green energy chicago
Jason Robbins, Walgreens manager of mechanical engineering, and Jamie Meyers, manager of sustainability at Walgreens, discuss the energy-efficient technologies used in the net-zero drugstore in Evanston.

Imagine paying pennies for your utility bill. Better yet, imagine paying nothing. That’s the chimera architects, scientists, and building owners have chased for decades. “Net-zero” energy is a simple enough concept; it’s the idea that a building can produce enough renewable energy on-site to cancel out its consumption. But it has taken decades for technology to catch up with such a lofty goal. High costs and inefficient hardware created a barrier to entry that few but the most idealistic attempted to overcome. For most consumers, the return on investment wasn’t worth mainstream implementation. The economics may still be a stretch for many, but a proliferation of energy-conscious projects—several of them in Chicago—suggests we may be approaching a new dawn.

In November, Deerfield-based Walgreens became the first major US retailer on record to create a net-zero energy store, in the North Shore burg of Evanston. And it heralds the arrival of Chicago as a national leader that is breaking ground not only in the retail arena, but in the educational, residential, and farming sectors as well. “The industry as a whole considers net zero for retail impossible,” says Jason Robbins, manager of mechanical engineering for Walgreens, “until the first company does and shows that it is possible.”

In that case, consider the door blown open. Thanks to solar, wind, and geothermal technologies, the Evanston store is not only scheduled to reduce its required consumption by 50 percent, it will also produce all the energy it requires. It has even recycled 85 percent of the old site’s new materials into the construction of the new one.

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Cool air is delivered to Walgreens from geothermal pipes.

Walgreens engineers project that the store will consume only 220,000 kilowatt hours per year (compared to the 450,000 kWh a normal store scarfs down), while producing up to 256,000 kWh, given optimal weather conditions. Excess energy will be sold back to the utility companies.

Eight hundred and fifty roof-mounted solar panels accomplish most of this feat by covering 95 to 100 percent of the store’s needs, while two 35-foot wind turbines chip in another 10 percent and offset emissions from an estimated 2.2 passenger vehicles. Massive geothermal pipes sunk 550 feet into the ground deliver air from deep within the earth at a year-round temperature of 54.5, which means that the air conditioning unit needs to do less work than normal to bring the indoor temperature to a comfortable 72 degrees.

So why now? “The right technology is finally available, but the push over the past seven to 10 years has revolved around companies becoming more responsible,” explains Jamie Meyers, manager of sustainability for Walgreens. For Walgreens, it was the logical next step in a company philosophy that champions sustainability in more ways than just the utility bill. “We saw this as part of the mantle of leadership,” Meyers says. “If we want to [be true to our tagline] of being ‘at the corner of happy and healthy,’ what can we do to demonstrate that living well goes beyond our products?”

walgreens chicago
Solar panels provide 95 to 100 percent of the Evanston Walgreens’ energy needs.

A TV inside the store tracks wind direction and speed; the indoor and outdoor temperatures; the amount of solar gain; and the levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases.

Part of the initiative is educating customers. With Walgreens headquartered in Deerfield, there’s no question that Chicago is on the forefront of the net-zero movement. And with its fleet of 8,200 stores growing at more than 100 per year, the key benefits of this project are sure to spread across the country. Walgreens has already advised other Chicagoland companies on how to replicate its success, though Meyers declined to reveal which ones.

But is net zero becoming a way of life? “That’s certainly where it’s heading,” Meyers says. “I don’t think we’re at a critical mass yet, but customers are discerning based on the reputation of the company, and they will demand innovation.”

Backyard Greens

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Leafy greens are grown in an aquaponic production system at The Plant.

On the opposite end of Chicagoland from affluent college town Evanston, a revolution is underway in the form of a very different net-zero initiative. Sprouting in the Back of the Yards is The Plant, a vertical-farming operation in the defunct meat-packing facility that used to house Peer Foods. Where men with knives once tore flesh and broke bones, horticulturists now nurture leafy green life.

The Plant was founded in 2010 when John Edel and his company, Bubbly Dynamics, bought the 93,500-square-foot building for a mere $525,000 with the aim of offering a local, sustainable alternative to wasteful food production. While a new construction might have cost them thousands of dollars per square foot, this deal had the mind-bogglingly low cost of approximately $5.50 per square foot. “It was sold as a strip-and-rip because of all the valuable materials, but what we want to do instead is continue to focus on food production and take advantage of this building’s energy efficiency,” says Abigail Lundrigan, The Plant’s education and marketing coordinator, as she leads a group of curious Chicagoans past the rickety freight elevators and through the insulated passageways of the labyrinthine brick building.

the plant chicago
One third of The Plant is dedicated to aquaponic cultivation of watercress and other plants.

A third of the building is devoted to aquaponic growth in the form of live fish (tilapia, to be exact), chard, watercress, arugula, and lettuce mix. Two thirds are set aside for a community education space, a commercial kitchen (rentable by the hour when completed), and work spaces for independent food professionals like a kombucha brewery, a beer brewery, a bakery, and more.

Thanks to The Plant’s sustainability measures, it diverts 30 tons of waste per day. Mirroring the symbiosis of nature, it works like this: Fish waste feeds the greens. A giant, 100-foot anaerobic digester turns food waste into algae for the fish and a fuel called “bio gas,” which burns with 91 percent efficiency in a generator, creating electricity for the grow lights and steam for heating and cooling. All food waste—whether it’s from the fish, the breweries, the plants, or the humans—is fed back into the digester, and all loops are closed. In the process, The Plant’s operators plans to create 125 jobs and divert 10,000 tons of food waste out of landfills each year.

