Climate change won’t wait, and Illinois can lead the way with the Clean Energy Jobs Act

By the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition | Medium

The fall veto session of the Illinois General Assembly has come and gone, but the urgency of Illinois taking control of its energy future has never been greater.

Climate change is real — just ask Illinois farmers who have dealt with one historic flood after another. Ask leaders of cities and towns dealing with record-high lake and river levels that threaten major infrastructure like sewage treatment plants and major thoroughfares like Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Or ask the thousands of young people who came out in protest this fall to demand that our elected officials take action to save the planet they will inherit.

Illinois cannot wait any longer to act. The impacts of climate change and the Trump administration’s failure to protect our environment are reverberating throughout our communities, with disastrous results. The state faces four immediate threats that must be addressed promptly in the spring 2020 legislative session:

Crisis One: Downstate communities are losing good paying jobs and property tax revenue as coal companies cut and run

When the leader of one of Illinois largest coal companies, Vistra Energy CEO Curtis Morgan, said on March 14 that coal “is on its way out,” he signaled the Texas-based energy giant would cut and run on downstate Illinois communities. Months later, Morgan made good on his promises, announcing the closure of four coal plants around Illinois by the end of this year, leaving an economic and environmental mess in their wake. Many communities in central and southern Illinois will now lose good paying jobs and property tax revenue that funds local schools, roads, and public safety departments. We need a comprehensive program that treats displaced energy workers with dignity, helps communities weather significant losses to their tax bases and creates incentives to direct new renewable energy development where it is most needed.

Crisis Two: The Trump administration’s massive rate hike and coal bailout

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), led by Trump appointees, is poised to change the rules surrounding an electricity market called the “capacity” market. As a result, Illinois customers will pay an even higher premium for dirty power they don’t need — to the tune of more than $860 million a year in higher bills for ComEd customers. FERC’s anticipated order will amount to another massive bailout for coal and gas companies that run expensive, aging plants that can’t compete with cleaner, cheaper energy sources like solar, wind and energy efficiency. When this order comes, it will result in the largest electric increase in Illinois history. Already, the “capacity” market acts as a bailout to prop up profits for these fossil fuel plants, and Gov. JB Pritzker and the General Assembly have an opportunity to level the playing field for renewables and reduce costs for consumers: a “win-win.”

Crisis Three: The most anti-environment President and EPA in American history

Less than two weeks ago, President Trump formally backed out of the Paris Global Climate Accord. Almost every month, Trump’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows waivers for big polluters to release tons more toxic waste into the air we breathe and the water we drink. States, cities and small towns are left to lead us forward on climate solutions because Washington is bent on leading us backwards — rolling back just about every federal program that addresses or protects our health, our climate and our future. Climate change is not waiting for a new president, new congress, or new treaties. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that we have to act now and quickly over the next 11 years to become carbon-free and avoid a catastrophic 1.5 degree Celsius increase to our planet. The climate is in crisis and state leaders need to respond with the level of urgency that is required.

Crisis Four: A renewable energy bust

Just three years ago, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Future Energy Jobs Act, fixing a broken renewable energy policy in the state and jumpstarting the industry after a seven-year stagnation. That pent-up demand has led to the birth of a strong renewable energy industry in Illinois, and put the state on a path to hit its 2030 new construction targets from that bill a good nine years ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, the Illinois Power Agency — the state agency that manages the procurement of renewable energy — filed a plan just last month that said that because of limited renewable energy funds, it may not be able to do more renewable energy development until 2024, and may have to shrink existing renewable energy contracts as well. This will lead to a bust in the renewable energy market, and put in jeopardy the new jobs and workforce efforts that have come with it.

The importance of equity

Earlier this month, Wall Street 24/7 released its fifth “Worst Cities for African Americans” assessment and again Illinois fared poorly. The assessment is based on race-based gaps in socioeconomic outcomes in each of the nation’s metropolitan areas. Sadly, four Illinois cities landed in the top ten: Springfield, Rockford, Peoria and Danville. Systemic gaps in educational attainment, health outcomes, income and home ownership all contribute to this crisis rooted in structural racism. While no energy legislation can remedy all of these problems, Gov. Pritzker and the General Assembly can choose to advance programs that shift Illinois from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewables in a way that prioritizes good green jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities and programs that put wealth-producing assets in the hands of communities too often left behind.

