It’s been 17 years since cleanup and remediation of Barrie Park and nearby houses at the site of a manufactured gas plant was completed. The plant, which converted primarily coal to gas, operated from 1893 to 1931, leaving a legacy of pollutants, like coal tar, lime extracts, and heavy metals that would have remained indefinitely were it not for six years of painstaking work removing and eliminating those health hazards.
The plant on the current site of Barrie Park was one of a first generation of a connected infrastructure of energy delivery. The pipelines from the plant to buildings supplied gas that provided lighting, replacing candles and kerosene lamps. Then gas usage expanded to cooking and heating, replacing coal and wood. This was considered better than burning coal or wood indoors and a convenience not requiring deliveries or going to the store.
The next phase was “natural” gas, or fossil gas. The deployment caused changes in energy infrastructure and delivery in early 20th-century U.S. The energy infrastructure was divided between gas for heating and electricity from power plants for lighting and appliances. Gas infrastructure originated from fields whose consolidated pipelines bypassed the need for relatively small-scale gas manufacturing. Primary processing of gas was the removal of ethane, helium and trace elements, and supplying additives such as mercaptan to give otherwise odorless and tasteless gas a smell for safety reasons. The product was cheaper and considered safer than manufactured gas, becoming prominent in a regulated environment.
But “natural” gas has drawbacks as well, with persistent leakage issues throughout its infrastructure and health issues for building occupants, particularly respiratory ailments. As environmental and climate awareness increases, even the reduced amount of carbon dioxide in methane compared to coal pales against the need to avoid adding any more CO2, which risks accelerating global warming and extreme weather events. Also, costs of two sets of energy infrastructure is a cost burden to ratepayers.
Which brings us to the third energy age of electrification. Having buildings, mostly residential, operate only on electricity for all appliances and equipment has been around since post-World War II. But its relatively high cost limited its markets.
Two innovations have made electrification a desirable and economic outcome. Appliances and equipment have increased efficiency, driven by technologies like improved heat pumps moving, rather than generating, heat into or out of buildings. Electricity generation and transmission are cleaner and resilient, backed by renewable energy generators, energy storage and modern transmission, both long-distance and on-site micro- and mini-grid systems. The entire supply chain is becoming more energy efficient and rate-payers will not have to pay for two sets of systems.
Houses in the Barrie Park area that have been up for a century are witnessing a third age — building electrification — following two ages of fossil fuel usage. As building (and vehicle) electrification become more prevalent, their occupants can benefit from less or no emissions, improved health, and long-term affordability.
Mark Burger, a Solar Consultant for Seven Generations Ahead who works with other nonprofit organizations, is a longtime Oak Park resident.