News Flash: Green Design, Chicago Skylines

turbine While large wind and solar farms catch grief from nearby residents, engineers and designers have created ways to incorporate renewable energy systems into city skylines, including Chicago’s.
Across the United States, renewable energy developers are supplementing energy grids more discreetly, more affordably and on an urban-friendly scale.


In New Jersey, Petra Solar Inc. and Public Service Electric and Gas Co., the garden state’s largest utility, have been working together to install 200,000 solar panels on neighborhood telephone poles, and along highways and parking structures.

“It might not seem like a lot if you look at one unit, but it’s like looking at ants,” said John Enslin, chief technology officer of Petra Solar. “If you look at one at a time, they seem tiny, but they build up into a large population. “

 

The entire project produces 40 megawatts of power each hour for four to five hours a day, or 58,400 megawatt-hours per year, according to Enslin.

The installation is the largest “distributed” or decentralized solar electric project being deployed in the world today, he added.

Companies vying to create urban-friendly technology have also been emerging in Chicago.

Balanced Wind LLC plans to install 18 wind turbines on buildings around Chicago by next month.

“I think Chicago is a hub of innovation, in a sense, and I don’t think we get enough credit for it,” said Andre DeRosa, chairman of Balanced Wind. “Balanced Wind started in Chicago and we are a game-changer, because we are solving the financial hurdle.”

The company’s turbines, he says, are the least expensive on the market, costing between $7,000 and $35,000. The mid-range turbine weighs around 600 pounds, reaches 7 feet in diameter, and uses a vertical blade system.

DeRosa, who started the company in 2008, received a $250,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last year that helped him open up a production facility in Chicago.

Since then he has developed a wind-metering program at more than 300 sites in the U.S. The company has been targeting office buildings, residential towers and large-scale manufacturing buildings, but hopes to win over the City of Chicago in the future by offering modular units and streamlining the evaluation process.

Balanced Wind aims to supplement 20 percent of a building’s power usage. If set atop a lakefront high rise, one turbine could produce well over 10,000 kilowatts per year, according to DeRosa.

“That’s enough to offset the electrical use of a building’s common area, for things such as lighting or elevators,” he said.

Though Balanced Wind is a recent entrant to this niche Chicago market, urban wind turbines are not a new concept in the city.

In fact, Bil Becker of Aerotecture International Inc. claims to have pioneered the industry here more than 15 years ago. The company showcases its technology on the rooftops of such organizations as PepsiCo Inc., Sloan Valve Co. and Mercy Lakefront, a 96-unit single room occupancy housing development.

Becker, trained as an industrial designer, said he looked to for potential new markets and unlikely clients, such as those in urban environments.

“Most wind developers and solar developers are going to avoid architecture, because cheap wind is going to be away from a building,” said Becker. “But we are trying to attract people to go with our model, which is small, decentralized and can be installed anywhere.”

The company has eight installations within a block and a half on Jefferson Avenue, with its largest project atop the U.S. Social Security Administration building.

Illinois officially declared wind as its favorite alternative energy source when state legislators passed the Renewable Portfolio Standard in 2007.

According to the RPS, 25 percent of power generated in Illinois must be from renewable sources by 2025, and 75 percent of those renewable sources must be from wind.

But in Chicago solar projects are emerging, too.

Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) will soon replace its south side, 56th floor windows with a new kind of photovoltaic glass developed by Pythagoras Solar Ltd. The company says the glass preserves lighting and views while producing as much energy as a mainstream solar panel.If the pilot project is successful, America’s tallest building could turn into a vertical solar farm, producing almost the same amount of energy as a 10-acre field of solar panels.Experts say that projects such as the Willis Tower, which puts renewable energy to work discreetly, are key to future innovations.“It’s hard to find a way to please everybody,” said Michael Gorton, CEO of Texas-based Principal Solar Inc., “so kudos to the guys who are creating this kind of stuff.”Joel S. Freeman, an energy consultant at Evanston-based Brumman/Butkus Associates, agreed.

“A hurdle that comes up with all of these projects is that people want their view so perfectly sanitized,” said Freeman. “If people can see it, they don’t want it there.”

“Maybe it’s a generational thing and at some point when people at a certain age now who are unaccustomed to seeing this stuff, and it goes against their sensibilities,” said Freeman. “We will have to wait until the next group shows up and says ‘We are seeing good things.’”

Gorton added that the technology is “unbelievably clever,” but has some drawbacks.

“You have to think about the dynamics of a city,” said Gorton. “You panel the whole south side of a building with solar, but what happens if someone puts a building farther south that puts you in the shade?”

Evanston is also experimenting with solar paneling, on a smaller scale.

The city’s water utility has been using energy from solar panels to conduct an automated water meter-reading program.

There are seven units placed throughout Evanston that collect data twice daily from approximately 14,000 meters installed in homes and businesses, according to Kevin Lookis, Evanston’s water plant superintendent.

“Big solar will still happen in the countryside, but that urban projects that can take care of the end of distribution line are unbelievable developments,” said Gorton.

Although he does not discount the notion that every bit counts, Freeman said he doesn’t think “greening” U.S. energy is the most practical place to focus.

“You see people putting those in to at least make a small difference and the more people that start the movement, the more it improves the industry,” he said. “But instead of spending $50,000 to power my toaster in a renewable way, maybe I should just find ways to stop using the toaster.”

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Kate Springer

Freelance writer and editor based in Hong Kong. Contributor at CNN, Forbes Travel Guide, BBC Travel, Fodor's Travel Guide, superfuture, Tatler, and more.

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