Culture, Environment, Government, Politics

Trouble In The Back Forty: How We Got To Here

January’s public hearing on the 40-acre development up on Butterfield attracted a sometimes reasoned but also fiery rejection to the idea. The authorities went away ruffled and straightening their ties. The public filed out, quietly fuming, and baffled.

Bafflement prevailed because the question was asked how we ever came to this point: a 148-unit, high density housing development on the site of a recent clear-cut of over 2,000 60-year-old trees. The flames came from a few who castigated the developers and planners alike for taking advantage of the Village rules and a complacent, uninformed and trusting public.

So what happened?

The ground started to move in 2009 when the Archdiocese of Chicago signaled to the Village that they wanted to develop 97 acres of open land at the east end of St.Mary’s Lake. The Village looked at its Comprehensive Plan map and noted the parcel was drawn and zoned as Institutional Building, (IB).

Every smart village government has a Plan. This blueprint provides guidance to control against undesirable development. Our Plan had reserved the 97 acres for church buildings.

The Church however saw housing: affordable housing for Libertyville’s younger families. In a deftly cadenced move that any professional card shark would have applauded, the Church suggested to only develop the northern section, about 33 acres nearest Butterfield Road. South of that, another 7 acres of woods would be “untouched” and the bottom 57 acres would be left institutional. They asked that the 33 acres be redrawn as Residential.

Following two meetings and a lot of questions about Planned Development housing, traffic volumes, safety, isolation, tree preservation, housing affordability, open space and the wisdom of an unscheduled, redrawing of the Plan to suit the Church, they voted.   The Plan Commission went 5/2 in favor, April 2010.  The Village Trustees gave it a green light too.   33 acres were redrawn on the Plan map as Residential, and 7 acres left as Institutional.

However, the entire 97 acres are still today zoned Institutional Building.  While the Plan gives guidance, it’s the zoning which is law.

Only years later did the Church find a developer who would be happy to buy the land if they could build nearly 200 homes on the 33 acres, and take the 7 acres of woods south of the development site as well.

The developer quickly began to design the site, and eventually reduced the residential count to 148 single family dwellings, 3 & 4 bedrooms,  2,000-2,900 square foot, two-story units on tiny, fenced lots.  The designs didn’t comply with residential zone codes, but because they are a Planned Development, they got a pass.

Meanwhile the soft sell on the development commenced as multiple sets of beautiful drawings were dropped off at the Plan Commission office, with the Village Trustees, the engineering and public works departments, as well as the police, fire and the many other committees who need to vet the process.

Unfortunately, the public didn’t get wind of the proposal until a registered letter was sent to a few souls who lived within 250 feet of the site, net of any roads.  A public hearing in September hosted a small crowd of residents who, scratching their heads, asked what the heck was going on.

Even then, the public didn’t fully understand what was about to happen.

The Church, now very much on a roll, authorized the developer to get Village permission to remove 2,500 trees on the property.   After considerable expense and due diligence, the Village Trustees approved the logging on October 10.  By Thanksgiving, the trees were gone, authorized with a site development permit.

Yet no approval had come from the Village to re-zone, let alone develop the site.

The next Plan Commission meeting was postponed until January 9.  With time to study the proposal, it became clear to many that the development was off color.

Many emotional, esthetic issues entangle this debate, but high above them is the reality of traffic congestion, child safety, school crowding and Butler Lake pollution.

In addition to these challenges, the developer is attempting to sell very expensive homes to buyers who will have tenuous and dangerous access to and from their neighborhood.   The stark reality is that there is no convenient way to turn into the site, and nightmarish opportunities to exit.  A deal killer for the rational homeowner.

The Church has been suspected perhaps of disconnecting the site from Libertyville if we kibosh the deal.  Rumors run rampant that the land will host high rises, fast food stores and muffler shops if we were to lose the land to the neighboring village.

The probability of that happening is remote because none of the developer’s challenges go away.    In fact they are compounded by very expensive infrastructure needs and delays statuted in Illinois law.

