Lisa Benjamin has been running her own general contracting business in Matteson since 2007 and is eager to expand and do more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly construction and remodeling.
“Anything and everything that’s green and clean,” says Benjamin, who is even planning green hardhats for her eight employees.
To be able to hire more workers and expand her business, Benjamin has been counting on job-training and placement help that Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other politicians promised when the Illinois Legislature passed and Pritzker signed into law last year a major clean energy law.
A key part of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act would be job-training programs established through new state workforce development initiatives, officials promised to win broad support for the measure.
But 15 months after Pritzker signed what was touted as the most equitable climate change-fighting law in the country, the job-training programs those initiatives were supposed to establish in the growing green economy, helping workers and businesses like Benjamin’s Millennium II Enterprises, still don’t exist.
And not a single new ”equity” job has been created.
That’s despite the promised job-creation efforts Pritzker’s state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity is supposed to set up — for which it was given the authority to spend as much as $180 million a year. The money, from a fund paid for by customers of Illinois utilities, also can be spent on economic development aid — for instance for communities that might have lost jobs from, say, the closing of a coal-burning power plant or a mine as a result of the state’s big push to move to renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
The state agency only recently has taken a small first step, holding “listening sessions” for business owners, community groups and others regarding the long-delayed job-training for what officials promised would help build a diverse workforce for a booming industry.
The jobs program isn’t the only part of the effort to move the state to a green economy that’s been slow to get going. Pritzker signed the new law in September 2021 amid fanfare, but other key economic aspects of the measure also are yet to be fulfilled.
Pritzker administration officials say they’re taking the time to get things right.
Backers of the measure say the delays are hurting the businesses and potential new employees it was supposed to help.
“Unfortunately, as these processes go on, the professionals responsible consistently get paid while the folks who may need the dollars the most on the other end wait to get paid,” says the Rev. Tony Pierce, a pastor and solar entrepreneur in Peoria who worked to get the law passed. “The people at the bottom — lots of people — hear about this stuff and ask, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ ”
“Minority contractors and workers are eagerly looking for these opportunities in a new field,” says Curtis Thompson, chapter president of the National Minority Association for Contractors Chicago.
Sylvia Garcia, who heads Pritzker’s state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, says she understands the frustration that things aren’t moving faster. She says she hopes the training programs will be running early in 2023.
“There’s a big mandate here, and we want to make sure we are getting this right,” Garcia says. “We always knew that implementation would take some time.”
She says the state is creating a training curriculum that will include a wide range of clean-technology work programs.
At least 10 programs will be part of the workforce and related efforts, including recruiting and training with an emphasis on diversity that, as the state agency says in a written summary, aims to help “ensure that those individuals who have historically faced economic and environmental barriers have priority in these training programs.”
When the law was enacted, it made Illinois the first Midwest state to set goals for phasing out fossil fuels in favor of clean energy sources. It aims to move Illinois to 100% clean energy by 2050. To win support, it also subsidizes three aging nuclear power plants owned by Exelon, all in northern Illinois.
Demand for wind and solar energy is so strong that Illinois could meet the clean energy goals almost immediately — if projects that developers already have planned could actually get built.
The hurdles in the way of that happening go beyond the jobs program and involve issues beyond the control of the state government.
- Developers of large-scale wind and solar projects, potentially covering thousands of acres, face long waits to get the approvals they need from regional electric power grid operators. The reason? There aren’t enough electric transmission lines to handle the energy they would produce.
- And some local governments have restricted renewable energy projects after nearby residents complained about wind and solar farms being unsightly.
Together, the hurdles mean Illinois can’t build wind and solar projects as quickly as government officials and developers would like.
“There is a little bit of a disconnect here between what the state’s goals are and what’s happening on the ground,” says Chris Kunkle, director of state affairs in the Midwest for Apex Clean Energy, a wind and solar developer.
The lack of transmission lines is a problem across the country, but it’s especially bad in what’s called the PJM Interconnection grid region, which includes the Chicago area and runs east to New Jersey. Downstate Illinois is in the MISO grid region.
If a developer wants to build a large solar or wind project in the PJM portion of Illinois, it’s likely it would have to wait for years after filing an application with the grid operator because so many other projects are ahead in line. Though the wait to build in the MISO grid is shorter, it also can stretch on for years.
“In a lot of ways, this is like waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland,” says Jeff Danielson, vice president of advocacy for the Clean Grid Alliance, a clean energy business group. “You go to Disneyland, you know you’re gonna wait in line to ride that ride.”
Garcia says the state of Illinois is taking a more hands-on role than some states and promoting equitable job creation.
“We’ve seen in other states and other places where market forces drive what is happening,” Garcia says. “We can’t wait for things to get going. But we want to make it right.”
Benjamin says her company completes about 60 jobs a year and has done about 20 home electrification conversions — a step in the path to phasing out fossil fuels such as natural gas.
She and one of her employees have gone through training provided by the Chicago nonprofit Elevate. She’s hoping she can build her business and get workers trained under the state’s yet-to-begin programs.
Benjamin, who is also a pastor and has a doctorate in theology, says it’s about more than business.
“There’s so much pollution in the air,” she says. “Why add to it?”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.