Chicago, Illinois is the third-largest city in the United States, with a population of over 2.7mn people, according to a 2016 census. The state as a whole consumes over 12,238 thousand MWh, which is 44% higher than the national per home average, an Energy Information Agency report found. The Chicago Regional Energy Snapshot, commissioned in 2014, stated: “Over the next 30 years, the Chicago metropolitan area will experience growth in population, and likewise, in energy consumption”. The city’s growing demand for energy, in the face of increased awareness of the dangers of climate change, has led to Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s announcement of bold legislative steps intended to meet those demands in a way that will reduce the city’s carbon footprint.
Chicago and its surrounding area “leads the nation in electricity generation from nuclear power”, the EIA claims, producing 12% of the United States’ total consumption. Currently, renewable resources account for only 6% of electricity generated in the greater Illinois area. Although this figure has more than doubled in the past decade, the City of Chicago is planning to accelerate this trend still further by 2025.
In April 2017, Mayor Emanuel announced the city’s commitment to transitioning its 900-plus municipal buildings and operations to “100% clean and renewable energy” by 2025, according to Chicago Tonight. This announcement closely followed the announcement of President Trump’s 2019 budget, which proposes the slashing of investment in clean energy and renewables, and would dissolve the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, Forbes reports. In response, Emmanuel said in a press release: “As the Trump administration pulls back on building a clean energy economy, Chicago is doubling down.”
Jack Darin, president of the Illinois Sierra Club, told CNBC: "By moving boldly to re-power its public buildings with renewable energy like wind and solar, Chicago is leading by example at a time when local leadership is more important than ever."
The example set at a municipal level is also creating vibrant, disruptive new strategies in the private sector. The Clean Energy Trust is dedicated to accelerating the development of clean energy and renewable technologies across the Midwest. A recent press release stated: “We have awarded $3.7mn in funding to 33 clean energy startups. Startups benefitting from our programs have gone on to raise an additional $112mn in follow-on-funding – and have created over 300 jobs.”
Energy companies making waves
The CET (along with other clean energy investors like Marathon Capital and Invenergy) is actively working to grow the clean energy startup ecosystem in Chicago. 569,000 people in the Midwest are employed in “green” jobs, according to a recent study by Clean Energy Trust and Environmental Entrepreneurs. The trust announced in February 2018 the winner of its annual Clean Energy Trust Competition: Aerospec Technologies.
Along with the winner, here are several promising clean energy startups disrupting the energy market in Chicago, with an eye to provoke dramatic change to the US and global energy markets.
Aerospec Technologies, founded by Lance Li, specialises in SaaS platforms, using AI data analytics to optimise and detect issues within renewable and clean energy systems, according to American Inno. The drones collect aerial footage, which is then parsed and analysed by Aerospec’s algorithms in order to quickly alert site owners to problems within their systems. Li told American Inno: “Through process automation, [site owners] can be more efficient and generate more electricity, knowing problems before they even happen.”
RedWave Energy is a startup focused on developing tech to return excess heat into an electrical grid. The company uses miniature antennas to capture low-temperature heat (300 degrees Celsius) generated during the manufacturing process (like glass factories and electric power plants) and transfer it back into useable power to increase efficiency and sustainability, the Chicago Tribune reports. CEO Jim Nelson told the Tribune: “A huge amount of heat is wasted in industrial processes, and the reason it’s wasted is because it’s no longer hot enough to turn a turbine or be useful in any other application.” The company received $5.5mn in funding to develop new prototypes in July 2017.
NETEnergy, the brainchild of Said Al-Hallaj, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Illinois, aims to increase the efficiency of air conditioning systems. The company’s product ‘Black Ice’ is an artificial substance that is hailed as “more robust, more adaptive to air conditioning, more adaptive to the smart-grid interface and [able] to react fast,” Al-Hallaj told Midwest Energy News. The composite of graphite and wax is intended to integrate with existing air conditioning systems to store cold energy that can then be released at peak hours more efficiently than refrigeration units and traditional ice-cooling methods. “We can charge and discharge in less than two hours, whereas ice takes six to eight hours to charge or discharge,” said COO Mike Pintar.