Getting Mileage From The Sun

Combine Chicago’s reputation as a leader in green initiatives by its consistently adopting innovative environmental solutions with the park district’s motto, “Open Active Green Connected,” and the result is leadership in progressive environmental stewardship.

"We have 52 BigBelly solar-powered trash cans along the lakefront and in neighborhood parks; recycling in all of the parks, facilities and field houses; the field houses are powered by 25-percent green power," says Brendan Daley, director of Green Initiatives for the park district, which manages over 7,700 acres of land covering 570 parks. “We also have lawnmowers powered by propane, and a fleet of hybrid vehicles including golf carts, Priuses, SUVs, pickup trucks and Segways.”

Charging A Fleet

Like many other cities and parks in the United States, Chicago is opting for fleets comprised of electric vehicles. The need for recharging stations is increasing as the number of these vehicles increases. Add in the number of commuters switching to electric vehicles, and it is important for cities and parks to find a way to recharge these vehicles without creating environmental problems.

After Carbon Day Automotive was commissioned by Chicago’s 26-member 2016 Olympic bid committee to create an electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, it hired Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architecture, which specializes in the design of high-performance, energy-efficient and sustainable architecture, to help design the Solar Plug.

“Our goal is to create a zero-emissions transportation infrastructure. The Solar Plug brings together the ChargePoint Network system with Networked Smart Grid Charging Stations from Coulomb Technologies,” says Scott Emalfarb, director of marketing for Carbon Day Automotive, specializing in network electric-vehicle charging stations utilizing the ChargePoint Network and working with retailers, municipalities, utilities and property owners. “Chicago is a very progressive city in sustainable technology, and the park district took the initiative to offer this solar-powered charging station not only for fleet vehicles but for the public as well.”

“The solar plug-in station incorporates a bi-directional meter connected to the software-driven network, and is the only Smart Grid charging station available to the public," says Brian Levine, vice president of Carbon Day Automotive. “The two-car station delivers 3.2 kilowatts of solar power that it pulls in from 12 solar panels located on the roof.” Additionally, the station owner can log in and see in real time how much energy is flowing in or out.

Up And Running

The station was initially installed at the city’s west side Douglas Park, but in mid-2010 it was moved to Northerly Island, located near the bustling metro and tourist area of Lake Shore Drive, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, Solider Field and other major cultural attractions. The new location provides greater exposure in a higher traffic area.

The initial installation took about three months and cost $62,000 dollars, which was paid for through capital funding.

"It is a functional product as well as a demonstration to show that you can drive a car by using the energy of the sun,” says Daley. “We partnered closely with Commonwealth Edison to make sure the infrastructure meets its standards since the Northerly Island location will be connected to the grid.”

Artistic And Functional

Artistic isn’t probably the first term that pops into one’s head when regarding a piece of transportation infrastructure as technical as a solar-powered, electric-vehicle recharging station, that can also charge users a fee for usage and is tied to the electrical Smart Grid. “What surprised me the most was how the station looks like a piece of art,” says Daley. “It is functional and it is an attractive-looking piece of equipment.”

Depending on whether the electrical supply is 110 or 220 volts, the charge time on a vehicle can range from two to eight hours. A user can recharge an electrical vehicle while at work, and eliminate the need to ever use a gas station again. “The charging stations will work with anything that takes a plug--electric vehicle, electric golf cart, electric bicycle, recreational vehicle, semi-truck,” says Emalfarb.

Sunny Money

Revenue can be generated from the user via a per-hour or per-session fee. Or the provider can opt to provide the energy for gratis. If the station is tied to the Smart Grid, excess energy can be sold to the electric company, generating another revenue stream. If the station isn’t tied to the Smart Grid, excess energy can be stored in batteries located underground.

"The entire expense is the capital expense, as there is not much maintenance needed for the station once it is installed," says Levine. "The station is URL-certified, and is remotely monitored to make sure that it is working efficiently." The station can also be designed to aid in storm-water management. The rainwater can be recycled through the grey-water filtration system located in the center of the roof of the station, and then used for irrigation or other grey-water uses.

In the future, the city is looking at installing fully metered stations. “There are grants available for solar,” says Daley. “The City of Chicago is looking at a larger plug-in infrastructure, and we are going to partner with the city to assist with the addition of electric-vehicle recharging stations.”

“There is an alternative fueling-station credit,” says Emalfarb. “The tax credit can be as high as 50 percent of the cost of the project.” Log on to the Department of Energy’s Web site for more information about alternative fuels and alternative fueling-station tax credits.

Smart Grid

The Smart Grid is a more effective and efficient way for power to be distributed across users. The system is able to self-heal from power disturbances, resist cyber and physical attacks, and improve and accommodate power needs for the 21st century.

In October 2009, President Obama announced that $3.4 million would be invested by the Smart Grid Investment Awards grant to 100 private companies, utilities, manufacturers, cities and other partners. Besides the benefit of increasing the efficiency of the electrical grid, Smart Grid also opens the opportunity to turn back the meter via point-source production of solar-electric energy sold to the utility.

Fleets comprised of electric vehicles, solar-powered charging stations and Smart Grid technology offer parks and cities new ways to get the work done, be outstanding environmental stewards, decrease costs, and possibly provide a revenue stream--all from a little sunshine.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. You can reach her at