of neighborhoods like that. I’d like to see more areas where people can live, work and play. I’d also like to see more permeable sidewalks and green alleys. I like finding what we’re already doing and growing it.

We also like to share ideas with people in other cities too in a very collaborative way. In fact, we saw the managed competition approach (for the Blue Cart Recycling) work in other cities so we decided to bring it here.

We looked at other cities including Boston and Seattle for our recent urban agriculture work. Mayor Emanuel talked to Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino about this topic.

Crain’s: Some people like to say Chicago’s one of the greenest cities in the U.S. Do you think so and what gives us those bragging rights?

Ms. Weigert: Chicago absolutely ranks up there because this is a city built around fantastic public infrastructure and public transit. When you try to get around in Chicago, you have a lot of ways to do that. It’s also a city that has identified and showcased green innovations, like the green roofs that are here. We have the most LEED city buildings with more than 40, and we want to double that number. In the built environment here there’s real leadership and real intent to do that.

We also have miles and miles of access to green space, biking up the lakefront. Of course with a city of our history, we have a really good anchor and a lot to build on.

Crain’s: What are some of the biggest challenges of your job?

Ms. Weigert: There aren’t enough hours in the day. One challenge is framing and finding solutions that are good for the environment and good for creating jobs. Everyone’s busy, but we’ve got to make sure we can find them.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Planning for an even greener Lollapalooza

Lollapalooza’s 20th anniversary concert event in Chicago’s Grant Park this weekend will be the greenest one ever, with a raft of local green businesses getting in on the action. 

Greenbacks will flow during the three-day festival to local vendors with booths at the concert’s “Green Street,” local food growers at a pop-up farmers market, and even composting sent to Land & Lakes, a food waste composting center on the city’s South Side.

The event organizer is including local eco-conscious businesses and directing the carbon-offset benefits it will buy this year to a designated “climate action reserve” project in Michigan, according to Emily Stengel, event services manager at C3 Presents, the Austin, Texas-based firm producing the event. C3 Presents buys carbon credits that support clean-energy projects to offset the amount of carbon dioxide emissions planners estimate are associated with putting on the event, and even more than that this year, she says.

Aside from the eight-stage extravaganza and 100-plus big- and small-name bands that draw the massive crowds each year, the event includes a “Green Street” section on the grounds where vendors with a proven commitment to the environment are invited to sell their wares. This year’s vendor lineup has a hefty local representation, including: Greenheart, a Bucktown retailer that sells eco-friendly and fair trade goods; Futuregarb, a Wicker Park eco-fashion boutique; Souldier, a local group of artisans who craft accessories out of guitar straps and other music-oriented materials; and Mata Traders, a Chicago-based firm that imports fair trade clothing from women in India.

The city of Chicago is expected to benefit from the festival’s ramped-up greening activities, hopefully with as little waste as possible ending up in nearby landfills, says Ms. Stengel. Even though more aggressive recycling and composting will occur during the festivities this year, it’s hard to predict whether the actual volume of recyclables will be less than the 45 tons of recyclable materials that were diverted from landfills last year. That’s partly because this year Lollapalooza planners are expecting 90,000 concertgoers on each of the three days compared with the 70,000 per-day attendance last summer, Ms. Stengel notes. More people translates into more garbage.

However, C3 Presents will attempt to counteract the impact of the larger crowd by reducing the need for plastic bottle recycling. Event organizers are encouraging people to bring their own reusable water bottles and fill up at the free filling stations scattered throughout, says Ms. Stengel. In addition, the only water sold at the festival will come packaged in a sleek “bottle” that is made mostly from paper instead of plastic. The Boston-based manufacturer, h2o, developed the packaging, which can be recycled in a process called hydra pulping.

Back by popular demand this year will be a farmers market food option aside from the music festival’s food court. The market, which will be located at the north end of Green Street, will feature smoothies, fresh fruit, sprout salads, mushroom burgers, shots of wheatgrass and grilled cheese on a stick from farmers and local food artisans based in Illinois and neighboring states. Participants include Tiny Greens, Urbana; Seedling Fruit, South Haven, Mich.; River Valley Ranch, Burlington, Wis., and Brunkow Cheese, Darlington, Wis. Chicago-based Rock n Roll Noodle will cook Thai food made from local ingredients.

