How Northeastern Illinois Aims To Become the Greenest Region

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Solar power development is skyrocketing in Northeastern Illinois, communities are gaining new sustainability coordinators, and mayors are taking a literal seat at the table in global environmental conferences. It’s all fueled by the nation’s largest regional collaboration on sustainability called the Greenest Region Compact (GRC).

With 115 municipalities and 10 councils of government as signatories, and with those numbers continually growing, the GRC demonstrates just how much can get done when municipalities collaborate. The GRC also serves as a magnet for resources from funders.

In this first of two blog posts, we’ll introduce and explain the Greenest Region Compact, developed by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. We’ll focus on one aspect of its success – solar development – and share important suggestions on what municipalities should consider when engaging in regional collaboration and sustainable actions.

“Communities of all sizes can achieve sustainability, especially when they work together,” says Edith Makra, director of environmental initiatives at the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus.

The GRC provides this opportunity. Its highlight is 49 simple, high-level sustainability goals in ten categories: climate, economic development, energy, land, leadership, mobility, municipal operations, sustainable communities, water, and waste and recycling. The goals derive from a first-of-its-kind study of 30 local and nine regional or national sustainability plans, and an analysis of 290 municipalities’ sustainability actions.

“These ‘consensus goals’ capture the broad collective experience, knowledge and wisdom among a broad diversity of municipal leaders and sustainability professionals,” Makra says. “They help communities impact the most people in the most effective ways,” she says.

The GRC’s Framework is a menu of possible objectives and strategies to achieve the goals. Makra notes that cities use the GRC’s resources to assess their own strategies and form their own plans of action tailored to their specific needs, but aligned with the goals.

The GRC has already scored impressive results, especially in solar power development, facilitating a new solar power purchasing pool with favorable rates for municipal facilities.  And in May, Illinois is on track to become home to the most communities with SolSmart designation (for fostering development of solar power markets), surpassing California and Colorado.

SolSmart is a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and led by The Solar Foundation and the International City/County Management Association. Participating GRC cities use SolSmart’s resources to streamline development of solar installations on homes and businesses, cutting electricity costs for them, reducing pollution for all and creating new jobs.

These jobs are part of the Chicago region’s striking upswing in solar. The area was the top metro for solar jobs growth in the nation last year, with 1,180 jobs added in 2018 for a total of 4,275 jobs, according to The Solar Foundation.

The Metropolitan Mayors Caucus is the conduit for solar development assistance to municipalities serving as the Solar Advisor to the region for the SolSmart program.

“There are a number of provisions that municipalities would find virtually impossible to do on their own, even though they were interested in solar,” says Park Forest, Ill. Mayor John Ostenburg, Chairman of the Environment Committee for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. “The GRC provides technical advice and other resources to make solar development a reality for them,” adds Ostenburg, who also serves on the National League of Cities Community & Economic Development Committee and the First-Tier Suburbs Council.

Schaumburg, Illinois, features the most prolific growth of solar among all GRC communities. A mere three permits swelled to nearly 60 in approximately one year, including residential and commercial properties. Schaumburg’s point person on permits, Martha Dooley, explains that “now, the permit process is very transparent. Once the installers became familiar with it, things went smoothly and quickly,” calling the GRC’s technical assistance and staff training “key.”

From the big picture perspective, the GRC produced lessons learned for engaging in regional collaboration and sustainable actions. Here are three of Makra’s suggested key considerations:

  • Adopt the GRC to save time in determining a general direction to pursue. That’s because the GRC’s “consensus goals” remove the need to determine whether a goal is worthwhile, leaving a city ready to act.
  • Pursue collaborative actions that can be addressed by a large group of municipalities. This procedure guards against selecting actions that would be suitable only for certain sized towns or those in certain geographic areas.
  • Integrate existing, successful sustainability programs already offered nationally or regionally. There is no need to recreate new standards and programs for a particular GRC objective if one already exists. For example, the GRC objective that states “procure renewable energy for public facilities” directs communities to “become a S. EPA Green Power Community.”

 

About the Author: Gina Tedesco, who authors articles on behalf of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, has an extensive background in researching and writing environmental stories for newspapers, magazines and websites, and delivering them on radio and TV.  This, after more than 20 years as a news reporter or anchor at outlets in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.