This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Wondering how other businesses are using renewable energy? Get a sneak peek

A handful of Chicago-area business owners with renewable-energy systems on their premises are inviting anyone curious enough to stop by on Saturday for a firsthand look at how they work.

Fifteen businesses are participating in the Illinois Solar Tour, a daylong event of free, self-guided tours where individuals can get a close-up look at solar energy and other renewable-energy systems installed in homes and businesses. Aside from photovoltaic panels and solar thermal systems, visitors can check out wind, geothermal and passive solar designs. They also can get a peek at a few electric charging stations that homeowners hooked up to solar panels to juice their own electric vehicles. Installers will be on hand at about half of the sites to discuss technical details, according to Michelle Hickey, the event’s program coordinator.

The fifth-annual tour, sponsored by the non-profit Illinois Solar Energy Assn., is occurring simultaneously with other solar energy associations in every state. More than 160,000 people are expected to visit the estimated 5,500 buildings throughout the U.S. that day.

Each year, more businesses are signing up to show off their renewable-energy systems. Close to one-third of the 53 participants in the Illinois lineup this year are businesses and most of them are located in the Chicago area, said Ms. Hickey. Anyone interested in taking the tour can download a map from the association’s website and plan a customized route at his or her own pace.

Crain’s met with Ms. Hickey to get a preview of what business owners might find if they take the tour on Saturday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Crain’s: What are some of the standout businesses on the tour that other business owners may want to check out?

Ms. Hickey: Fields Volvo (in Northfield) and Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago are two terrific local businesses on the tour. Both have LEED certification sites (awarded to them) from the U.S. Green Building Council. Fields Volvo has a photovoltaic energy system and five vertical access wind turbines in the parking lot. Through those initiatives, they’re saving about 40% on their annual energy costs. Christy Webber has solar thermal, geothermal and a green roof.

Renewable-energy systems installed outside Fields Volvo

Solar panels outside Christy Webber Landscapes’ headquarters

They’re great examples for other businesses that want to learn about reducing their costs through energy efficiency and the options of renewable-energy systems that are out there.

Crain’s: What’s different about this year’s tour compared to previous years?

Ms. Hickey: In previous years anyone who had a renewable-energy system installed in their home or business could participate in the tour as long as they had equipment that people could see and they were knowledgable to talk about what they had. But they didn’t necessarily have to be there all day.

This year, every tour is a full tour. The homeowner or business must be present and we were more selective about who we included this year.

We were going for quality over quantity and wanted to make sure we had some recent installs or ones that incorporated a multitude of technologies. This time around, people can see solar photovoltaics (to generate electricity) and solar thermal for hot water and space heating. They can see  geothermal for heating and cooling, and passive solar and wind energy systems. What’s new this year is EV (electric vehicle) charging. Some sites might have all of these technologies.

Crain’s: Tell us more about the EV charging stations.

Ms. Hickey: Five sites have EV charging stations. Most aren’t really like the commercial charging stations that we’re starting to see at some parking lots around the city. Doug Snower, who owns WindFree Renewable Energy Co., on North Ashland Avenue, has a commercial charging station with a stand near a parking space, but it’s hooked up to solar panels on the roof of his building.

At the other sites, owners installed solar energy systems to their homes and hooked them up to their EV charging outlets in their garages to charge their vehicles. Those people are truly fossil-free at that point.

Crain’s: What will it take for renewable-energy systems and charging stations to become more prevalent?

Ms. Hickey: Any kind of sustainable initiative is about getting people to shift away from only thinking about sticker price to thinking about the total cost of ownership. That’s a big hurdle. With solar energy, people might look at the sticker price and think it costs way too much money. But if they look at how much it’s going to save them over time, it will encourage them to buy more durable and environmentally friendly things. With solar energy systems, you can think about all those monthly utility bills you won’t have to pay anymore.

Business and homeowners have to find a good installer and they need to learn about all the possible incentives available for them. The installer will help them out with creating a return on investment that works for them. Most businesses should be able to get a five- to seven-year return on investment if they can qualify for some of the rebates and grants available.

