Illinois Now Boasts the ‘Most Equitable’ Climate Law in America. So What Will That Mean?

Beside targets for clean energy, it promises equitable job creation and help for communities hit hardest by fossil-fuel pollution.

Christopher Williams of Millennium Solar Training speaks to a class about the future of clean energy in Woodlawn, Illinois, on Thursday. Credit: Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Christopher Williams of Millennium Solar Training speaks to a class about the future of clean energy in Chicago on Thursday. Credit: Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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This article is the result of a partnership between Inside Climate News and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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 percent clean energy by 2050.

The new law 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 through by a coalition of environmental, community and religious activists who held more than 100 community meetings over the last three years with 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. 

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The result is what proponents call the “most equitable” climate bill passed to date in the United States.

While the bill sets a target year of 2050 for reaching the overall clean energy target, most of its major energy provisions have target dates of 2045.

The bill’s signing follows long delays and difficult negotiations in which the bill almost failed to pass. The delays meant that rooftop solar installers went through most of the year with no funding for the main state incentive program for their industry, leading to a drop in projects and the need to lay off workers. That program’s funding is now restored and expanded.

One of the major sticking points for lawmakers was how the law would treat two coal-fired power plants owned by groups of city governments, including Prairie State Energy Campus in southern Illinois. The law says the plants must be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045, a timeline that is 10 years later than what Pritzker had initially sought.

But the frustration and tension of the negotiations have been largely replaced by celebration.

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,” said Juliana Pino, policy director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in Chicago.

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.

‘I’m Hearing Life-Saving Stories’

Still, as a result of the new law, Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Calumet City, a Chicago suburb, said he hopes to significantly pick up the pace of installations and training. Over the last few years, thanks to funding provided by an earlier state energy law, Williams said 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.  

Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Chicago, provides training for people who want to work in the solar industry. The passage of the new state energy law increases the funding for solar projects and the demand for the workers he trains. Credit: Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Chicago, provides training for people who want to work in the solar industry. The passage of the new state energy law increases the funding for solar projects and the demand for the workers he trains. Credit: Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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 drafting the new law.

He said 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 said 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 Chicago community organization Blacks In Green and helped lead the efforts that resulted in the new law, said the equity push she and others championed was necessary to make the law more inclusive.

She and others say they’ll keep pressing public officials to make sure the promises in the new law are kept. 

Naomi Davis, who runs the South Side Chicago community organization Blacks In Green and helped lead the efforts that resulted in the new Illinois law, says the equity push she and others championed was necessary to make the law more inclusive. Credit: Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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 said. 

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 to 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 had expected.   

“That taught us a lot,” Pierce said. “We did a lot more robust stuff to make it stronger.”

The First in the Midwest

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 for getting to 100 percent 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,” said 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.”

The 100 Percent Club

Garren said 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 said. “In passing a bill like this, we’re setting the stage to prove that a 100 percent clean future is possible in every state.”

Daniel Bloom, principal at Advanced Energy Economy, a trade group for clean energy companies, said the law could prove to be an important part of demonstrating to other states the social and economic benefits of embracing clean energy.

Bloom said 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 said. 

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, said 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 said.

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 said.

‘This Would Have Been Unimaginable’

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 addressing another pressing climate issue. 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. 

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“It’s a great start,” said 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, about the clean transportation provisions.

But he said 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 said.

Echoing that, J.C. Kibbey, Illinois clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Chicago, said more needs to be done and will be done to address climate change.

Still, Kibbey said, “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.”