So we now find the issue coming to a head with a February 27 vote:

  1. To re-draw the Plan map to include the 7 wooded acres as Residential;
  2. To re-zone all 40 acres from Institutional to Residential;
  3. To get a plat of the subdivision;
  4. To grant a special use permit to build a Planned Development;
  5. To develop a concept for the Planned Development.

The Village Trustees painted themselves into a corner back in 2010, but have had to wait 7 years for the floor to dry.  Whether they can find a solution to the conundrum is a toss-up.

Rest assured that the public is now paying attention.

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Culture, Environment, Government, Politics

Warning, Sign Ahead

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The sign, like fine print, hints at bad news.

In Libertyville we are looking up every few moments to see what else has happened.

Last summer, without much ado, a sign was posted on an old playing field on the north side.    A little time later, a huge scraping of topsoil appeared, mounded like a two-story pyramid of dark chocolate.  It was soon iced with a frosty mantle of green weeds.   Five condo buildings are soon to follow.

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The new view from the treetops, sort of.

On the west side, a sign went up announcing a hearing about a corn field bordered by a tangled, but mature stand of 60-year-old trees. By October, the trees had come down. The plan calls for 148 homes.

Further south, another sign announced a hearing for a modest development of 19 houses over a small parcel of land and wetland.

Meanwhile there is a sign in front of the train station.   It’s the site for a multi-residential complex that will make rail commuting an adventure in the future. Some 150 units will be in place to hear that lonesome whistle blow, as some 46 trains roll by every day.

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Winchester: one up, and four to go.

All of these signs are caused by the popularity of a Village which has every reason to be proud. Founded in 1882, it was a remote outpost for Chicago travelers heading to Milwaukee.

Today it is a thriving, pretty town of 20,000 souls in the country, home to the #1 school district in Illinois, and #2 nationwide. It has a bustling main street that sees 23,000 cars daily, but still offers free two-hour parking on both sides, to visit the big-windowed, filigreed stores selling everything from $30,000 motor cycles to $10 hair cuts.

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Lunch in the park, in front of the Cook home.

In the Village Center,  residents lounge in a treed park hosting a vibrant, manicured rose garden, summer band concerts, lunches on the lawn, Thursday market and the view of a picturesque antiquity, the city father’s mansion now restored as a public museum.  Hungry for knowledge? The library is right there.  Just plain hungry? The Village lists over 70 restaurants and bars.

We are at the center of a giant societal magnet: everyone wants to live here.  And that is the challenge.  How do you keep that small town feel that brought you here 5, 25, or 75 years ago?

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Another housing plan, neatly drafted.

Fortunately, we have considerable oversight.  The Village has a Plan which is the blueprint for planned growth.  It has a commission that executes the Plan, and that includes sub commissions that monitor appearance and zone codes.  Hardly a tree goes down or a roof goes up that doesn’t get a committee say-so first.

Still, none of these measures and controls work if we, the residents, don’t read those pesky little signs.  Like fine print, they often signal bad news.

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School Street an urban success: asking for over $1,000,000.

The trouble is, the signs keep popping up, like Village-sponsored graffiti, and our only choice is to pay attention.  Which can be a full time job.

The Village Hall posts a schedule of committee meetings.  There is at least one meeting every night, virtually all year.  If one is diligent, the meetings could be met, except that the school boards have their monthly meetings too, so it’s difficult.

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Downtown: the Metra station gets a makeover.

Meanwhile, the developers move in, longstanding property holders look to reap their reward, and the borders of our Village are eroded and pushed, like impacted molars, causing pain with every new sign.

We can’t stop progress.  But we need to trust our Planners and Trustees to watch out for us.  In return, we do need to show up when those signs pop up.

As the saying goes, “if you don’t go to the meeting, the meeting doesn’t go your way.”

The next Public Hearing for the Butterfield proposal is February 27th, at the high school, 7pm.

Thanks for reading!  If you want to keep informed by the Village of new meeting agendas, click here.

Please share!

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Culture, Environment, Government, Politics, Wildlife

If A Tree Falls In The Forest

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The woods that colored our view.

This past October has been a searing lesson in keeping one’s antenna up. The teachable moment was the watching of a highly efficient logging crew cut down a thousand or more trees from the lot across the road.

