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Toni Preckwinkle endorses plan to cut county government’s energy bill

Toni Preckwinkle | Sun-Times files

Toni Preckwinkle | Sun-Times files

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Updated: July 6, 2013 6:35AM

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle advanced a plan Tuesday to lower her government agency’s energy bill and reduce the greenhouse gases produced by its daily operations.

Releasing and endorsing a report from an outside council of business and civic leaders, Preckwinkle said the county could achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Officials were cautious about cost savings because energy prices can be volatile. But the report by Preckwinkle’s sustainability advisory council estimated the county could save $40 million over the next 20 years.

It spends about $34 million a year for energy use, mostly at the Cook County Jail and Stroger Hospital complexes.

“Clearly our goal is to save money but I think our goal is also to be a leader in pushing other units of government and all of our constituencies to think more about sustainability,” Preckwinkle said.

The proposals focus on county-owned buildings, which account for two-thirds of its energy consumption, but they also cover improvements in the handling of solid waste, water usage and management of fleet vehicles.

Some easy energy-saving measures already adopted cost little upfront but are saving about $1 million a year, said Deborah Stone, director of the county’s Department of Environmental Control. The measures have included improved lighting, tweaks in the heating and air-conditioning schedules and Wattage Wars, a competition among county building managers to cut usage.

Preckwinkle said the county is “deeply indebted” to ComEd for free consultation that, among other things, is generating data about energy consumption for the first time.

Anne Pramaggiore, ComEd’s president and CEO, co-chaired the advisory council with Christopher Kennedy, chairman of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises Inc. and former longtime executive in charge of the Merchandise Mart.

“Little adjustments can result in some significant dollars and people really don’t notice the changes in most cases,” Pramaggiore said.

One change the county implemented was a switch to LED lighting for traffic signals on highways it owns, reducing the bills from those fixtures by 70 percent, officials said.

In the next few years, capital improvements already scheduled for the jail and hospital will lead to further energy improvements, Preckwinkle said.

For now, the county is avoiding flashy but expensive solutions, such as installing solar panels or buying electric cars. Instead of following the city’s steps in favoring landscaped roofs, the county will look at plastic “white roof” coverings that better reflect sunlight and lower cooling costs, Stone said.

Kennedy said the county’s energy policies have business implications. Chicago’s population losses could become a “disaster,” he said, if it leads to an exodus of corporate jobs.

Cook County must have a “sustainable story” to tell so companies and employees will stay, Kennedy said. “The easiest population to relocate is young people, people between 22 and 32. They want to be in a sustainable community,” he said.

He said the council’s recommendations steered clear of placing new mandates on businesses and individuals.

In leading by example, Preckwinkle said, the county hopes to encourage similar efforts in its municipalities. She said it will become a clearinghouse for information on grants and financing for energy-saving work.

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