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Speed-Dating for the Mind

Last week took me to Chicago Ideas Week, described by its organizers as a "global hub for new ideas, an ecosystem for innovation and a playground of intellectual recreation."  I spoke about wind power on a panel called "Energy: Scalable Solutions."  The experience felt like speed-dating for the mind: each speaker had exactly 12 minutes to lure the audience.

Other panelists included Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, who has found creative ways to recycle just about everything; George Crabtree, a University of Illinois research scientist with interesting proposals for converting power plant carbon emissions into mineral form (read: rocks); James Bradfield Moody, Australian Australian co-author of The Sixth Wave: How to Succeed in a Resource-Limited World, which looks at the boom-bust cycles that have accompanied different technology innovations over time; Robyn Beavers, who has worked in various energy and water-related enterprises; and Deborah Sawyer, president and CEO of Environmental Design International (EDI), a Chicago-based consulting firm specializing in infrastructure development.

The project that Deborah Sawyer featured in her talk was a 10-megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant that her firm helped locate in Chicago's gritty West Pullman neighborhood.  There, on a 41-acre abandoned industrial site, Deborah's team laid the groundwork for Exelon City Solar, reportedly the biggest urban solar project in America.  I felt lucky to be able to visit the site the following day with Kelsey Taylor, the civil engineer at EDI who oversaw the site preparation effort.  What a great re-use of this contaminated stretch of land!  Some 32,000 SunPower solar panels have been installed, using a mechanical tracking system to capture up to 25% more power than fixed PV arrays.  The project generates enough electricity for about 1,500 households.

Certainly there are bigger solar projects in America, built by SunPower and many other companies.  This one, though, is unique in its contribution to urban jobs and its restoration of pride to a long-neglected urban community.