University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Greening Illinois

Eric Heineman
Eric Heineman ’04


Greening Illinois

by Thomas Weaver

It’s one measure of Eric Heineman’s enthusiasm for his work that, following a phone interview, he sends a quick volley of emails with additional initiatives Illinois state government is taking on sustainability. And there’s a second measure when he apologizes for the emails, admitting the thoughts kept coming to him as he was pedaling his Chicago bike share ride on Randolph Street. For the senior sustainability policy advisor to Governor Pat Quinn, it’s all in a day’s work.

Heineman assumed his post in the Illinois Governor’s Office five years ago. It’s an unusual, likely unique, place to find a staffer focused on sustainability. While other states may have someone in a sustainability role, it’s rare that the state’s top official makes it a priority within his own office. Heineman initially interviewed for the job while Quinn was Illinois lieutenant governor. But with the fall of the infamous Rod Blagojevich, Quinn assumed the governor’s office, won a subsequent election, and has made being the “Green Governor” his hallmark.

Heineman has monthly one-on-one meetings with Quinn and knows that if they bump into each other riding up the elevator to the sixteenth floor of the Thompson Center in Chicago’s Loop, the governor will likely pull him into his office for a quick briefing on the sustainability front.

That’s a broad front, and Heineman says that has a lot to do with why he loves the work. His projects include growing the State of Illinois fleet of electric vehicles, helping plan a canoe paddling trail around the shore of Lake Michigan, establishing regional bike share networks to link with those in the city of Chicago, and working to transform the Illinois governor’s mansion in Springfield into the greenest first executive’s home in the nation.

New England or West Coast states are the usual suspects to top sustainability rankings, but Illinois has recently earned a place heading lists for green building and renewable energy. With the state fleet at fifty-five electric vehicles and counting, and with infrastructure in place to help charge approximately five thousand privately owned electrics in the state, the Land of Lincoln is stepping up in this regard, also.

Heineman concedes that New York beat Illinois in the race to get solar panels on their governor’s mansion, but it’s fitting that a Midwestern state took the prize as first U.S. governor’s mansion with live poultry on the grounds. Heineman laughs: “Posting on Facebook that we were looking for a chicken coop for the governor’s mansion was one of the more unusual things I’ve done on this job.” The eight chickens took up residence following the planting of a Michelle Obama-inspired vegetable garden. Now there’s a closed loop, Heineman says—the garden provides food, the chickens eat the compostable food waste, the chickens’ own waste fertilizes the garden, and Governor Quinn and guests enjoy nice fresh eggs for breakfast.

Heineman is a Chicago native who came to UVM drawn by a different horizon (notably mountains) and with a plan to study elementary education. His academic direction took a turn with Amy Seidl’s introductory environmental studies course. “That was an inspirational, game-changing class,” he says. Heineman also found inspiration from his fellow undergrads living in Slade Hall, the on-campus residence where students live in a cooperative committed to a sustainable lifestyle.

Though he would earn his UVM degree in environmental studies, Heineman’s education background came into play as he landed a job as a middle school computer teacher in Chicago after graduation. In addition to teaching, Heineman quickly carved out a place for himself enhancing the school’s sustainability, partnering with another faculty member to win a grant to move the school toward zero waste.

Heineman’s first full-focus sustainability job was as the University of Chicago, where he founded the school’s sustainability office. He says that UVM’s reputation as one of the nation’s greenest universities gave him a boost in landing the job as UC sought to improve the “D” grade they had received for sustainability efforts. A bike share program, which collected bikes abandoned on campus at the end of the academic year, worked with a neighborhood non-profit to restore and maintain them, then put the bikes into shared circulation was a key success of his time at the university, Heineman says.

Living in Rogers Park, the same neighborhood where he grew up in the far north end of the city, Heineman and his wife, Kathryn, a first grade teacher have greened their own home, of course. And, with a one-year old son, the new dad is looking to the future as he recently won election to the local school council. Describing the council’s responsibilities, Heineman says they oversee budget and personnel matters, and he adds, “as well as all the fun sustainability stuff I want to do—solar panels, outdoor classrooms, raised vegetable gardens, etc.”

Start them young.

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