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Sweet Home Chicago

7/19/2006 12:00:00 AM

Tags: Chicago

This week I’m in Chicago, my old home. (I tried to live here twice, but the winters were just too cold.) It’s not cold here this week, though, and the green scene is totally hot.

For the past couple years, Mayor Daley’s been pushing green initiatives —literally greening the city’s rooftops with living roofs and introducing Chicagoans to the benefits of renewable energy. Mayor Daley has pledged to make Chicago the world’s most environmentally friendly city, so it’s not all that surprising that I found myself in the midst of a fabulous story yesterday.

We were photographing Chicago’s first zero-emissions, carbon-neutral home, heated and cooled using geothermal wells and photovoltaics—producing no greenhouse gases. David Dwyer, whose company American Renewable built the house and designed and installed its integrated energy system, convinced the homeowners to build this way using hard numbers that were impossible to argue with. They upgraded the windows, added insulation (which, shockingly, most of the new homes going up in Chicago’s Lincoln Park areas don’t include) and selected glass doors for the home’s three fireplaces—energy upgrades that added approximately $15,000 to the construction budget but allowed the homeowners to reduce the size of their system by approximately 30 percent. With tax rebates, the renewable system cost the homeowners $37,000 more than a conventional system; each year they save approximately $5,460 in operating costs. The system will have paid for itself—and begin paying the homeowners back—within 10 years.

The geothermal-solar system is actually working much better than predicted, and with the additional savings that’s generating, the homeowners were able to make an aesthetically important upgrades, including Forest Stewardship Council-certified cherry wood with natural oil finishes. The result is a gorgeous, sophisticated city home whose operation contributes nothing to global warming.

Finding myself in this home was serendipitous for me, as just last week I moderated a panel called “The Art of Energy: The Aesthetics of Emerging Technologies” for the American Solar Energy Society conference back home in Denver. The thrust of this presentation was that renewable energy systems don’t have to look like “a science project hanging from the roof” (to quote a recent New York Times article. The panelists showed that, in fact, these technologies can actually improve the aesthetics of homes and buildings. Solar pioneer Steven Strong of Solar Design Associates offered some great examples, and he really hit home when he said, “I don’t care what kind of materials and finishes you use; if it’s putting carbon into the atmosphere, it’s not green.”

Yesterday I had a clear and current vision of how we can all get there—and even save ourselves money. As Dave Dwyer drove me back to my hotel, he told me he’s working with the city of Chicago to put renewable energy systems into affordable housing, an incredible boon for the folks who’ve been hit hardest as oil and coal prices go through the roof. Dave also told me a group of developers is looking at geothermal to power a large condo project in Evanston. Chicago is keeping Dave busy, and that says a lot for Chicago.

All of this kind of makes me want to move back here. And, hey…the way this globe is warming, Chicago winters may just be habitable soon. (That’s a joke, of course. I hope the great Windy City remains frigid in February forever…)

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