Recapping Our Second #PowerUp Conversation—Saving Money and Clean Energy

By Gamze Bilsen, Ready for 100 Chicago Volunteer

In September and October, we’ll be hosting a series of four #PowerUp community conversations, bringing together our community partners and residents from across the city to discuss priorities for Chicago’s energy transition. For information and to register for the upcoming conversations, click here.

Most cities across the nation are trying to figure out the way to 100% clean energy. This transition is heavily connected with economic justice due its emphasis on decarbonization and promoting energy efficiency. As you will see from examples our speakers mentioned, when community voices are involved in the conversation, the transition breeds win-win solutions. The main topic of our talk was how citizens can save money as Chicago moves towards 100% clean energy by 2035, solutions and barriers in making it happen. 

We were first joined by Matthew Cason from the Democratize ComEd campaign. Starting the conversation, he emphasized the realities of many Chicagoans—nearly 90% of lower income households face energy insecurity, which is having to choose between utilities and other necessities such as food or medicine, with over 80% of all households in some neighborhoods facing this issue. His emphasis to solve this widespread issue was to return energy control to the people for an equitable energy future. Through this control, people can achieve decarbonization of the economy and make energy efficiency widespread to cover the replacement of gas and fuels with electricity. With greater community advising, there is greater assurance that the burden of cost doesn’t fall entirely to individuals and families. As citizens gain a stronger voice, they can convince governments to put the costly burden of energy efficiency transition on building owners and the city rather than individuals. He mentioned a few solutions to make this happen: first, to mandate building owners to invest in renewables and promote energy efficiency to tenants. Currently Chicago only has volunteer based actions such as the Retrofit Chicago Energy Challenge, smart meters that manage energy flow, and the PACE program, which finances renewable energy on properties. Second, he mentioned that Democratize ComEd is in favor of Chicago enacting city funded rebates, incentives and group buying options for small homeowners—exemplified by people living in a building buying solar panels as a group. Lastly, they want the city government to enforce performance-based building codes and performance standards, such as dictating how a building is built and requirements for energy efficiency updates for tenants to pay less on the utility. 

The second speaker was Hans Detweiler from the Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition. He started off discussing funding for affordable housing: in all states, new affordable housing construction is done through federal money, yet the state, and specifically the city of Chicago, has control over how it’s spent. His exemplary story in promoting equitable climate policy for Chicago was people’s engagement in the stakeholder process in Pennsylvania. This community involvement allowed the people to set rules to motivate developers to use passive house-building standards, which means these houses use only ⅓ of the electricity other buildings use. While this cost 2% more to build at first, 2 years later, these buildings cost less to build as builders understood efficiencies and production technology, on top of utility bill savings for tenants. These buildings were also PHIUS+ certified—the certifier Passive House Institute is also located in Chicago for the city to take advantage of their expertise at close proximity!

The third speaker was Margaret Garascia from Elevate Energy. One of the organization’s focuses is to implement programs in underserved communities that pertain to solar and dynamic electricity programs as well as building electrification and energy efficiency with a focus on affordable housing. Her approach to economic justice was first to engage at the neighborhood level in cities like Chicago, as they did with the INVEST South/West initiative that prioritized reinvestment in 12 commercial areas across 10 neighborhoods. Like the previous speakers, Margaret emphasized the importance of community involvement in decision making. Second, she mentioned that the city could be active in a coordination role for a holistic grass-roots approach—from administering the solar programs to helping renovate windows and roofs. Third, she advocated for a restructuring of how energy works in the city, comparing Austin’s income-based utility structure or California’s use-based energy structure to Illinois’ flat rate for utilities. She finished by detailing the barriers for improvements with funding, a major issue. A lot of neighborhoods being disinvested has contributed to degradation of housing stock, which prevents weatherization and solar panel installation to decarbonize at scale. Another issue is lack of policy that prioritizes energy efficiency. Margaret compared California’s solar installation policy success in the last 15 years to Illinois’ lack of a financing mechanism, coupled with ComEd’s unhelpful stance in installation and lack of mandates for new buildings. She also compared the need for policy improvements with St Louis’ building performance standards, which mandate large buildings to make regular energy improvements in compliance with building ownership standards.

The common themes across the three speakers were highlighted during the Q&A. Firstly, making heat pumps widespread was mentioned as central in shifting from gas to decarbonizing our heating. Hans underscored 200% increased efficiency of heat pumps and the counterproductive efforts of gas programs incentivizing less efficiency—putting the responsibility on the city yet again to incentivize homeowners. Another point was the scaling and funding of community solar and heat pumps across under-resourced neighborhoods. The speakers tied this conversation back to creating an estimated 25 million jobs nationally to replace coal and oil. 

During our last segment, groups brainstormed ideas related to saving money based on what we learned. Common themes were the centrality of accountability of building owners and state and local governments in the shift to clean energy to help citizens save on utilities and decrease widespread energy insecurity. These policies must promote improved building codes and prioritize community voices in the decision making process to bring power back to the people.