With EV charging stations, there’s also the psychological issue about limitations of how far they can go before they need to recharge their vehicle. It’s really important to have these stations in more places to alleviate range anxiety. But the majority of people’s travel distances will fall between the 40- to 50-mile range (before they have to recharge), so that shouldn’t be a problem.

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In other news:

Starting Nov. 1, the Clean Energy Trust accepts applications for its second-annual Clean Energy Challenge. Start-up entrepreneurs in the clean-tech sector and students working on business ideas in Midwest universities can submit an application. Top winners will be awarded a combined total of more than $200,000 in cash prizes so they can continue developing their ideas or grow their  ventures. Earlier this year, the non-profit Clean Energy Trust awarded prizes totaling $140,000 to four recipients among the 70 applicants that competed. Applications can be submitted online at http://cleanenergychallenge2012.istart.org. The deadline is Dec. 5.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: New Chicago ordinance encourages urban farmers to start planting

The Chicago Lights Urban Farm in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, a garden run in collaboration with Growing Power Inc. (Image via ChicagoLights.org.)

By Judith Nemes
Urban farming entrepreneurs can start digging and planting now that Chicago’s City Council passed a new zoning ordinance that defines what they can do on a parcel of land within the city limits.

Earlier this month, the City Council passed an amendment to the zoning code that recognizes urban agriculture and allows individuals or organizations to apply for building permits and zoning approvals to get those enterprises underway. The ordinance legalizes urban farming of vegetables, fruits and fish and enables owners to sell what they raise on those premises.

Urban agriculture advocates prodded Mayor Richard Daley for years to eliminate some of the bureaucratic hurdles so anyone interested in cultivating vacant city lots would have simpler guidelines on how to proceed. And while a growing number of city farms and community gardens were sprouting around the city anyway, owners had to jump through many hoops before they could get started. Change came earlier this year when newly-elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared urban farming was a priority and vowed to push through a zoning ordinance to offer more straightforward guidelines.

Local urban farming activists generally praise the new ordinance. They say urban agriculture enterprises can be financially successful and beneficial to disadvantaged communities with fewer healthy food choices and little economic opportunity.

Erika Allen

Erika Allen is among that group. She’s national projects manager and head of the Chicago operation of Growing Power Inc., a non-profit based in Milwaukee started by Will Allen (her dad) that’s nationally noted for its work in urban farming. Growing Power was established in 1993, long before the movement gained popularity among green activists or city chefs eager to cook with locally-sourced ingredients. Growing Power offers training programs for people looking to operate city farms as a business.

Ms. Allen has been a critic of the former mayor’s urban agriculture policy. Crain’s met up with her this week to talk about the growth potential  for entrepreneurs in this sector of the local green economy.

Crain’s: Why is this new ordinance getting rave reviews from the urban farming community?

Ms. Allen: It legitimizes urban agriculture as an enterprise or a business that hasn’t been on the books before. Chicago always had farms within the city limits, but the new ordinance creates a space where we can begin to create economic opportunities within our communities, especially in areas where food deserts are a direct result of unemployment and little economic opportunity.

These policies are needed so we can legally operate urban farms and community gardens with parameters around where they can and can’t be located. I’ve been in a leadership role in The Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council since 2001 and I can tell you that you don’t know there are barriers to urban farming unless you’re trying to operate a business where there’s a need in the community.

(Former) Mayor Daley’s administration was focused on greening the city, but there was a lot of bureaucracy and artificial barriers around urban farming. The new administration has a comprehensive understanding of urban agriculture and they aren’t putting it in one silo. They see that it’s an opportunity to train youth, create economic development, and create tax revenue for the city. Urban farming also creates safer communities because people are out working in their neighborhoods; it provides food locally; and owners hire people within those communities.

Crain’s: Will this new ordinance create a more favorable climate for Chicago entrepreneurs to give urban ag a shot?

Ms. Allen: Yes. This new administration is so committed to addressing food desert issues. But they also see there’s revenue opportunity for the city. As soon as you open a for-profit business, there’s tax revenue that can be garnered. Lots of people will see that urban farming can be a very powerful economic engine.

