With technology, Chicago gets a grip on its greenhouse gas emissions

A Chicago city official sees technology as one way to meet the city's "audacious" goal to reduce its carbon footprint 80 percent by 2050.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

Philadelphia may be building the greenest city in the United States, but Chicago is well on its way to become a much more energy-efficient one.

How will it get there? In a word: technology.

More on that in a moment. First, some background. Through the Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP), the city on the lake is working toward an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The short-term goal is a 25 percent reduction by 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

There are many small programs that will contribute toward this goal, such as the Green Office Challenge that was just completed by about 150 commercial property managers and tenant companies. During the first year of that challenge (which was co-organized with ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability USA), those organizations cut their electricity consumption by more than 70 kilowatt hours, the equivalent of taking about 54,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere. The businesses also cut their water usage by about 5 percent and diverted 1,200 tons of waste materials from landfills.

This news happened to be released the same day that I spoke with Joyce Coffee, director of project development, policy and research for the City of Chicago, about some of the software the city is using to get a grip on its greenhouse gas emissions. Our topic was pretty basic: How does Chicago meet its rather "audacious" goal?

Her short answer: technology. "In many ways, the whole plan rests on technological innovation," Coffee says.

This innovation takes many forms, of course -- notably those involving enabling energy efficiency, electrical vehicle infrastructure, more cost-effective renewable energy technologies, and (perhaps the linchpin) business intelligence to understand where progress is and isn't being made.

Chicago has just begun building a more intelligent system for collecting all these performance metrics using software from ENXSuite (formerly Carbonetworks). To date, Chicago has been measuring the information for all the city-owned buildings in a massive spreadsheet but this is just "one tiny wedge" of the data it needs to be successful as a smart city, Coffee says.

Chicago's requirement to see the actions of multiple stakeholders across the city (not just those that are city-owned) is well beyond the feature set of a more corporate-focused environmental performance software application, Coffee contends. The ENXSuite software will allow Chicago to regularly survey other stakeholders all over the city (including, ultimately, home owners) for a more real-time view of the reduction picture. If the data doesn't jibe with expectations, it will be able to question something more quickly and with more authority.

"We can see where people are failing and thriving," she says.

The city is currently in the project exploration phase as it figures out how to best configure the ENXSuite software, Coffee says.

All over the nation, I'm sure other communities are engaging in similar projects to figure out how to measure their sustainability programs. Up until now, some organizations have viewed collecting carbon management information as a once-a-year sort of thing. Think of all the annual sustainability reports you've read, which are mostly very static. The fact is, though, that the production of greenhouse gas emissions is a very dynamic thing. Definitely something to remember as you settle on a measurement tool to keep tabs on your own performance.

Photo: Chicago skyline. Araceli Arroyo/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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