Other green-oriented participants expected at the concert include local groups promoting their activities at informational booths at the Lolla Cares area, which features organizations that engage people in all types of non-profit, community-based programs. The Sierra Club will have a booth with experts offering tips about clean energy, and will be there to talk up the benefits of its local, sustainable food system efforts.

Crain’s spoke with Ms. Stengel about the challenges of greening a three-day outdoor concert event.

Crain’s: How integral is the greening aspect of the festival to the overall planning of Lollapalooza?

Ms. Stengel: We plan the entire event through a green lens, and one of our major goals is to minimize our environmental footprint. That comes mostly with waste diversion and carbon offsets. It’s hard to produce a huge green music festival, but hopefully through our efforts we can create a larger impression that improves the way music festivals are produced throughout the world. We hope people take a message home with them about recycling or composting at home.

Crain’s: The city of Chicago has yet to come up with its own residential composting program. How are you expanding the festival’s composting efforts this year?

Ms. Stengel: Last year we tried back-of-the-house composting (behind the restaurants), but we hope to see better results this year with a front-end composting system we’re running with Pritchard Event Services. We’re trying to divert as much waste as possible.

We’ll be asking the audience to participate in the composting, and we’ll have volunteers at 10 stations to back up the program. We’ll also have signage to indicate which items are appropriate for which bins. It’s about actively engaging people, and it’s about ensuring a successful program without contamination. We have to make sure the right food scraps end up in the right bins. We had a lot of volunteer applicants. Let’s see how many follow through and show up.

Crain’s: Are there other green aspects of the festival that might engage fans to do more than groove to the music?

Ms. Stengel: I’m really excited about our Rock & Recycle Program. We’re inviting concertgoers to trade in a full bag of recyclables and in exchange get an organic bamboo cotton T-shirt made by Five Bamboo. They also win a chance to get a specialized Lollapalooza bike from the Trek bike company.

Crain’s: This is the second year Lollapalooza will be featuring a local farmers market. Why is that important to the festival?

Ms. Stengel: I have a personal interest in farmers markets. Before I came on full time to C3, I was challenged to introduce farmers markets to these events, and I even started a market in Austin, Texas, where I live. The Chicago area has such a thriving sustainable food production movement, it would be a shame not to feature them at Lollapalooza.

This is one way for us to promote people to enjoy local food. It’s also a way for us to support local businesses that are smaller vendors than the ones at our food court. Hopefully every year the farmers market will grow and the vendors will show more interest and apply.

Crain’s: Can you describe the festival’s carbon offset program?

Ms. Stengel: We offset our production footprint from all the carbon emitted, from the power from our generators and staff travel, through a Michigan project. We’re happy to tie the offsets to a local project in the Midwest because it makes it more tangible to people here. Last year we had carbon offsets, but they were scattered all over the country.

What’s new this year is we’re also offsetting the travel footprint of all the artists traveling to and from the event. We sent out a survey to all the tour managers and we’re expecting them to tell us how many people are traveling with the band, their mode of transportation and where they’re coming from and going after the event. Then we’ll take an average (since they don’t expect everyone to reply) and we’ll buy carbon offsets that will go to that same project in Michigan.

Crain’s: Is it getting easier to green a massive multiday event today than in recent years?

Ms. Stengel: It’s becoming easier because there are more resources. Biodiesel is more widely available. Our generators are now run on biodiesel, so it’s nice to have that delivered onsite. It’s also easier because every year we can build on what we have done in years past. We started the Rock & Recycle Program in 2005 in Grant Park when C3 started producing the festival. Now we have recycling volunteer teams and other volunteer teams to help out, including a bike valet service. You have to have people interested to make anything work.

Crain’s: What’s on your green wish list for next year?

Ms. Stengel: In the future, I’d like to see complete clean-energy activations in the park, such as cellphone charging stations using solar power. I’d also like to find other ways to highlight local green, clean energy companies. We encourage any local green companies that want to help out to contact us.

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