Illinois now boasts the ‘most equitable’ climate law in America. What will that mean?
Besides setting targets for a switchover to clean energy, it comes with promises of equitable job creation and an emphasis on helping communities hit hardest by fossil-fuel pollution.
Illinois is now the first Midwestern state to set climate-fighting targets for phasing out coal and natural gas in favor of cleaner energy sources like wind and solar power.
The bill that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law on Wednesday sets a goal for Illinois to move to 100% clean energy by 2050.
It also promises thousands of new jobs in clean energy — with an emphasis on hiring people of color.
It sets priorities for closing sources of pollution in so-called environmental justice communities.
And it gives almost $700 million over five years to subsidize three Northern Illinois nuclear power plants owned by Exelon.
The law was pushed by a coalition of environmental, community and religious activists who held more than 100 community meetings over the past three years and engaged thousands of people around the state. That process was in sharp contrast to what happened five years ago, when utility companies dominated the writing of the state’s last major energy law.
The result is what proponents call the “most equitable” climate bill passed to date in the United States.
Even some of the core people behind the environmental justice parts of the legislation — which include preferences for minority businesses and hiring, training opportunities for clean energy jobs and grants for community programs — seemed shocked by how much they had achieved.
“No one believed in Illinois we would actually pass legislation that can stop oil and gas facilities from running forever,” says Juliana Pino, policy director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Of course, Illinois has been here before, in 2016, when an energy law was passed that aimed to address some of the same concerns. It was accompanied by similarly lofty talk but ended up falling short of many of its goals.
Still, as a result of the new law, Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Calumet City, says he hopes to significantly pick up the pace of installations and training. Over the past few years, thanks to funding provided by an earlier state energy law, Williams says he has been able to train about 300 students, teaching them about the solar energy business. He hopes to increase that number to 1,000 a year.
A third-generation electrician who got into the solar business in 2010, Williams is among the many community and business owners who had their say in the drafting of the new law.
He says his business has helped people find careers in the industry, among them some former prison inmates and halfway house residents.
“I’m hearing the life-saving stories,” Williams says of those who’ve found jobs.
In a departure from previous energy legislation, Exelon and its utility subsidiary ComEd didn’t lead the talks for the new climate law.
Naomi Davis, who runs the Woodlawn community organization Blacks In Green and helped lead the efforts that resulted in the new law, says the equity push she and others championed was necessary to make the law more inclusive.
Davis and others say they’ll keep pressing public officials to make sure the promises in the new law are kept.
In addition to job creation, the new law also addresses the difficulties faced by many people with low incomes who struggle to pay their electric bills, she says.
Community solar projects — in which subscribers can sign up to get some of their electricity from solar — will get funding under the law.
That’s encouraging the Rev. Tony Pierce, a Peoria pastor and solar energy developer. He was disappointed that funding for community solar under the previous energy law quickly ran out because of high demand that quickly exhausted the state’s budget. A related program in the 2016 law also didn’t end up funding as many projects in communities of color as advocates expected.
“That taught us a lot,” Pierce says. “We did a lot more robust stuff to make it stronger.”
Illinois has now joined states including California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington in passing laws that set timelines to go 100% carbon-free or renewable electricity.
“This is a huge step forward in a march toward climate action that we’ve seen for a few years now,” says Sean Garren, national program director for the advocacy group Vote Solar. “We’re seeing that each new climate bill is more comprehensive and equitable and more focused on environmental justice communities than the ones before,.”
Garren says Illinois’ law is the strongest in addressing the needs of communities that suffer the most from being near fossil-fuel power plants.
The law also is significant because Illinois is now the first state in the Midwest to commit to clean energy to such a degree.
“Illinois has a more fossil-fuel driven and dirty electric grid than many of the other states that have committed to 100 percent clean energy,” Garren says. “In passing a bill like this, we’re setting the stage to prove that a 100% clean future is possible in every state.”
Daniel Bloom, principal at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade group for clean energy companies, says the law could prove to be an important part of demonstrating to other states the social and economic benefits of embracing clean energy.
Bloom says he thinks Illinois now has a head start in attracting clean energy companies to set up shop and invest.
“What this legislation does is it positions Illinois right in the top tier with states like Washington, California and New York,” he says.
The new energy law adds to the momentum of states acting on climate change and clean energy, creating something akin to a national policy as a result, says Wei Peng, a Penn State University engineering professor who studies the effects of energy policies.
“What we’ve seen is that states are more reliable implementers of climate policy” than the federal government, she says.
The Illinois law and others help expand the market for new energy sources, and that leads to economies of scale that should drive down energy costs for everyone, Peng says.
The new law also provides incentives for electrifying transportation, including a $4,000 rebate for the purchase of new or used electric vehicles.
It’s a start to another pressing climate issue as transportation in recent years overtook energy as the largest source of greenhouse gases in Illinois.
Pritzker has said he intends for the rebates to be available statewide, but he might need to get follow-up legislation to clear up a provision in the law that would limit eligibility for the rebates only to counties in the Chicago area.
“It’s a great start,” says Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago and a longtime proponent of a greener transportation system in Illinois.
But he says he thinks more needs to be done to build the charging stations needed to allow for more electric cars and trucks on the road.
“We’re in the first few steps in a larger journey,” he says.
Echoing that, J.C. Kibbey, Illinois clean energy advocate for Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, says more needs to be done and will be done to address climate change.
Still, Kibbey says, “This would’ve been unimaginable even five years ago that we would completely move away from fossil fuels in the power sector. In a state like this, that we got it done, is a testament how the politics has shifted and how quickly the economics of coal has shifted.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.