Illinois’ New Energy Plan Promises Massive Shift Away From Fossil Fuels
The energy legislation Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law Wednesday aims to aggressively reshape multiple sectors of the state’s economy to address climate change.
The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act sets the state on a path to transform its energy sector into one that produces zero carbon emissions by 2050. It includes provisions to foster electric vehicle use and workforce development for a growing “green economy.”
State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, cheered the legislation, saying it won’t be too burdensome to Metro East plants and will help create jobs in impoverished communities like East St. Louis.
The new law signals Illinois now has the most aggressive clean energy standards in the Midwest, putting the state on par with plans in states like California and New York, Pritzker said at the bill signing.
“With economic growth and jobs woven into its fabric, this new law is the most significant step Illinois has taken in a generation toward a reliable, renewable, affordable and clean energy future,” he said.
The legislation’s boldest changes focus on Illinois’ energy sector. It adds more than $350 million annually to renewable energy subsidies to reach a goal of 40% of energy coming from renewables by 2030 and 50% by 2040.
Renewable energy currently accounts for 7% to 8% of Illinois’ energy mix.
“The consequences of our actions are all around us,” Pritzker said. “We’ve seen the effects of climate change right here in Illinois repeatedly in the last 2½ years alone.”
He points to record heat, cold, floods and other weather events that forced emergency declarations in more than a third of the state’s counties.
The new law also targets legacy energy production from fossil fuels, requiring all private coal-fired and oil-fired power plants to eliminate their emissions by 2030, which environmentalists expect will mean their closure. Natural gas-fired plants will have until 2045 to zero out emissions.
There are exceptions for the state’s two municipally owned coal plants — City, Water, Light and Power’s Dallman plant in Springfield and the Prairie State Energy complex in southeast St. Clair County. These facilities can stay open past 2030, but are required to cut 45% of their emissions by 2035 and become 100% carbon free by 2045.
“Being cognizant of the effect that might have on municipalities and co-ops was something that was important to me,” Hoffman said. “We still need to continue to have reliable production of energy, but it is incumbent upon us to reduce the carbon emissions to our atmosphere.”
Hoffman added the legislation keeps Granite City Steel’s cogeneration plant operational as the state transitions to greener energy sources.
Some Republicans and other critics of the legislation say its mandate to move away from fossil fuels will weaken Illinois’ electric grid reliability.
Workforce development and retraining
Other important parts of the law include investments in communities whose economies have long relied on fossil fuel energy production and those that have historically been left behind by similar kinds of legislation, said JC Kibbey, Illinois clean energy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“You can’t have a technocratic policy that stands on its own and ignores the social context that climate change and fossil fuel pollution exist in and the communities that are impacted by all this,” he said.
One part of this includes providing a “just transition” for towns and cities that are still tied to coal power, Kibbey said.
“Some of this was already happening, but it wasn’t happening in a way that was strategic,” he said. “In practice, plants would close, workers would be out of a job and just left high and dry.”
Illinois’ new law seeks to address this by providing property tax replacement money — coal plants can account for large portions of a town's property tax base — for economic development and retraining, he said.
The law also seeks to remove barriers for people from places like East St. Louis and surrounding communities by providing seed money for local renewable projects, job training and other resources for minority contractors to grow their operations and 13 workforce hubs to offer job training across the state.
Representatives from different environmental justice areas had direct involvement in these provisions, ensuring their communities would not be left out of Illinois’ clean energy future, said Mike Atty, United Congregations of Metro East executive director.
“This legislation includes those communities by creating funding to invest in job creation in environmental justice communities,” he said. “It ensures Black, brown and poor communities have access to investment dollars to develop and promote new BIPOC contractors for job creation in their communities.”
One specific way the law achieves this is by exempting residential solar and wind projects from paying “prevailing wage,” which is required for all non-residential projects, Kibbey said.
“Prevailing wage, which can be $70 to $80 an hour, is really hard for a small business, especially one owned by a person of color,” he said.
To Hoffman, the energy legislation shows Illinois is a leader in enacting policies that prioritize the climate without leaving communities behind.
“I’m hopeful that other states around us will begin to follow our lead,” he said. “This is something that we can’t afford to wait on.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.