Chicago Falls Short of Touted 2001 Renewable Fuels Pledge

Published March 1, 2007

After pledging in 2001 that his city government would run on 20 percent renewable power by 2006, the end of the year showed Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) could not fulfill his pledge to run the city on the more expensive fuel sources.

As the Chicago Tribune reported on November 20, 2006, “Chicago’s energy mix isn’t so green. Nearly all of the megawatts powering City Hall and other government buildings are still coming from nuclear and coal plants. … The city hasn’t bought any green energy since 2004.”

Daley’s pledge inspired an avalanche of accolades, including feature stories in such publications as the Washington Post, Time, and Christian Science Monitor. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named Chicago its Partner of the Year for green power. Daley was invited to speak to Robert Redford and a conference of mayors at the actor’s Sundance Resort in Utah.

The mayor pleased environmental activist groups by pledging to lead by example.

“If [the city doesn’t] lead, then no one follows in the private sector,” Daley told Conscious Choice magazine in 2004. “The government has to do it, and show that it’s economical and saves money.”

Promises Not Kept

But Daley learned a costly lesson about trying to outsmart private citizens, who have long rejected so-called renewable power as too expensive. Renewable power turned out to be too costly for the city to implement.

Wind power had been hailed as the expected centerpiece of Chicago’s 20 percent pledge. However, even after taking advantage of numerous government subsidies, the consumer cost of wind power in the Chicago region has averaged between 5 and 6 cents per kilowatt-hour since 2002. That is roughly 50 percent more expensive than the 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour of for power generated primarily by nuclear reactors. Wind power rates are expected to climb still further during the upcoming year, reaching 6.4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

City Balked at Bill

Bill Abolt, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of the Environment, promised in 2002 the city would meet its 20 percent commitment by the end of 2006.

Abolt said in an interview with Conscious Choice, “Some of it will come from burning methane that comes off landfills. The majority will come from new wind, solar, biomass, and small scale hydro-electric generation. The biggest challenge is getting the wind online, but already ComEd has agreed to have 50 megawatts under construction this year with a commitment to sell us this wind power by the beginning of 2003.”

According to the Tribune, as recently as 2003 methane from landfills provided 10 percent of the electricity used by city government. But the contract with ComEd to buy that energy expired in 2004, and the city did not renew it.

And when presented with the advance bill for new wind power, the city balked.

“The deal we were expecting from Chicago and the deal they offered didn’t match,” Gabriel Alomso, spokesman for wind power producer Gamesa Corporation, told Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne. The deal with Gamesa was to have established a commercial wind farm in Mendota Hills, about two hours west of Chicago.

Other Cities to Follow

“The lack of actual development of renewables in Chicago points once again to the disconnect between political promises and the realities of the market,” observed Tom Tanton, vice president of the Institute for Energy Research. “With most cities and other governmental agencies confined by budgetary limits, Chicago’s example of broken promises is likely to be repeated in other cities whose leaders make feel-good, but economically suicidal, renewable power pledges.

“There is no reason for Chicago or any other city to purchase more expensive and less reliable renewable energy when these cities need power at reasonable prices,” Tanton added.

City officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.