At our Milwaukee headquarters, our training program for people who want to do this as a business has grown tremendously. Two years ago we had 12 people in the program and this past year we had 53, with people coming from coast to coast. In another program, we’ve been training about 200 people a month (from June to January) just to learn how to farm.The goal of all these different layers of programming is to create a movement.

Crain’s: Can urban farming run as a profitable business or is it more about social enterprise?

Ms. Allen: It can absolutely be profitable. To do that, it needs to be diversified — there has to be enough production of different things so the business is reliable. We believe the best way to operate is to grow produce, raise honey from bees, produce compost and do other things. Your cash flow streams will be incredibly diverse that way and more sustainable. Then you can take it to the next level and provide other services that are built upon those activities.

Crain’s: What are the financing options for anyone interested in pursuing urban farming in Chicago?

Ms. Allen: There needs to be better options, but there are some out there. Whole Foods has a revolving loan fund to support local growers and there’s also Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans (from the U.S. Department of Agriculture). CSAs (community supported agriculture) are important too because they give farmers the money when they need it. People buy shares in the farm and they get the dividends in the form of produce when it’s harvested. Those have worked really well. Real farmers want to be successful and not have lots of loans.

We also just got a $1 million national grant from Walmart for site development and a revolving loan program for people who go through our urban agriculture program.

I hope people on the sidelines waiting to support investment in these new businesses will now jump in. There’s a better opportunity now for profit, so those folks should be encouraged by the new atmosphere we’re in.

Crain’s: Can urban farming create new jobs in the local green economy?

Ms. Allen: Yes. You can have someone in a warehouse doing urban farming employing only one person running a hydroponic system. But at our Iron Street farm, for example, we have 15 full-time and 15 part-time and we’ve barely starting growing there. There isn’t a lot of growth in the traditional job sector, but people engaged here can have a direct connection with the marketplace and that’s really attractive to a lot of people now.

Crain’s: What’s the next step to paving the way for better city and state laws that can encourage more growth in this sector of the green economy? 

Ms. Allen: Mayor Emanuel followed through on his promise to make this zoning ordinance happen. Our next big hurdle is getting composting laws in order. We’re way behind many other cities on that. We have a meeting next week with urban agriculture practitioners and city officials to figure out what to do next. The we’ll go to the state level to try to get some changes made since composting laws have to change at that level first. I’m told the city’s on board with making composting laws more favorable for urban farmers.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Why green entrepreneurs need to protect their ideas

Green-tech entrepreneurs, like most other start-up folks, probably spend more time worrying about securing their next round of financing compared with, say, intellectual property protection. But they ignore it at their peril.

So says Jim Naughton, chairman of the green technology practice group at Chicago intellectual property (IP) law firm Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione. He works to draw both small and large green companies to the firm’s client roster. As more entrepreneurs race to take new clean-tech ideas from the lab bench to commercialization, it’s critical to make sure their ideas are protected from being copied by others, Mr. Naughton warns.


Jim Naughton

Since launching this new practice within the firm three years ago, the client list has grown, says Mr. Naughton, though he declines to say by how much. The growth of investment funds turning their attention to renewable energy start-ups and other emerging green-tech companies in the Midwest has inspired local entrepreneurs to consider the sector, Mr. Naughton contends. He also points to creation of the non-profit Clean Energy Trust, and the Illinois Innovation Council created earlier this year by Gov. Pat Quinn as good resources available to assist green entrepreneurs.

What’s missing locally, argues Mr. Naughton, is a coordinated effort to put the players together so they can speak to one another. 

To address that deficiency and generate more networking opportunities for this sector, Brinks Hofer, the non-profit Global Midwest Alliance, and the Midwest Research University Network this week hosted the fourth annual Midwest Clean Tech conference.

The day-long gathering at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago included about 300 U.S. and international investors, entrepreneurs, and other business professionals. They learned about regional, as well as global, issues impacting the clean tech segment of the economy. A highlight of the meeting was a finalist round of a clean tech start-up competition sponsored by Brinks Hofer.