The clear cut was requested by the church which owns the land, and it was approved by the village after due inspection.

You see, where we live we have a village administration which has pretty strong rules about keeping up appearances. You can’t just cut down a tree unless it’s sick, damaged, or dangerous, and if so, you need a permit first.   I used to think too much government is a rein on individual freedom, but this set of rules is a good one.

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This old gentleman looks forward to a questionable future.

It turns out that the church is in the mood for selling the land for development. The challenge was to make the parcel more attractive, and to that end, counseled with its lawyers to build a case for removing a wilderness of 60-year-old trees.

The trees in question were part of an abandoned tree nursery. Fifty-five  years ago, they were planted 10 feet apart, and do you know what happened? The owners gave up the business, and Mother Nature took over.

In fitting out her arboreal family, she attracted a host of wildlife, from deer, coyote and other furry creatures, complemented by boisterous flocks of birds who populated the tree tops with a chatter of music all day.

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20,000 motorists enjoyed this view every day.

Meanwhile, the trees matured to their full 5-story height, and spawned a wilderness of jungle under the canopy.

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Not a winner: this tag identifies a tree that didn’t make the cut, ironically.

The critters loved it; the church not so much.

Then about a year ago, a developer sniffed out a golden opportunity to build a settlement of new homes on the property, and before long, a deal was made. The developer became the authorized agent for the church to get the trees removed.

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Every summer and fall a corn grower leased the land for this harvest.

The new agent petitioned the village government, pointing out the church’s liability if, God forbid, a tree might fall down and clobber a hiker foraging in the woods for morels. It hadn’t happened in 50-plus years, so odds were likely that the jig would soon be up.

With detailed, supporting testimony from professional arborists hired by the developer, and then double-checked by the village’s own arborists, and ultimately inspected by the mayor, the village gave the okay to axe the forest.

Each offending tree was tagged, and given a C.V. page in a three-ring binder. 2,500 candidates were put on the rolls, and 38 were deemed salvageable.

The news finally broke when the local reporter headlined an article on the pending clear cut. Then, and only then, did the public wake up.

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The loggers, like good executioners, did their job swiftly, and well.

But sadly, too late!

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A 57-year-old bleeds a story for the arborist.

In November the heavy machinery came in, and in a matter of a few days, decimated the woods which had pleased passers by for decades. Today, there is a giant mountain of chipped wood on the lot, over 20 feet high, and enough to fill the village swimming pool three times over.

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Three winners. 38 trees survive the cut.

I mentioned passers by.   Approximately 20,000 motorists pass the woods every day. Year after year the woods have been the backdrop to the driver’s view on a seasonal corn crop that has graced the parcel forever, accented by a colorful palette of leaves each fall.

One day it’s there, the next, it’s gone.

Driving north today we see a sodden battlefield of tree stumps, roots and tangled branches, exposing fresh, grainy wood under torn bark and up-ended logs.  A water tower overlooks the scene, never before visible from the road.  Behind that, the once sheltered golf course now presents a naked 20-foot-high wire fence used to catch wild golf balls.

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The new view. Passers by witness the harvest, and drive on, chastened.

As we drive by, our eyes are drawn to the carnage, and then we avert our gaze in disgust.  The sight is sickening.

One wonders if the village will have the gumption to direct the church to clean up the stubble and make it pleasant, minimally, just to keep up appearances.

Though the word “development” is attached to every discussion about the deforestation, we are assured by the village that the decision to remove the trees is not connected to any housing proposal.

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This row of trees is no longer a threat to the hiker.

The questionable proposal to crowd up to 147 houses on the parcel of land is nebulous.  Despite the best drawn plans, it has earned no approvals for re-zoning, plats or building.

In the face of the public’s nausea over the decisions to date, the development may never appear, or perhaps hover in limbo indefinitely.

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2500 trees, reformatted.

Meanwhile, the steam and fumes of fermenting wood chips fill the air with a bitter tannic scent that drifts across our neighborhood.

The lesson we have learned from this smoldering string of events is that despite our best wishes, bad things happen if we don’t pay attention.   To that end, there is an aggressive interest among the population to watch what’s going on down at village hall.

