Last week, I had the privilege of attending a few sessions at the Summer Institute on Sustainability and Energy, an eight-day experience for graduate and undergraduate students hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago and supported by a number of other groups and institutions, including the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. While there, students heard firsthand from experts about the multitude of energy-related challenges facing our society, many of them quite dire, and possible solutions, many of them quite creative.
One of the most creative can be found right here in Chicago. During his presentation on urban agriculture, Illinois Institute of Technology faculty Blake Davis introduced us to The Plant, a meatpacking facility turned vertical farm. Still under development, The Plant will eventually host a range of eco-friendly food businesses, including a brewery and mushroom farm, in addition to its own aquaponic growing system, through which they raise fruits, vegetables and fish (more on that in a moment).
It will all be operated on a net-zero energy system—in other words, they won’t draw any power from the grid. Instead, the facility will rely on an anaerobic digester, which uses microorganisms to break down food waste, releasing methane gas. The gas will be burned to produce electricity and regulate temperature in the building. So, not only are they off the grid, but they’re utilizing their own waste—and the waste from other businesses in the area—for power. I would say that’s pretty creative.
Equally creative is their aquaponic closed loop system for raising plants and fish. Waste from the fish is filtered, a portion of which is broken down into nitrates that feed the plants. By absorbing the nitrates, the plants clean the water, which is then routed back to the fish. So everybody wins, including the folks working at The Plant, who will sell both the veggies and the fish for a profit.
Similarly, in that the relationship will be symbiotic, the other food businesses in the plant will share resources and creatively utilize waste to form a sustainable network. Their ultimate hope is that The Plant will not only bring some new life (and jobs) to its own Chicago neighborhood, but also serve as a model for other businesses to work together and do the same. You can learn more, find out about tours, and keep track of The Plant’s growth on their website. I recommend checking it out.