Five emerging clean-tech companies, mainly based in the Midwest, made their pitch to the audience and panel of judges. The first prize was awarded Wednesday to Garrettsville, Ohio-based Catacel Corp. which designs and manufactures energy-efficient catalytic materials. Ecologic Tech, a Columbia, Mo.-based company that engineers and manufactures green building materials, placed second. A third-place prize was given to Madison, Wis.-based AquaMost, Inc., which has developed new water purification technology. Though the cash awards were nominal (from $2,000 to $500), Mr. Naughton says the real value for the finalists was the ability to get coaching for their presentations and have time in the spotlight to demonstrate their businesses to potential investors or acquirers.

Crain’s met with Mr. Naughton before the conference to discuss intellectual property trends in the green technology arena.

Crain’s: Why did your firm develop a specialty IP practice for green tech?

Mr. Naughton: A few years ago, we recognized that green technology was a growing segment of the technology industry. We had traditional intellectual property practice groups that included electronic computer technology, mechanical technology, even nanotechnology. It was time to join the front of the pack to develop a green technology group. Now our green tech clients span the range of wind and solar energy, green building technology, battery manufacturers, electric and hybrid vehicle manufacturers, even waste management companies.

In the last three years, I’ve seen a marked increase in the number of new clients coming in the door with their core business being green technology. However, green technology is so interdisciplinary, it can cut across every other technology we handle at the firm.

Crain’s: What’s the IP landscape like these days for green tech innovation?

Mr. Naughton: All the normal IP laws apply. You have to have a new and non-obvious invention to secure a patent. If you choose a new trademark, it can’t be confusingly similar to a prior trademark in use. But on the trademark side, there also are greenwashing considerations regarding how companies use green claims to market their products. That’s being addressed right now by the Federal Trade Commission. There are green guidelines in place, but the FTC is modifying and improving them. New guidelines are expected shortly.

Crain’s: The federal government and many states offer financial incentives and other streamlined services to clean tech entrepreneurs. Is anything like that happening on the patent and trademark front?

Mr. Naughton: We’re pleased to see the federal government’s patent and trademark office coming to their help. They have a Green Technology Pilot Program in place that was extended beyond its deadline last year and now will expire at the end of December 2011. The point of the program is to get these patents issued more quickly so entrepreneurs could get funding more quickly, hire people, and create more jobs for the economy. The time to get a first review by the patent office has been cut down from two years to just a few months. The overall time from filing a patent to issuance was cut by a third. When you have more incentives like these, more people will be drawn to green technology.

Crain’s: Do most clean tech entrepreneurs factor IP protection into their business strategy or is it sometimes an afterthought?

Mr. Naughton: I’m pleasantly surprised to see almost all entrepreneurs of any substance are aware of the importance of IP and protecting their technological innovations. You still run across a basement inventor who’s unaware or doesn’t place an emphasis on IP, but that’s really the exception.

Funding is scarce in most instances, so entrepreneurs have to make hard decisions about whether to pay several thousand dollars for a patent application versus buying lab equipment or hiring a new person. Even though they’re aware of IP, there’s a continual struggle and challenge for emerging companies to spend sufficient funds on IP to make sure they protect your technology.

Crain’s: Is there much IP litigation surrounding green technology?

Mr. Naughton: Yes, it’s a growing area. The reported lawsuits you see in the headlines are between heavyweights in the industry: car manufacturers suing one another on hybrid engine technology claims. You see large wind energy manufacturers suing one another for patent infringement, both nationally and internationally through the International Trade Commission.

You can look forward to much more litigation in all clean tech areas. As the technology gets more important and the big players muscle into each other’s territories, you’ll see more litigation. All the big and small players need to get their IP lined up so others don’t take their technology for free.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Turning food scraps into a green biz

Until the city of Chicago and nearby municipalities launch their own curbside food composting programs, Erlene Howard’s start-up pick-up service is filling a gap in the local green garbage landscape.

The Evanston-based bookkeeper was dismayed at the lack of good choices for composting the food scraps generated from her raw and vegan diet a couple of years ago. She couldn’t put a composting bin in the cramped backyard of her condo building, and city regulations wouldn’t allow her to pool her leftovers with others in a neighbor’s yard.