 

While all the time, we grieve, and get on with it.

 

 

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Economics, Environment, Government, Science

There’s No Hot Water

Shower

Shower time: the best moment of the day.

Thankfully, the EPA is taking a closer look at us in the shower.

It turns out that the Environmental Protection Agency has made the important decision to fund the University of Tulsa, which will study the showering practices of America’s hotel guests from sea to shining sea.

Boarding house lineup

“There’s an alarm clock in the sink. Hit it when you’re out.”

Their goal is to develop an app which will monitor our shower usage when we are nipping out to the local hotel for a relaxing sojourn in the tub.

According to U of T, hotel guests are using in excess of 17 gallons of water for a shower. Their proposal: we should limit the wash to 15.5 gallons.

Basically, cut a minute off the most important moment of the day.

"You're kidding me.  I just got here!"

“Already? And you want a tip?”

They report this is easily accomplished by turning off the shower while we are lathering.

Tulsa engineers suggest we can further reduce wasted water by taking “navy showers”, i.e.. freezing buck naked in the stall waiting for warm water.

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“You know, this could run into money!”

Apparently, the U of T engineers are working on an app that will monitor shower water usage by room, and transmit the data, real time, to the hotel’s accounting department.  The proposed objective here is to modify guests’ shower behavior.

May we also suggest more group showers?   It used to be that Mrs. Jones’ boarding house filled the tub once, and from there, we all lined up for a dunk like kids.

"Not a chance.  I just got here."

“Not a chance. I just got here.”

Wisely, the U of T engineers have not proposed twosomes to save water, as the likelihood of less shower time is imaginatively remote.

There is a logical extension in the offing, and that is to enlist the services of outside peer-scoring agencies like the renowned OPower company which has quite successfully modified electrical and natural gas usage.

"With all due respect, your numbers suck, big time."

OPower: “We suggest you skip the conditioner.”

Using meter readings from over 60 million households nationwide OPower has delivered energy savings pushing 5% and more, while simultaneously improving utility company satisfaction ratings.

OPower’s reports provide comparative peer group scores, and also offer energy saving tips to the consumer.

Cowbiy Tub

“Time’s up Jarrod. Ranch boys are lined up waiting’ on ya.”

We can see this as a no-brainer in the hospitality industry, where consumers can receive regular reports on their shower usage at the local hotel, or the inn down the road in the next town.

After a few report rotations it would be no surprise if shower usage shrank considerably.

No doubt, the hotel’s satisfaction ratings will skyrocket too.

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Economics, Environment

Gassed: How Our Utility Co Turns Down The Heat

Odds are, if you get a gas bill, you are also getting a report card in the mail too.

      "Loser!"

             “Loser!”

Our gas company mailed us a Home Energy Report for last month, telling us how we stacked up against our uproariously wasteful and spendthrift neighbors.

Turns out: WE are worse than them.

It is a sad reality that I respond to competitive taunts, and right now, our gas company is yanking my chain.

You see, they previously sent us a report for last winter.   It had a little smiley face–which really is smirking–that says “GOOD”.

But I know what it’s thinking: “LOSER!”

"Good maybe, but not great."

“Good maybe, but not great.”

Beside Mr. Smiley is a bar chart that highlights our “Efficient Neighbors” in green. These are the raucous ones last New Years Eve that roasted a quarter steer on the gas grill while they played Marco Polo in a mammoth hot tub.  They have 9 kids, two washing machines and a greenhouse.

"With all due respect, your numbers suck, big time."

“With all due respect Mr. Brown, your numbers suck, big time.”

Then the report shows a longer blue bar — which is bad–that is entitled “YOU”.  In bold.

So I am now energized (hah hah) to understand how our humble little household can possibly respond to this blatant miscall.

I wonder if the gas company is playing with me.

There was once a TV movie in which a dad and his son fill up the neighbor’s gas tank every night to listen to him brag about his car’s great mileage.    Then after a few weeks, they siphon gas out every night to hear him complain about the guzzler he is driving.

