This article is published in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times.
CHICAGO—Lisa Benjamin has been running her own general contracting business south of Chicago 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,” said 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 last year when the Illinois Legislature passed and Pritzker signed 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, which were an essential part of winning broad political 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, 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 the closing of a coal-burning power plant or a mine as a result of the state’s 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. The expected wave of utility-scale renewable energy projects has been held back by opposition from local governments and a lack of availability of interstate power lines.
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,” said 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,” said Curtis Thompson, chapter president of the National Minority Association for Contractors Chicago.
Sylvia Garcia, who heads Pritzker’s state Commerce Department, said she understands the frustration that things aren’t moving faster. She said 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 said. “We always knew that implementation would take some time.”
She said 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, aim 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 percent clean energy by 2050. It also subsidizes three aging nuclear power plants owned by Exelon, all in northern Illinois.
“We Can’t Wait for Things to Get Going”
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.
But there are some substantial obstacles, including some that are 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,” said 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 then 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.
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“In a lot of ways, this is like waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland,” said 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 said the state of Illinois is taking a more hands-on role, promoting equitable job creation compared with some other states.
“We’ve seen in other states and other places where market forces drive what is happening,” Garcia said. “We can’t wait for things to get going. But we want to make it right.”
Benjamin said her company completes about 60 projects 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, said it’s about more than business.
“There’s so much pollution in the air,” she said. “Why add to it?”