Berwyn's Jolly Green Giant (Laundromat) and local theater

February 5, 2013

WBEZ

Tricia Bobeda/WBEZ
Laundry spinning - powered in part by solar panels - at the World's Largest Laundromat in Berwyn.

We're exploring Chicago suburbs and put out calls via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to get your ideas for our day looking for stories in Berwyn. And you gave us so many ideas, we had to enlist the help of some of our bloggers to answer your questions.

We have a story about the World's Largest Laundromat and the unconventional ways it's building community in Berwyn. But it's also an interesting test case in using green technology to cut energy costs. WBEZ Environmental blogger Chris Bentley talked with Tom Benson, the owner, about his solar-powered laundromat:

Solar-powered suds

World's Largest Laundromat owner Tom Benton first installed solar panels in 2002 after an unprecedented spike in natural gas prices.

These are solar thermal panels, not photovoltaics, so they make hot water, not electricity. Depending on the season, his 36 solar panels can shave as much as 15 percent off his natural gas bill. That is one of his main expenses — all those washers use a lot of hot water.

The laundromat burned down in 2004, and Benson rebuilt the $175,000 solar panel system along with the rest of the building, receiving a minor contribution from the state for the renewable energy.

(The first time around, a state grant kicked in nearly half of the solar panel's costs). Interestingly that price signal that drove Benson to look at solar in the first place has not only subsided — natural gas is now one sixth the price it was in the early 2000s. Thanks to unconventional extraction techniques like fracking, massive domestic reserves of the fossil fuel have been discovered, which have prolonged Benson's payback period.

Though the solar panels still haven't paid for themselves, despite next to no maintenance costs, he is still glad he has them. Given the new economics of natural gas, he said he would have to think long and hard about whether he'd install them again if asked to start over today.

They are scouting a new location in Chicago, which Benson said would likely include solar photovoltaic. It might also include efficient LED lighting, at least for the building's exterior. He isn't the only solar laundromat — in fact, he said one nearby on Ogden Ave. had solar panels — but he is one of few. Crain's reported that fewer than 5 percent of the 35,000 laundries nationwide use solar power, according to the Coin Laundry Association.

Theater in Berwyn

Lots of folks on Facebook suggested we explore the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. WBEZ's Dueling Critic Kelly Kleiman offered her two cents about the budding theater scene:

Ann Filmer founded 16th Street Theater to bring not just professional theater but new plays to Berwyn. It's becoming the affordable alternative to Oak Park for literate parents. Filmer has worked with other theaters (Teatro Luna) and with visiting artists

(Michael Fosberg, who performed his own compelling monologue about discovering in his mid-30s that he was black) but her real strong suit is discovering new plays with believable protagonists dealing with contemporary issues. "Contemporary" can be a pretty broad category--16th Street's production of The Beats focused on poets of the 1950s--but don't expect any costume dramas.

Right now 16th Street is working with visiting artist Lance Baker as he presents Mike Daisey's monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a "J'Accuse!" about Apple's manufacturing partners in China and their mistreatment of their workers. Daisey originally presented the monologue on This American Life as reportage, but was soon forced to admit that it contained significant elements of fiction, and Ira Glass and his crew retracted the story.

Baker is presenting what purports to be a de-fictionalized version of the piece, but the shadow of Daisey's deception hangs over it. Interestingly, though, that makes the piece more resonant instead of less--obviously some portions of it are true, and the effort of trying to decide which those are makes the audience more engaged in--and, sad to say, more complicit with--the business decisions which produce our affordable iThings.