Is there a prankster somewhere in the seventh floor of an office building in Chicago who is twiddling with my score, just to see how I react?

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                                               “Just check that thermostat again.”

Worse yet, maybe they are not playing tricks at all.   Maybe our modest ranch is actually a gas-guzzling super nova.  A galactic black hole sucking energy into a cosmic chimney.

That might account for the drafts.

I am going to give the gas company the benefit of the doubt for the moment.   When I investigated the source of these reports, I learned that they come from a company called Opower.

There is a lab-coated millennial there who is modifying my “demand response behavior” while flipping through Hunger Games.

Essentially, Opower has placed my house on a giant leader board with about 50 million other households, and lo and behold, we are not on the top of the list.

Dinner at our neighbors.

Dinner at our neighbors.

I’d like to see the hermit who is.  Probably dressed in yak skins and eating his fish raw.

To their credit, however, they have shamed enough people in the last few years to reduce natural gas consumption nearly 2%.

And what is more confounding, improved consumer satisfaction ratings for the gas company by 5 points!

Talk about a world upside down.   Running against the natural order of things.

Our new HVAC guy, en repose.

Our new HVAC guy, en repose.

I am not beaten though.   I will climb that list.   I will lay down a 2-foot-thick blanket of moss in our attic.   Line the windowpanes with hay bales.   Wrap the basement in a giant Snuggie and remove the furnace.

Better yet, I will hang out with our neighbors.

Thanks for reading!  If you get these reports too, I feel for you.   But they are actually a pretty useful tool.   Unless you live in the woods.

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Environment, Science

Something’s Rotten in Seattle

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Spreading good everywhere.

The farmer and his son are driving down a country road on a warm spring morning.   In the air is the unmistakeable bouquet of fresh manure, wafting up from a newly treated acre just upwind.  “Smell that son?” asked the man as he leaned his head out the window, “That’s profits!”

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Gogo and Wembly consult Marjory on composting, Fraggle Rock.

Compost is one of nature’s small gifts to those of us who wish to take it.  Bagging up potato peels.   Separating lemon rinds from swizzle sticks.  Throwing eggshells and coffee grounds into a bucket under the sink.

And any kid has to wonder, “when are they going to ask me to take that outside?”

The Korsts, a Dallas, Oregon couple composted their entire consumable garbage for a year after removing all recyclables.  Turns out their actual “garbage” filled a shoebox.   For a year!  Meanwhile the compost heap quietly bubbled and burped in their back yard.  No newscast has yet reported that they have gone missing while detectives are following up some promising leads next to the tomato rows.  But we wait to see.

Today, composting is de rigeur.  Ask the virtuous and self-denying citizens of Seattle who just this week accepted a composting by-law.   Simply stated, compost-eligible items may not exceed 10% of their weekly garbage pick-up.  In other words, “if it rots, keep it.”

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Seattle City Council hash it out.

The city council opened up this can of worms in July with city ordinance 124313.  It requires the frugal and resourceful residents  to reduce recyclable contents in landfill garbage to less than 10%.

Two months later, still not satisfied with the purity of their garbage, city council expanded the 10% cap to compostable matter.  From now on, that leftover duck a l’orange goes under the Spiraea bush in the back yard.

The motive behind this cleansing is to reduce landfill waste.   It turns out that Seattle was shipping 300,000 tons of garbage to a site in eastern Oregon annually.   Remember the Korsts?

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Bags to go: we love ’em but we hate ’em.

Today consumers are whipsawed by legislation over garbage.   In the east, Torontonians are thrilled that the 5-cent tax on grocery bags has been rescinded by city council.

In this instance, the “single-use” plastic bag definition ran into a legal shredder.   Lawyers argued that once home, using the flimsy bag to hold garbage was a multiple use, and therefore acceptable.

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The sweet smell of success!

You may remember Toronto has had its share of political low days.   One of its good days is the 2010 cessation of trucking over a million tons of garbage to a Michigan landfill site every year.

And farther north, in Ottawa, the citizenry of Canada’s capital were presented with a training video for folding their newspapers.  Why?   To line their wet garbage bin.

