OPINION: Truman thinks ‘green’ for Earth Day

by Rebecca Fort, Guest Opinion Writer and Truman Student

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Major cities across the United States are competing for green status by increasing their stake in green technology jobs, sustainable energy sources, public transportation advancements and other developments leading to cleaner, smarter urban living. Why the push? Green is in. Energy efficiency is good for PR and draws job seekers in leading industries.

According to Forbes magazine, Chicago consistently ranks in the top 20 for greenest cities in America, and this year’s Earth Day reminds us why. Numerous organizations and institutions joined forces to sponsor neighborhood cleanups of the city’s parks and beaches. Truman College got into the Earth Day spirit by inviting leaders of the energy and water reclamation industries to speak to our community.

Two representatives from Clean Energy America spoke about nuclear energy, inviting students into a dialogue about the challenges facing the utility industry and the benefits of nuclear power — a topic that is close to home with Illinois’s nine nuclear power plants. With a rocky history, nuclear power struggles over its public image. The engineers were frank about failures like that of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. The plant failures of the past were the result of poorly built facilities and lack of safety regulation. Can radiation be dangerous? Yes. But the danger is well understood, measurable, and containable.

The American nuclear industry is world renowned for its safety standards and contingency planning, and the speaker boasted that employees at nuclear power plants report better than average health. The remarkable thing about nuclear power is its efficiency. According to the Institute for Energy Research, nuclear power generation has the lowest production cost, at 2.10 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas petroleum has the highest at 21.56 cents per kilowatt hour. While the cost to build a nuclear power plant is enormous ($5 billion), a plant guarantees 100% efficiency for decades at a fraction of the cost of other energy sources. The best part? Nuclear power is entirely carbon-emission free. Now if only something could be done about that waste.

As enthusiastic as these speakers were about their industry, they encouraged a diversity of energy sources and investment in current and new forms of renewable, clean energy.

Truman students and teachers also enjoyed a visit from Commissioner Mariyana Spyropoulos of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), an independent government agency that treats and manages waste water for most of Cook County. Sewers may not be a sexy topic, but no one could argue with the immense value of the MWRD’s presence.

Commissioner Spyropoulos commanded a focused audience as she told the story of Chicago’s primitive waste disposal (before the 19th century) that allowed waste to drain into Lake Michigan. Contaminating the city’s source of water made people sick (no kidding), so the MWRD was put to action. Reversing the flow of the Chicago River and installing a deep tunnel system beneath the city’s sewers have brought us a long way.

Impressively, the MWRD not only keeps waste out of the lake but manages to put that waste to good use. The seven water reclamation plants operated by the MWRD develop a product called “biosolids,” which serves as fertilizer for non-agricultural land.

Commissioner Spyropoulos gave us a good education about the world behind our drains, but she also challenged the Truman community to consider how precious fresh water is. Water is not a renewable resource. No matter how big that lake may seem, the levels are decreasing to meet the growing demand of population not yet embracing efficient uses of water. The MWRD promotes several water conservation projects, including rain barrels, rain gardens, native landscaping, stormwater trees, green roofs, greenways, wetlands and porous pavement.

Chicago may be one of the greenest cities in America, but we have a long way to go. Taking time out of a busy school week to hear these presentations was inspiring and challenging. Perhaps some of Truman’s science students will become leaders in green industries right here in Chicago. In the meantime, we’ll be careful with water and electricity and tackle chemistry one class at a time.

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