Monthly Archives: April 2012

Sustainability in Chicago

The City of Chicago has designed a plan to increase sustainability.

As urban areas continue to grow, the question of sustainability becomes a concern. Are our cities sustainable? Currently, urban areas are centers for pollution, however they do have the potential to improve their environment impact and become more sustainable.

The City of Chicago believes that they have the potential to increase their sustainability by making gradual changes. Their Urban Design plan was developed in 2007 to improve all exterior surfaces of the city through a series of policies and ordinance recommendations.

The committee that developed the Urban Design plan recognized that the city had 60% impervious surfaces.  High percentages of impervious surfaces over an area creates a variety of problems, including increased stormwater runoff during rainfall events. The sewers pipelines of Chicago are a combined system that contains both stormwater and other waste water from the city; the pipes direct this water to the waste water treatment plant. During periods of intense rainfall, the system becomes overwhelmed and large amounts of untreated water are forced into the Chicago River, greatly increasing pollution. To address this problem, one of the city’s goals is to reduce the amount of stormwater entering the sewer systems. To do this, some surfaces were re-paved with permeable pavement that allows water to filter through the material into the ground instead of running off. Rooftops covered in gardens also allows water to seep into the soil instead of running off the roof. Both of these designs decrease the amount of stormwater in the sewer system, and help to either recharge groundwater or water plants.

Chicago’s permeable pavement allows water to drain through the material and into the soil beneath.

Green rooftops also serve to decrease the temperatures of the roof to save on energy for cooling. The high levels of heat generated by the plentiful asphalt rooftops lead to prolonged heat waves during the summer months and an increase in air pollution. Planting trees and other vegetation on rooftops throughout the city decrees the amount of heat generated, provides some shade for the building, and remove carbon dioxide from the air to improve air quality. The nutrients needed for adequate plant growth can be provided by composted landscape material that would normally be disposed of in a landfill.

Above is the green rooftop of Chicago’s City Hall.

Chicago is also trying to increase the number of public spaces to improve the city’s aesthetics and the lives of those who live in the city. The riverwalk project beautified the Chicago River, and provides a safe walking path through the city. To improve these outdoor spaces, Chicago also aspired to reduce light pollution. Cities contribute tremendous amounts of light pollution, not only is this unappealing, but it uses large amounts of energy to power all of the lights. Chicago has attempted to reduce this pollution by replacing old street lamps with energy efficient halide lamps that are brighter while producing less light pollution.

Chicago’s Riverwalk adds beauty and function to the Chicago River.

These are just a few of the ways that the City of Chicago has strived to reduce its impact on the environment. The Urban Design plan is a great way to outline some of the key issues for the city and offer real and practical solutions.


Smart Grids

As our need for electricity increases, the condition of the existing power grid infrastructure continues to decline. The aging power lines may not be equipped to handle the increased demand, and can therefore lead to mass power outages.

The power grid system transmits electricity.

One solution to prevent grid failure is to replace the existing lines with newer lines capable of transmitting more power, but this would be very costly to implement on a national scale. In addition to cost, the new wires would not increase the reliability of the grid, or reduce emissions from burning coal and gas.  An alternative to replacement is the installation of a smart grid.

Smart grids are an overhaul of the established grid system that, over time, would install a combination of new lines, monitoring stations, computers, and automated response programs. These new systems would allow the monitoring of electricity transmission from one station to the next. Digital information about the operating status of the grid would be monitored to locate downed lines and quickly fix outages. These smart technologies can be applied to the existing lines to extend their life while increasing their efficiency.

New power grid standards are being developed by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology that would apply to any smart grid technology. Smart meters are the first of the standards to be imposed. Smart meters are designed to allow a user to monitor their energy consumption and adjust their usage in real time to help lower costs.

Smart meters increase communication between energy suppliers and consumers, and also help to reduce cost.

Smart sensors installed in transformers along the grind would help to reduce the number of power outages. Outages occur when transformers fail unexpectedly, so to reduce the impact of a failure, the sensors monitor the transformer and signal an alarm if it is not working properly. The digital information provided by the sensor allows for real time monitoring and an increased response time to problems.

Outages are often caused by failing transformers.

The automated demand response system the smart grid would supply allows for reduction of energy production during peak hours. Instead of requiring power plants to increase their energy production to meet demand during peak hours, the grid would send out a signal through the internet to the consumer that would turn off appliances. The appliances would be turned off according to an energy management strategy created by the consumer. This automatic reduction in energy use during peak hours reduces energy bills and decreases emissions from the extra coal and gas that would be needed during those hours.

The smart grid technology provides the much needed improvement of the grid system without the cost of replacing all of the current power lines. The smart grid system has the potential to greatly increase the reliability of the grid, increases the efficiency of electricity transmission, and lower environmental impact than replacing the old infrastructure. The smart grid also allows more energy to be generated by renewable sources, which help to reduce the environmental impacts of coal and natural gas.

Energy Efficiency in Homes

As fossil fuels become scarcer and more costly, it has become apparent that the future of energy is uncertain. To help transition away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energies, changes in energy consumption need to start now. The least dramatic action we can take to begin the shift would be to simply increase efficiency.

One of the simplest ways to increase the country’s overall energy efficiency would be to improve efficiency of homes.

Home efficiency can be improved by purchasing Energy Star rated products. To achieve an Energy Star Rating, products must be significantly more energy effect than traditional products,  the increased product cost must to be displaced by the amount of energy it saves, and it must have the same level of productivity of other products.

All Energy Star rated products must prominently display this symbol to make it recognizable as an energy efficient product.

There are a wide variety of Energy Star products available for every room in the house. By purchasing several Energy Star products, the overall efficiency of the household will increase.

Heating and cooling systems account for nearly half of energy usage in homes. To reduce this, several measures can be taken. Programmable thermostats allow temperature to be adjusted automatically. This allows higher/lower temperatures when the house is unoccupied or when the residents are sleeping to reduce overall energy usage. Dehumidifiers can decrease energy used for cooling during the summer months. Dehumidifiers condense the water vapor in the air and remove some of the humidity. Reducing humidity makes the air feel cooler, and therefore reducing the amount of energy used by air conditioners to cool the home.

Programable thermostats and dehumidifiers can both reduce the cost of heating and cooling homes

To further reduce heating and cooling costs, insulating walls and installing insulating windows can make a major difference in a home’s energy use. Insulation can decrease heat loss by 40% during the winter. To add to the green properties of insulation, eco-friendly materials are widely available and highly effective. Insulation for homes can be made from cotton, wool, and recycled denim and a variety of other recycled and renewable sources.

Above is an image of recycled denim insulation