After much research, the 52-year-old mom says she found no one on Chicago’s North Side or northern suburbs giving people the option of a door-to-door service that would divert their rotting banana peels, stale bread and chicken bones from methane-emitting landfills. She was determined to find a way to instead deliver residential leftovers to a commercial compost site where scraps are converted into useful fertilizer. 

Erlene Howard

Ms. Howard started Collective Resource Inc. in spring 2010 when she found others like herself looking for similar solutions. She learned the ropes from Chicago’s urban agriculture maven Ken Dunn, who runs the non-profit Resource Center, which hauls away food waste for mid-sized businesses and other organizations.

Her timing was good. The Illinois Legislature passed a law in January 2010 permitting restaurants and other commercial establishments to set aside their food scraps from the rest of their garbage so the scraps could be hauled away separately. It took Ms. Howard six months to cart away her first ton of stinky leftovers from a handful of customers via her Toyota Camry to Land & Lakes, a commercial compost center at 122nd Street. Her business has since grown, and Ms. Howard’s son Kevin now hauls about a ton a week from residential and commercial clients in a cargo van. She estimates that Collective Resource has diverted about 17 tons of food scraps to date from landfills.

About 20% of Collective Resource’s clients are non-residential, including restaurants (Tweet . . . Let’s Eat), churches and schools. Ms. Howard expects those segments of her business to grow in the near term. A recent addition to her roster is the Academy for Global Citizenship, a Chicago public charter school and darling of the local food scene because of its program of growing organic veggies onsite and feeding organic meals twice daily to its students. She says she is also in discussions with Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a commercial real estate firm, and other commercial building managers.

Crain’s caught up with Ms. Howard earlier this week between pickups to learn more about her strategy.

Crain’s: How much of your time is allocated to your composting business, and when do you think you’ll be able to make it a full-time gig?Ms. Howard: I spend about two-thirds of my time and all of my energy on the composting business, but I hope to quit my bookkeeping work once the waste-hauling enterprise is more sustainable. Right now my revenues are split 50-50 between the two businesses.

We’re in a position to increase five times what we are currently hauling without having to make another large asset purchase. When our current customer base doubles, Collective Resource will be self-sustaining, and we see that happening before March 2012. The company is projected to grow to three full-time and three part-time employees hauling 11 tons a week by our third birthday, June 2013.

Crain’s: How do you get new customers? Is it difficult to get people to sign up?

Ms. Howard: Our customers continue to come mostly from word of mouth. In some ways it’s a tough sell because there are very educated people who don’t understand that food scraps are the best fertilizer. Many people also don’t know that if you put food scraps in a landfill, we create the pollution problem of methane.

I’m connecting with green-minded people who have disposable income where they regularly have lawn care service and other regular services, so they’re willing to spend the money on composting, too. I also have clients who may not have as much money but they’re concerned about teaching their children the importance of diverting waste from landfills. It’s really my commercial clients that are growing in leaps and bounds. I’m also working with Mary Beth Scheye, a zero-waste consultant, who works on events and other projects with me. And we’re also members of the Business Alliance for a Sustainable Evanston and we’ll be part of group ads with them this fall.

Crain’s: What would happen to your operation if the city of Chicago and suburban municipalities decide to start composting programs that don’t charge for services?

Ms. Howard: Maybe the city would hire me for my expertise. I don’t think it will happen soon enough that my efforts would have been a waste of time. The city of Glencoe hauls its own garbage away, and I know there are people there who are pushing for a composting program. Anyway, there’s warmer climates that need composting services, too.

Crain’s: More concert and festival producers are adding composting to green up their events. Tell us about some of the perks you’ve enjoyed on that front.Ms. Howard: The production crew Effect Partners, which produced the U2 concert, asked us to compost for them July 5. We had a great night. We pulled into the loading dock at Soldier Field, loaded up the truck with food scraps and compostable disposables, then had the honor of seeing the U2 concert up close for free. We were closer than anybody who bought a ticket for the show that night. We did it for barter, but I got the good end of the deal.

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