Bill Knight, Pekin Daily Times
August 16, 2015
Tens of thousands of jobs could result from a new measure sponsored by State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Buffalo Grove), and though Illinois Clean Jobs co-sponsor Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) concedes that some workers are worried about losing jobs in converting from fossil-fuel to renewable energy, a downstate building-trades leader agrees that such legislation can work.
Speaking at a “Solar Social” event last week in downstate Farmington – where one of the nation’s largest solar projects at a K-12 school was installed last year – Koehler praised such efforts while recognizing occasional anxiety about job loss.
“I know that some union members – especially those tied to fossil-fuel industries – are concerned,” said Koehler. “However, we helped convene labor and environmentalists in the Central Illinois Alliance for Healthy Communities, and everyone agreed that, one, we all want clean air, and, two, we want to protect or create jobs.
“That’s indisputable,” he added. “The question is: How do we get there?”
The Illinois Clean Jobs Act is a possible approach.
Introduced in February, the proposal would promote sustainable energy and new jobs by directing the state Environmental Protection Agency to develop a market-based approach to comply with federal carbon standards and let market forces find the most cost-effective emission-reduction strategies.
Paul Flynn, Business Manager of Local 34 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents workers from Quincy and Peoria to Galesburg, says rank-and-file workers appreciate the possibilities of dealing with climate change while promoting jobs in sustainable and renewable energy work.
“Absolutely we do,” Flynn said. “The technology to clean coal is installed by us, and wind and solar is installed by our members. It is win-win.”
Shannon Fulton of the Illinois Solar Energy Association, based in suburban Chicago, said employment will result from such measures.
“The bill will save money and strengthen local tax bases,” she said. “If passed, it would result in a net gain of 32,000 jobs year.”
Furthermore – despite a lack of action in Springfield on issues such as the state budget, and the bill’s sitting in the Rules Committee since late March – something like the Illinois Clean Jobs Act is feasible, Flynn said.
“We have friends that are Republicans and vote for what we stand for,” Flynn said. “Let’s face it. The business track record of protecting the environment is not a good one. If it is not for the role of government intervention, we would have places like Love Canal all over again. The Illinois River would still be a chemical dumping ground like it was in the ’50s, ’ 60s and ’70s. Thankfully, forward-thinking politicians said ‘Enough. You cannot poison the water.’ Now it’s time to clean the air.”
IBEW members are comfortable with innovations in technology, too, Flynn said.
“Of all the trades, electricians are one of the youngest around,” he said. “Only 100 years ago, most people did not have electricity in their home. The electrification of cities and towns was an amazing new technology. We have always been the guys and gals who embrace new technology and methods of making it safer to use. It just comes natural to us to be forward thinkers who try and stay ahead of the curve.”
Staying ahead of the curve is necessary for policymakers, too, Koehler noted.
Koehler, who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Conservation Committee, said, “It’s important [as global summits discuss climate change] that the United States walks the talk [and] demonstrates that we, too, will make changes.”
Apart from employment, the experience at Farmington’s schools shows that investing in renewable energy can be cost-effective, too. A $1.9 million solar project with hundreds of 300-watt solar panels built with assistance from a $1.15 million grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation, it’s saved $24,500 just since mid-April 16, said superintendent John Asplund.
“What we’ve generated is the equivalent of planting 16,000 trees,” he said, “and taking 281,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere.”
The solar array should meet about one-third of the school’s power needs and could save the district about $1.5 million in five years, he added.
Such successes don’t mean progress will be easy, Koehler warned.
“One thing I’ve learned about sustainable energy [issues],” Koehler said. “There’s nothing that’s not controversial.”