Ameren Illinois and Vistra are talking out of both sides of their mouth on renewable energy.
Unfortunately, each side is bad news for those who care about clean-energy jobs in Illinois. A Sept. 28 headline announced Ameren’s plans to increase reliance on solar and wind. It mentioned that Vistra, an Ameren supplier, would close dirty, carbon-emitting coal plants, which sounds positive, in favor of huge, utility-scale solar.
The utility’s announcement didn’t mention that workers in those fossil-fuel plants would be put out of their jobs without retraining opportunities. Or that local businesses they frequented would also likely die.
Ameren didn’t want us to think how those newly unemployed folks would own homes in communities with suddenly shrunken tax bases for schools, roads and public health. As our neighbors in Danville experienced 10 years ago, plant closure without a just transition is a raw deal for towns where utilities have made money and polluted air for 50 years.
Then, to add insult to injury, the very next day, when they thought no one was looking, Ameren double-crossed Illinois’ growing solar industry and workers. Ameren notified the Illinois Commerce Commission that it would stop solar net metering for customers who wish to put solar on their homes, businesses and houses of worship.
Net metering means that if someone’s solar panels produce more electricity than they use, the utility credits the customer for that electricity. Later, those credits apply on their bill.
Because of net metering, my family was able to go solar in 2017. Choosing to add solar was an investment we made in a healthy future for our family and planet. Ending net metering for new customers will take away that choice from millions of Illinoisans. That isn’t fair, and it’s the opposite of what our communities want.
The Illinois Legislature passed a popular bill in 2016 to help spread the benefits of clean energy across Illinois. And it worked! Not only did families save money on their utility bills, but thousands of jobs were also created in energy efficiency, solar and related fields. People, including returning citizens and foster care alumni, trained for and took jobs that enabled them to support their families.
Part of that bill, Solar for All, made solar available to low- and moderate-income families. But without net metering, Solar for All doesn’t work financially. It is finished. To end it is bad public policy because Illinois should enable all our communities to share the environmental, economic and employment benefits of a thriving clean-energy industry.
Ameren’s decision is not good for central Illinois communities. And it’s even worse for solar companies and workers. All across the state, projects will be canceled. The local company that installed my family’s panels stands to lose $1 million to $2 million of expected sales. All across the state, workers will be laid off. Few buyers will “go solar” if the payback is uncertain or far in the future, and utility companies will continue to maintain all the money and power while consumers struggle amidst rising energy prices.
But Illinoisans can still have the last word in this dispute. The Clean Energy Jobs Act, pending in Springfield, provides a remedy. It is a strong piece of legislation, shaped by citizens, not utility lobbyists, that ensures clean energy remains affordable for consumers.
The measure provides a just transition plan for communities and workers when coal plants close while putting Illinois on a path to clean energy. Let’s use our voices to fight the utility double talk on clean energy. Tell the governor and Legislature to pass this legislation this year.
The Rev. Cindy Shepherd is central Illinois outreach director for Faith in Place, a nonprofit organization that empowers Illinois residents of all faiths to be leaders in caring for the Earth by providing resources to educate, connect and advocate for healthier communities.