Which brings me to my main interest: the business of composting.   In my world, if it’s vegetable, it’s compostable and… it’s profitable.

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Modest contributions: raw materials.

To that end, I happily walk broccoli stems, corn husks and wilted flowers out to a pile in the side yard that is the resting place for last year’s Jack ‘o’ Lantern, the weekly grass clippings, and all of the neighborhood’s fallen leaves.

Within this melange of produce there hustles a busy community of worms, sow bugs and centipedes.  They are quietly chomping, digesting and extruding high grade fertilizer.   Behind them, a trail of microbes are further breaking the matter down to its fundamental parts.

Canadian Nightcrawler

A hard, loyal worker. His rings indicate seniority.

While they seemingly toil without cease, I have learned that the earthworm follows regular hours.   A New York State College environmental paper reveals that it takes 8 hours for a worm to digest a meal, head-to-toe as it were.   And the output?  Anywhere from 2%-44% of its weight.

The scientists who made this finding also report that the optimum population density for earthworms is about 8 one-ouncers per cubic meter.   I know that my compost heap does much better than that.   Judging by the cafeteria lineups, I have a high density worm farm in operation.  Don’t tell PETA.

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Rich, dark goodure.

The compost pile delivers the richest, loamy soil every spring and fall.   In the spring, I transport bushels of the black mulch to our garden.  There, it caps the ground, surrounds the new flowers, stifles the weeds and holds the water.

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Compost delivers!

In the summer, I used another 20 bushels of compost to plant 11 rose bushes.   They are bursting in bloom continuously.

In the fall, I’ll dump another load of compost to cover over the roses and the mums, keeping them insulated until next spring.

Total cost: zero.

My hat is off to the noble and frugal citizenry of Seattle.

May you succeed in retaining all your garbage, with thanks to the folks in eastern Oregon.

 

 

 

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direct mail, Economics, Environment

Zapped: How Your Utility Saves Energy

ComEd 2014 -06 273 doubleCommonwealth Edison is craftier than you might think, compared to the traditional image of the big, dumb, power company.

We are used to receiving their monthly ransom note.   It is comprehensive in detail, reducing our extravagant lifestyle to bar charts that rise and fall with every change in the weather.  But beyond the normal appeal for money, we now receive a separate Home Energy Report.

The statement has no billing or stern demands.   Instead, it reports how your household is doing compared to the neighbors.   ComEd 2014 -06 barsThat’s right, compared to the igloo on your left whose roof is sooted with burnt whale oil.  Or to the right, your very private neighbor who has lights blazing in the basement, around the clock.

ComEd 2014 -06 270 SmileyOur report gave us a couple of smiley faces.    In the energy world, happiness is about abstinence, and we have aced, barely on the grid at all.

The report said in essence: “Compared to 100 close-by neighbors you are living the life of Scrooge in the dark; you must be cold at night, and survive on canned food and powdered eggs, since you don’t have a fridge, let alone AC.   P.S. Have a nice day.”

Careful review of this colorful, and highly personalized report reveals that the news comes from a company called Opower.

Not to be mistaken for, or associated with a day-time talk show queen, Opower serves some 93 utility companies across the U.S., Canada and globally.   It ingests and assembles all energy usage information to create report cards for over 32 million households.

ComEd 2014 -06 270LinesAt first, this looks like an unnecessary expense, adding to our monthly bill.  It turns out however, that peer pressure is a powerful motivator.   Opower’s reporting service has reduced electrical energy usage by 4 billion kilowatt-hours since inception.     That is roughly one-third of your average nuclear power plant’s yearly production.

So why does Com Ed benefit from cutting output?   ComEd 2014 -06 SavingsAnd why spend extra money generating reports to reduce utility billings?  Because building new plants to meet energy demand is very, very expensive, and guess who is paying for them– us.   It further turns out that Com Ed’s customer satisfaction rates have bumped up since the reports started.   Consumers are educated and empowered (haha).

The darker side of the energy reports is the growing suspicion about our 100 neighbors.   I think they are having more fun.

 

If you enjoyed this, or know someone who would, be sociable, share!  Thanks for reading.

 

 

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