The path forward

Over the past year and a half, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition has held “Listen. Lead. Share” town hall events around the state to find a consensus for a clean energy future that works for every community and neighborhood in Illinois.

The result of this bottom-up consensus building process is the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), the only comprehensive clean energy legislation now before the General Assembly that takes major steps to address climate change while also promoting jobs and equity for people of color and small town communities that are being left behind. The Clean Energy Jobs Act will fundamentally reshape our power generation and transportation sectors to meet the challenges of the next century.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act addresses these major energy crises facing Illinois with four main pillars:

1. Promoting jobs, equity and economic opportunity for communities left behind in the current economy

The Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) centers jobs and equity at the heart of a clean energy future. The bill will create the Clean Jobs Workforce Hubs, a network of frontline organizations that provide direct and sustained support for job seekers and small businesses in disadvantaged communities. CEJA also creates preferences for companies that implement equity actions to ensure equitable representation in Illinois’ clean energy workforce and a contractor incubator program that focuses on the development of underserved businesses in the clean energy sector.

2. Ensuring Illinois reaches 100% renewable energy by 2050

CEJA puts Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050, by sustaining and ramping up the growth of renewable energy development we are finally starting to see today. CEJA will build more than 40 million solar panels and 2,500 wind turbines across Illinois by 2030, generating $39 billion in new private investment in infrastructure and jobs in the state, producing cheaper solar and wind power that saves consumers money. CEJA also expands the Solar for All program, which ensures low-income people have access to solar in their community, raises goals for energy efficiency, and directs utilities to evaluate lower-cost alternatives to infrastructure modernization. By reforming the capacity market to save consumers money and create a level playing field for renewable energy, Illinois can use those savings to invest in new renewable development, energy efficiency, demand response, and energy storage, reinvesting some of the subsidies that now go to coal and gas plants toward a cleaner future.

3. Eliminating the pollution equivalent of one million gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles

CEJA creates a new beneficial electrification initiative to incentivize electric vehicle charging, with a focus on medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that have the largest impact on environmental justice communities, such as bus fleets, municipal vehicles, school buses, and other fleets. Also, CEJA will create a new EV Access for All program, to ensure the direct benefits of electrification reach low-income communities and communities where car ownership is not an option, creating new electric car-sharing programs and electric shuttles to serve transit deserts.

4. Making a just transition to a carbon-free power sector by 2030

CEJA directs the Illinois EPA to begin a comprehensive stakeholder process that prioritizes carbon reductions in environmental justice communities, creates new job opportunities and reduces harmful pollution from power plants to zero by 2030. CEJA also creates a new framework called Energy Community Reinvestment that establishes clean energy empowerment zones and support for communities and workers who are economically impacted by the decline of fossil fuel generation. In November 2018, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition outlined its community-developed policy platform, which ultimately became the Clean Energy Jobs Act.

To build the clean energy future, the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is announcing its legislative goals for the 2020 spring legislative session:

1. The top legislative goal of the Coalition is to pass comprehensive energy reform that embraces all four pillars of CEJA.

2. As the Coalition did successfully last spring, we will oppose the same or similar formula rate hike bills promoted by ComEd and Ameren which seek to have an unchecked ability to invest in the utility of the past, without realizing the changes coming from the utility of the future.

3. The Coalition will oppose any stand-alone capacity reforms that only benefit Exelon. The Coalition has broken off legislative discussions with Exelon and other utilities, and will instead work with Gov. Pritzker and CEJA’s legislative sponsors to further its preferred path of capacity market reforms that cut subsidies to dirty, expensive coal and gas plants, save consumers money and invest in solar and wind power, and carbon-free forms of power generation.

4. The Coalition will also continue to oppose any new bailouts, fake “market” solutions, or special legislation for Vistra, NRG and other fossil fuel interests that prolong the life and pad the profits of dangerous coal and gas plants.

The good news is CEJA keeps gaining more momentum and public support. Currently, a majority of the Illinois senators have signed on to publicly cosponsor CEJA and nearly a majority of Illinois House members are cosponsoring it as well. A 2019 spring poll showed CEJA has support from seven out of 10 Illinois voters when they first learn about the bill. More recently, Gov. Pritzker committed to take up comprehensive energy legislation based on CEJA in January 2020.