Department of Environmental Control, Cook County
Empowering Communities to Lead on Climate
Laura Oakleaf would call herself an environmental advocate for Cook County, the second most populous county in the US (after Los Angeles County), which encompasses the entire city of Chicago and over 130 municipalities. In her role as legislative coordinator at the Department of Environmental Control, Oakleaf is responsible for strategic sustainability planning, communications and outreach, and grant management.
“I’m really proud of the work Cook County has done to make sustainability a priority,” says Oakleaf. Earlier this year, Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board President, joined forces with Dane County in Wisconsin to sign on to the We Are Still In declaration (see Empower Fall 2017 article “Leading the Charge”), reaffirming the County’s commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
Recently, Oakleaf worked to implement a federal cooperative award of $1.2 million to help bring community-shared solar power to Cook County. The project was one of only 15 awarded nationally as part of the US Department of Energy Sun Shot Initiative. The goal of the project was to establish a community solar market in the County that provides the economic and environmental benefits of solar to a dense urban area. The project produced an opportunity assessment, policy analysis, and value and impact analysis reports, as well as 15 detailed case studies.
Oakleaf worked with the project’s many partners, which included Elevate Energy, ComEd, West Monroe Partners, the City of Chicago, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center to manage the project and produce the final report, which was released this fall.
“This was a very robust and open process that included more than 100 different organizations working as a part of our stakeholder process,” says Oakleaf.
The team analyzed 15 sites for their solar potential and proposed solar capacity, site ownership, system ownership, installation type, and subscription type. For each site, they created an economic model that a future site owner could replicate.
“We wanted to create an example that a site owner could envision implementing in her community,” says Oakleaf.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in institutionalizing the value of sustainability at Cook County, especially in the area of energy efficiency,"
— Laura Oakleaf (SPS '05), Legislative Coordinator at Department of Environmental Control, Cook County
Oakleaf’s professional background is deeply rooted in public service and policy. Before her role in Cook County government, she held positions with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Commissioner (now Congressman) Mike Quigley, and the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office.
In 2005, she received her master’s in public policy administration from Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies.
“Through the program at Northwestern, I gained an understanding of the policymaking process, budgeting, and community engagement, all of which I use every day in moving our programs forward,” says Oakleaf.
While she is excited about the County’s investment in environmental and energy solutions, she is especially optimistic about what’s to come.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in institutionalizing the value of sustainability at Cook County, especially in the area of energy efficiency, where we’ve been able to decrease building energy greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent since 2010,” says Oakleaf. “Moving forward I’m really excited to see how far we can push the County to take advantage of renewable energy and other new technologies that will lower our carbon footprint even further.”
* Editor's Note, November 2022: Laura Oakleaf is now Associate Director at Illinois Solar For All at Elevate.