More will follow, but already The Plant’s tenants include Arize Kombucha; Pleasant House Bakery; Nature’s Little Recyclers, a worm farm; Greens and Gills, a fish and farm aquaponic operation; and the Urban Canopy, an organization that aims to support agriculture in cities.

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Fresh bread is made at Peerless Bread & Jam (PB&J) bakery, a tenant of The Plant.

As much as Lundrigan and her team aim to develop The Plant into a producer in its own right, they hope that replication is another major byproduct. Though they’re only one-third through a five-to-seven-year process, they’ve already set a precedent of being transparent and specific about the sources of funding and regulations. “It’s unheard of, and it’s the Chicago way of doing things: Apologize later instead of begging permission,” Lundrigan says, noting that the Department of Agriculture, the inspecting agency, doesn’t really have protocols set up to deal with an urban farm.

The result: sustenance for a food desert, a resource for food entrepreneurs, a source of jobs in a distressed neighborhood, and a model for repurposing the industrial skeleton left behind as Chicago transitions from Carl Sandburg’s “tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities” into a greener place.

Conservation University

Over in McHenry County, Loyola University is developing a “Retreat and Ecology Campus” that aims to become net zero within the current decade. Wayne Magdziarz, senior vice president of capital planning, says it’s part of a much larger plan to green Loyola’s campuses and to provide a laboratory for future growth. The university has reduced about 34 percent of its consumption over the past four years, saving roughly $3 million per year. “We’ve embraced building green,” Magdziarz, says, referencing developments at both its Water Tower and Lake Shore campuses over the past decade. “We’re a Jesuit institution with a strong commitment to justice issues, and we believe we should be good stewards to the environment in order to live out our mission.”

The university retrofitted insulation, windows, and mechanical systems in existing buildings, which will reduce power demands by about 34 percent. “What’s completed to date is ‘net-zero ready,’” says Don McLauchlan, one of the principals at Elara Engineering, the firm that has overseen Loyola’s green projects for more than a decade. “That means we’ve made it as efficient as practically possible. What’s left is to add the renewable energy component.”

The plan: 91 geothermal wells driven 500 feet into the earth will handle heating and cooling, while photovoltaic panels, solar thermal cells, and wind turbines will harvest energy from the elements. There is also a biodiesel lab, which will generate 30,000 gallons of fuel from food waste across the campuses of Loyola and other institutions, including Northwestern.

“Chicago is clearly a leader,” McLauchlan says of the sustainability movement. “We’re seeing it in the private sector, too. Ask any manager of a downtown office building, and they will now know their Energy Star rating.”

The Hurdle

For all the drum banging about the admittedly impressive strides these Chicago institutions are making, we’re still years away from having compelling financial incentives for the average consumer to go net zero. “You want to be energy-efficient first, because the economics of net zero still aren’t quite there,” McLauchlan says. “Renewable energy is still very expensive, but just proving that it’s possible is a first big step.”

Karen Weigert
Karen Weigert, Chicago’s first chief sustainability officer.

Certain policies, such as President Obama’s “20 by 2020” initiative (a mandate that federal buildings generate 20 percent of their energy renewably within the next six years), provide some motivation. So does Chicago’s own Sustainable Chicago 2015 project, an aggressive plan to green the city over three years led by Chicago’s first-ever chief sustainability officer, Karen Weigert. “We should be about a third of the way done, but in a number of cases, we’re ahead,” Weigert explains, pointing to signs of progress: over 10,000 annual Divvy Bike memberships; a 65 percent increase in retrofitting activity in energy efficiency zones; 75 miles of water mains replaced; and groundbreaking on the 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Trail (the anticipated elevated trail system that will run through Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square), with its first phase opening to the public this fall. So far, though, many developing net-zero projects are doing so for philosophical reasons.

“I’m designing every home at a LEED Silver base level,” says William Scholtens, principal and founder of Elements Architectural Group, a residential design firm based in Oak Park. “I don’t see clients asking for it yet; I sense that it’s us keeping the conversation going.”

William Scholtens
William Scholtens of Elements Architectural Group designs every home to LEED Silver standards.

Scholtens recently transformed an 1880s row house in Lincoln Park into a LEED Platinum gem. Like the Loyola campus, the Lincoln Park home is currently net-zero ready and is equipped for photovoltaics, which convert solar radiation into electricity. In the few years since its completion, the architect and his client have discussed the pros and cons of taking it all the way, but to add the solar-harvesting component would be too pricey. “The cost to add photovoltaics to the home is close to $100,000,” Scholtens explains. “His energy bill is currently $100 to $200 a month. That’s a 50-year payback.” For the technology to become more widely adopted, “it needs to get cheaper,” he says. “As cost goes down and efficiency goes up, we might have a shot.”

Scholtens doesn’t believe any of this diminishes Chicago’s position at the forefront of the movement, largely because the city has become a go-to national resource. “One of the things Chicago is doing that’s leading the way is the amount of green professionals we have,” Scholtens says, as he runs through a list of places—upstate New York; Cape Cod; Marin County, California; even Hawaii—all of which have net-zero residential developments that Scholtens has been involved with. “I see us as an exporter of the [net-zero] mind-set.”

In the meantime, technological advances like fusion energy and more accessible photovoltaics in the form of shingles and window panes suggest that a financially viable net-zero future may be just around the corner—and Chicago is leading the charge.

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