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Chicago Plants the World’s Largest Urban Solar Farm

Chicago solar plant
The urban solar plant on Chicago's south side.

Chicago's sprawling south side, once thrumming with steel mills and factories, is now covered by large swaths of weedy land strewn with the rubble of faded industries. But last year, a 40-acre patch not far from what was once home to the famous Pullman rail car factory sprouted a crop of 32,000 solar panels. The photovoltaic arrays move automatically to follow the sun, a glistening aberration in an otherwise drab and decrepit landscape.

This is the country's -- and perhaps the world's -- largest "urban solar farm," and since December it has been generating up to 10 megawatts of clean electricity to help power a metropolis better known for its archaic dirty coal plants. Industry executives, environmentalists, and city officials -- who don't always find themselves on the same side of an issue -- hope it will inspire other solar plants throughout polluted Rust Belt cities.

Today Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Exelon CEO John Rowe will lead an official unveiling of the plant. Daley has touted it as part of the city's plan to take action on climate change and hailed it as a job creator in tough economic times. The Chicago plant hired a handful of permanent employees and about 200 union construction jobs, 44 percent of which were awarded to minorities.

Large solar plants of 5 megawatts or more are common in Europe and the southwestern United States but usually aren't built in highly populated areas. Denis Lenardic, the Slovenia-based editor of widely respected annual reports on the solar industry, said the Chicago project is likely the largest of its kind in the world.

Advocates hope the Chicago project shows that solar plants don't have to be massive and remote -- they can be built on abandoned industrial sites or unused land owned by water treatment plants. Putting solar plants close to transmission lines and power users is highly efficient and improves the availability of power for local users in case of downed lines or other problems on the grid.

Though not as sunny as the American southwest, the Chicago area's solar resources are roughly equivalent to or even better than those of Germany and Spain, the world leaders in solar generation. The swiveling panels at the Chicago plant, built by SunPower Corp. and billed as "the most powerful on the planet," generate 30 percent more energy than typical fixed-base panels.

The Chicago plant's maximum capacity of 10 megawatts isn't much in the larger scheme of things -- enough for just 1,500 homes in a city of three million. And during the winter, generation is usually below capacity. But proponents would like to see a host of similar solar farms peppering pockets of empty land in metropolitan areas, providing 5 megawatts here, 10 megawatts there, adding up to a significant energy output.

SunPower vice president of public policy Julie Blunden describes them as potential "urban infill." Neighbors of the south side plant say they are thrilled with the investment and symbol of green energy in their back yard. "You hear so much about NIMBYism, here we actually got YIMBYism. We were very welcomed by the community," Blunden said. "We came in and provided clean energy and some jobs, using local labor and local steel."

As clean energy has become more desirable and cost-competitive, solar panels have sprouted on the rooftops of houses, government buildings, and big box stores in major cities. This type of solar power is called "distributed generation," with panels providing electricity for a given building or complex and often sending energy back to the grid if the panels generate more than the building uses.

Solar plants, by contrast, generate electricity that goes directly to the grid and is sold by a local utility. In northern Illinois, the electricity from Exelon plants is distributed by ComEd. Illinois previously got just 3.3 megawatts of electricity from solar, meaning the Exelon project increased state solar capacity four-fold.

Solar generation is driven in part by state renewable energy portfolio standards. Illinois's standard mandates that 25 percent of the state's electricity must be generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2025. Six percent of that must come from solar by 2015. That would mean about 750 megawatts of solar power, or more than 70 plants like the south side one in the next five years. The Illinois Power Agency, a government body, is responsible for buying power from different generation companies to make sure that the state complies with the RPS.

But larger-scale projects like the one on Chicago's south side will only become commonplace if they end up being cost-effective, experts say. Exelon was counting on three types of government incentives to make the Chicago solar plant viable. A federal loan guarantee fell through, but company officials say they are still committed to the plant as an experimental "demonstration project." Whether they would build more in the future remains to be seen.

"The economics are such that we need the federal incentives," said Exelon senior vice president Tom O‘Neill. "Without these incentives, the cost structure exceeds the revenue."

Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest program, said it's only logical that the government back clean energy. Coal-fired power plants might seem cheaper, but actually, fossil fuels such as coal come with all kinds of hidden costs in the form of air pollution, human health problems, and global warming, he said.

Henderson appreciates the symbolism of cutting- edge energy generation on the city's now-ragged far south side, which once produced luxury rail cars for the nation.

"Pullman was very innovative in its time," he said. "This is a way of doing something innovative now within a place that drove the transformation of our transportation system in the 19th century. How do we take that legacy and turn it into a point of productivity again? It's recycling at the most important scale."

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer and journalism instructor at Columbia College and in a non-profit youth program. She is the author of three books, most recently "Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About ... READ MORE >
An interesting idea. I have heard of city buildings getting more involved in growing vegitation of the roof. Just think about how much of an impact it would make if every roof is (one day) topped with solar panels. If each home and business was able to conserve enough solar energy to provide for all of their electrical needs. Impossible?...