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Innovator: Harness city’s wind

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Updated: June 6, 2012 8:02AM

Energy-renewal innovator Beth Thomas is passionate about the possibilities of expanding “green” energy in urban environments, and she sees Chicago as a gold mine.

“We have been treating our environment like a trash can since the Industrial Revolution,” said the Hyde Park resident. “The only way to correct that mistake is to show that renewable energy can make money and be easily incorporated into people’s day-to-day environment.”

Thomas’ penchant for thinking of new ways to go green won an honorable mention in a Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce contest on cutting Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) costs: She proposed installing solar panels on train roofs, replacing their dependence on electricity.

Her latest effort is to see wind turbines built throughout the city, at schools, libraries, Navy Pier, the Tinley Park Metra station and McCormick Place Convention Center, to prevent transporting over an outdated electrical grid energy from far-off wind farms. She has posted graphically enhanced renderings of her visions at

One example of a communal financing model for smaller turbines is the city of Toronto, where a co-operative sold five shares, at $100 per share, to each downtown resident who chose to become a co-op member to pay to build a turbine, according to media reports. The turbine overlooks the harbor front at Exhibition Place, Canada’s largest trade fair site.

Thomas sent her proposal detailing how wind turbines would save money by replacing electricity expenses to local elected and civic leaders, aiming to inspire them that now is the time for Chicago to take up its mantle as urban history-maker and create local jobs and products. The average ComEd residential customer pays 13.18 cents per kilowatt.

Chicago-based Illinois Wind Energy Coalition Director Kevin Borgia believes the city could purchase the most cost-effective wind power from wind farms operating in open fields in rural Illinois communities.

“Wind turbines already installed throughout Illinois generate 2,742 megawatts of wind power,” Borgia said, noting that another 3,800 megawatts of wind generation are permitted but not yet built statewide.

“These wind projects can be built and create jobs in the near term,” he said.

While Borgia applauds Thomas’ ideas and efforts by the suburbs of Evanston and Lynwood to expand wind-energy development, he said small inland wind turbines cost many times that of large-scale wind farms.

Thomas’ proposal for wind turbines scattered throughout Chicago could serve as a symbol for the Windy City and an honorable demonstration project, Borgia said.

Illinois and other states have set goals to generate 25 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2025.

Yet research unveiled last week shows that large wind farms slightly increase temperatures near the ground because the turbines’ blades pull down warm air, leading to questions about what the farms’ long-term impact will be on the environment.

Also, U.S. solar and wind manufacturers are under siege and laying off employees, partly due to heightened competition from well-financed Chinese manufacturers and the U.S. Congress’ failure to extend federal tax credits that make solar and wind economically attractive. Three think tanks proposed in April a plan in keeping with Thomas’ philosophy that clean-energy economics must focus on cost effectiveness. The think tanks — the Breakthrough Institute, the Brookings Institution and the World Resources Institute — proposed that today’s federal subsidies be phased out so clean-energy developments can stand on their own financially.

Adding to the complexity is hydraulic fracturing technology, which has caused a shale-gas drilling frenzy that has sent natural-gas prices plunging and prompted drilling proponents to point to hydraulic “fracking” as the antidote to America’s foreign-oil dependency.

Borgia counters that natural gas is cheap today, but it won’t likely stay cheap; it’s more feasible to depend upon a mixture of energy resources, and no one yet knows the danger of fracking, which critics believe contribute to earth tremors and quakes.

One local company developing a different alternative is the Gas Technology Institute in Des Plaines, which has built a plant to turn algae, solid waste, stumps and limbs from forestry cuttings and other plant material known as biomass into gasoline that it estimates would cost less than $2 a gallon to produce. The goal is to blend it with traditional gasoline and sell the fuel at gas stations starting in 2014.

“We’ve worked on biomass conversion technology for more than 30 years,” said Vann Bush, managing director of GTI’s Energy Conversion Group. “Our mission is to make sure our solutions are economically viable.”

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