EDITORIAL: Illinois could be a leader in clean energy. Let’s not screw it up
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First, some good news: Among the 50 states, Illinois gained the third largest number of new jobs in the solar industry last year, according to a report released last week by the nonprofit Solar Foundation.
That’s proof that Illinois’ two-year-old Future Energy Jobs Act is working.
Now the bad news: As things are going, Illinois will fail to reach its goal of getting 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2025. And a new plan by a big operator in the wholesale energy market, PJM, threatens to make it even harder for Illinois to go green.
It’s time for the Legislature to step in. Again.
Signs of clean-energy progress in Illinois are as obvious as all those twirling wind turbines along Central Illinois expressways.
• A program created by the Future Energy Jobs Act to let households that don’t have the right exposure for their own solar panels share others’ solar facilities has turned out to be wildly popular — 10 times as many people want to sign up as the program was designed to serve.
• FEJA’s energy efficiency requirement that ComEd achieve a 21.5 percent reduction in energy use by 2030 is saving money for consumers.
• New wind energy projects, which had ground to a halt, are reappearing. After foot-dragging under the Rauner administration, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s team is signaling it will push to move away from fossil fuels.
• On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set the a goal of making all city government buildings renewable-energy powered by 2025.
• And there are those new solar energy jobs: 1,308 of them in 2018, even as the number fell 3.2 percent nationwide.
As state Rep. Ann Williams, chair of the new House Energy and Environment Committee, told us, “We are moving in a good direction.“
But without new legislation, all that progress could short-circuit.
• To reach the goal of 25 percent of renewable energy by 2025, the state should hit about 17.5 percent by the end of next year. Yet it looks like that percentage will be more like 7 percent. More investment is needed in renewable energy.
• The biggest emitter of carbon is transportation, primarily automobiles and trucks. Illinois needs to build up its infrastructure of charging stations, which would encourage people to buy electric vehicles.
• Solar and wind energy companies that have come to Illinois or expanded their operations fear they might have to scale back or move out of state if FEJA is not updated.
“FEJA was groundbreaking, and it has driven a lot of growth,” said Sarah Wochos, Midwest director of policy for Chicago-based Borrego Solar Systems. “We did not know how much pent-up demand there was. [But] to keep companies here and to continue the growth, we are going to have to look at the law again.”
PJM, which operates the wholesale energy market for the District of Columbia and all or part of 13 states, including Illinois, is proposing to remove renewable and nuclear energy from what is called the capacity market — a system set up to ensure states have enough energy capacity to meet peak loads. In effect, a state such as Illinois that builds new renewable energy sources will send money to states that don’t. But Illinois needs that money to keep rates low for consumers and to invest in long-term renewable energy projects here.
The rules are complicated, but the environmentalists say the result would favor fossil fuels over non-carbon sources of energy. The Chicago-based energy company Exelon is upset, too, saying the proposal would create “economic stress” for its nuclear power plants at Dresden, Braidwood and Byron, possibly putting them in mothballs ahead of schedule.
If the nuclear plants shut down, the large amount of non-carbon energy — clean energy — they generate would disappear along with them. Most likely, that would be replaced by natural gas-fired plants, which would big setback for the goal of a carbon-free power grid in Illinois.
One legislative proposal to ensure continued funding for renewable energy across the state, called Path to 100, was announced on Feb. 6 by state Rep. Will Davis, D-Hazel Crest, and state Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, but other ideas are circulating in Springfield as well. An important one that should be considered in any final bill would allow the Illinois Power Agency to take over PJM’s role, keeping money in Illinois to spend on renewable energy projects.
Illinois has a chance to become a leader in green energy. What the Legislature does will go a long way toward deciding whether the state achieves that leadership.
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