Illustration by Julie Merrell

Residents from Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project operated by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), have been working on getting more people involved with renewable energy. And People for Community Recovery (PCR), a group of Altgeld Gardens residents with a long history of environmental organizing, has been advocating for the installation of solar panels to assist the energy needs of the project’s residents. 

Since 2015, PCR Executive Director Cheryl Johnson has held on to a vision for solar in Altgeld Gardens—to help CHA promote a solar array system in Altgeld Gardens that will reduce the CHA’s utility cost for their particular development, and for the savings to be redirected to support community programs.  

The ball started rolling in 2016, with the CHA and Cook County doing a feasibility study to see where solar panels could be installed to power Altgeld Gardens and surrounding areas. 

Aside from renewable energy releasing fewer pollutants than gas or coal, having a smaller carbon footprint and being cheaper for utility payers, Illinois pledged in the 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act that by 2050 the state will move to 100 percent green energy, with a path in place to have forty percent renewable energy by 2030. 

The legacy of PCR spans decades in Altgeld Gardens. Beginning in 1979, the now-non-profit group of residents has been actively demanding better living conditions in the face of pollutants from industrial parks, sewage treatment plants, and dumps nearby. These pollutants have disportionately hurt the health and lives of people who live in Altgeld Gardens, contributing to higher rates of heart and lung diseases. 

Kendrick Hall, a former resident of Altgeld Gardens and the Lead Solar Organizer for PCR, is responsible for leading the effort to bring solar panels to Altgeld Gardens. He is also invested in getting residents training in solar so that they are able to pick up a job in the industry. 

Hall trained with a number of groups for solar panel installment, but said the teachers in those programs weren’t doing enough to teach the job. “They didn’t seem to be really committed to ensure that we succeed,” said Hall. “The process was flawed,” he said, noting that the training felt more like a crash course—the math was difficult to understand, and the training was more of an apprenticeship where he wasn’t learning, and was instead carrying tools for other people. 

 After completing the training, Hall felt dissatisfied with the experience and wanted to be involved with a better training program that could train everyday folks to be a part of solar. After speaking with people at PCR, he joined the group to lead in solar. 

“People should take advantage of it because millions, maybe even billions of dollars, are being invested into renewable energy…and you know, [if] people from our community don’t get involved, they’ll be left [behind] man,” said Hall. “My job is to continue to educate and advocate and I would like for more people to get involved.”

For PCR, the possibility of working in solar is real. Within the last year, CHA has signed contracts with solar companies about potentially placing panels on a nearby field to help power the housing complex.

By email, CHA spokesman Matthew Aguilar said, “Potential solar projects at Altgeld include on-site generation, as well as purchasing renewable energy from a community solar site not on CHA land. We believe this layered approach provides near and long term opportunities for CHA to save money on operating costs and positively impact residents.” 

The solar panel project would be funded by Illinois Solar for All, a program which provides clean energy to low-income communities.

In 2019, CHA partnered up with a private solar company and ComEd to install solar panels on the roof of seventeen towers of the Dearborn Homes housing projects. Their efforts were part of a larger effort made by ComEd to use solar energy as an energy grid to power buildings in Bronzeville. Apart from making renewable energy accessible to the residents, the cost of utilities was lowered for them. 

PCR hopes to see similar financial wins for their residents if they can get solar panels up. Aguilar said the cost of utilities for Altgeld Gardens will not be reduced for the residents, ”because residents don’t have utility bills. However, by utilizing supply contracts to attain cheaper pricing for energy, any cost savings go toward funding services for residents.”

One of PCR’s goals in the neighborhood is to open up a grocery store. The closest grocery store to Altgeld Gardens is miles away in suburban Riverdale, with no direct public transportation options to get there either.

Johnson wrote in a 2020 op-ed for the Weekly that “the potential benefits of a solar farm aren’t confined to saving money and being environmentally friendly, but also seeing nutritional food options return to Altgeld, training residents to have marketable skills in the solar industry, and cultivating a new generation of leaders.”

In July 2021, CHA signed two $3 million contracts with the solar developers Community Power LLC and Windfree Wind & Solar Energy Design Company. Next, there is a review process for the projects the developers have come up with. 

CHA requires the solar developers to hire temporary Section 3 workers, meaning that those employees need to either be from Altgeld Gardens, residents of other housing developments managed by the CHA, people with housing vouchers, or participants in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Youthbuild programs being carried out in the Chicago area. 

However, the number of residents that would be hired is uncertain. Within contracts signed between the CHA and their solar developers, only thirty percent of the developers’ new hires need to fit the criteria. 

Still, Hall feels PCR is being kept out of the loop because there isn’t a clear timeline for the project or knowledge of next steps. “They’re [CHA] definitely lagging behind. And we just need to, I guess, reiterate the importance of getting as the community wants it.” 

Aguilar said CHA has “had conversations” with PCR, the Altgeld Local Advisory Council and Chicago Public Schools about the initiative. 

However, CHA did not respond in time for publication to comment further on how closely they work with PCR and how updated they keep the community group with the solar garden.

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Richie Requena is a graduate journalism student at DePaul University. He runs Pueblo at 14 East and is a co-founder of the university’s student chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ). This is his first contribution to the Weekly.

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