Could Solar Power Re-energize Far South Side? | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Could Solar Power Re-energize Far South Side?

On the Far South Side of Chicago, a vacant industrial site is being transformed into a state-of-the-art energy project. When it's done, it will be the biggest urban solar power plant in the country. Backers think it could be the start of a solar boom – pumping new life into a lot of beat-up neighborhoods. But some hard-nosed accounting – both by the company and by the community – will have to come first.

Fred Burton moved to West Pullman in the 60s. These days he runs the ramshackle office of Chicago South Community Development Organization. But back then he worked around the corner at the International Harvester plant, one of the factories clustered off 119th Street.

BURTON: Well that definitely was a very booming area. I mean, you come in the morning, if you had to start at 7:30, you'd have to get here at 6:30. The parking lots were overfilled, the streets were overfilled, you had to walk maybe a mile to get back to work.

But like so many of the industrial hubs in the Midwest, this one shriveled up. The jobs evaporated. And the companies left behind 40 acres of brush, rubble and chemical waste – a moonscape of neglect. That's how it's been for the past three decades.

BURTON: Well, it's like a ghost town. So now we got a lot of vacant land, and no jobs, no hammers hitting steel and stuff of that nature.

(Ambience: hammer blows)

Actually, hammer blows have begun ringing out again at the old West Pullman Works. Since summer, the energy company Exelon and California-based SunPower have been cleaning up this brownfield, and sowing it with sunshine.

O'NEILL: It's a photovoltaic reception system. The sun hits it, and there's circuitry behind them, and that's collected in the wire … 

That's Tom O'Neill from Exelon – he heads up this project. This is set to become the largest urban solar power plant in the nation, supplying power to about 1,200 homes. About a third of the eventual 32,000 solar panels are up, arranged in neat rows.

O'NEILL: Well were looking west, probably looking at 15 acres in front of us. And it looks like a series of conference tables that if you were a little taller you could stand up and put your drink on and talk.

O'Neill says this is about reenergizing – literally and figuratively – a long-neglected part of town. But just as one plant isn't going to solve global warming, one project isn't going to turn around a troubled neighborhood. Community organizer John Paul Jones says this development, backed by lots of public money, must offer more direct benefits to locals.

JONES: We see the solar panel project as a gap financing to a much bigger plan that would bring green strategies to the West Pullman district. At a minimum we should be getting energy back to the homeowners. We do expect more from this project and we hope they would understand that.

Fred Burton – the guy who moved to West Pullman in the 60s -- puts it this way:

BURTON: It's a long-term benefit for the environment, but we need J-O-Bs. We need a lot of those.

Some of the 200 or so construction workers come from the area, and pylons holding the solar array are from local steel. But the panels themselves come from Asia, and the plant's permanent crew will number just seven. This is still a business.

Even so, it likely won't turn a profit, Exelon says – it's a pilot project. But if the numbers work, they say derelict industrial sites across the Midwest could start going solar. Howard Learner of the Environmental Law and Policy Center says rich subsidies and cheap solar panels mean the time is right for a solar boom.

LEARNER: It's a great time if you want to do a project to get the equipment at a very low price point. You know the plant in West Pullman is the first major solar facility in Chicago. And I think within a year or some we're going to see four or five or six or even more of them in Illinois.

But solar power is still pricier than coal or nuclear, or even wind. It depends heavily on help from the government – in this case, a sweetheart lease from Chicago, and a $60 million loan guarantee from the feds. Exelon's Tom O'Neill says solar has a way to go.

O'NEILL: Future success in this area is going to come down to the basic economics. If we want large-scale solar, we need to see those numbers get more aligned with what our tolerances are right now.

Still, backers say this plant could show there's a place in the Midwest for projects that look toward the future. People in neighborhoods like West Pullman are coming to terms with that future. It's one where industrial zones may never again bustle like they did 40 years ago. But maybe they won't sit vacant, either.

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