Illinois’ energy policy challenged

Solar panels between two buildings in downtown Chicago
Clean energy like solar has taken center stage in Illinois' energy policy. (Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang/MEDILL)

By Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang

Donald Trump may describe the nation’s energy policy as a “disaster,” but not everyone in Illinois would agree.

With the most nuclear power plants in the nation, and as one of the top five coal-produced states, Illinois is pressing ahead as well for clean energy jobs and industries.

The state’s clean energy legislation in 2007 led the way, setting up the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard (EEPS) and a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which led to programs and incentives for utility customers.

And since last year, Illinois has witnessed another attempt at clean energy policy – the Clean Jobs Bill in the state legislature. Despite the bill’s problems in the legislature, its supporters are hopeful.

The bill took center stage in the wake of Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which is a broader national effort to address the climate change by requiring states to develop strategies for slashing existing power plants’ CO2 emissions. The effort has run into political and legal challenges deferring a decision until next year.

The Clean Jobs Bill’s goal is to impose more ambitious goals on renewable energy and energy efficiency measures, according to the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition’s website.

In addition, it wants more revenue invested in clean energy, workforce development, and low-income bill assistance. It also proposes the creation of 32,000 jobs by 2030.

Indeed, job growth has been possible in Illinois.

Illinois was already home to 104,449 clean energy jobs in 2014, which was more than its accounting and real estate industries combined, and represents an increase of 7,574 jobs or 7.8 percent in just 15 months, the Clean Energy Trust’s report said.

Last year, Illinois continued to lead the Midwest in total clean jobs, having nearly 114,000 clean energy jobs, topping the 12 states in the region, the Clean Energy Trust’s 2016 report showed.

Energy efficiency accounted for two-thirds of those clean energy jobs, while the remaining third came from the renewable energy industry in jobs like bioenergy, solar power, wind power and geothermal energy, as well as in other sectors such as  transportation.

“I know everybody wants to talk about renewables, but energy efficiency is the cheapest way to get energy, and it provides a lot of jobs,” said Jennifer Walling, the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

“And with energy efficiency, you have to have the job here,” she said.

Cleans jobs often translate into local jobs because the work is so labor intensive, she explained. “So that’s something very important to business,” she added.

An example of how this effort creates jobs is Minnich Insulation Inc. in Mokena.

A contractor specializing in weatherization projects, Minnich has shifted its focus to energy efficiency upgrades in affordable housing units throughout the Chicago area. The change has earned the company more projects, and allowed it to hire more employees, said company president Joe Minnich.

His employees not only enjoy health benefits without paying a dime, Minnich said, but also receive higher  paychecks as his company has undertaken several funded energy efficiency projects that require prevailing wages.

“There are good paying jobs when everything is out there in place,” he said, celebrating that the energy efficiency incentives from the city, state and federal that have helped his business.

What’s more, there’s an emotional payoff, he said.

“People …. were crying when we left,” Minnich said, describing clients at a home without insulations that his company worked on last month.

“The buildings we’ve been doing lately, these people just really really need it, and they are very very thankful,” he said, adding that “they are gonna see increasing savings and comforts from the get-go.”

However, the clean energy effort is not without problems in Illinois.

Last year, both the energy efficiency program and the ratepayer rebate program for installing renewable energy went either unfunded or without enough money due to the state’s financial deadlock.

The money is collected from ratepayers on their utility bills, which is supposed to be used for projects under the EEPS fund and the Renewable Energy Resources Trust Fund, but it was used for general funding for the state. That is the case even though the ratepayer rebate program has been extended to 2020.

As for the energy efficiency programs, the funding has resumed temporally because of the stopgap budget that lifted the state’s financial crisis.

The lack of rebates and incentives has caused many small businesses and the state’s development of renewable energy to suffer, say industry officials. Illinois lost 10.8 percent of its wind jobs and 3.4 percent of its solar jobs between 2014 and 2015 for lack of funding, according to the Clean Energy Trust’s report.

Anne McKibbin, the policy director for the Elevate Energy, a major organization that provides energy efficiency services in Chicago, doubts that much can change without a new policy. “I don’t think they [the clean energy jobs] are going to grow significantly without new policy.”

Even though it has bipartisan support, the Clean Jobs Bill was not put up for vote during the last legislature session while talks continued among  groups such as Exelon Corp., Commonwealth Edison Co. and environmental organizations.

Exelon and ComEd have their own version of energy legislation, which compete for state financial resources and seek to revise state energy standards.

Exelon, as one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, has been public about its two endangered nuclear plants in Illinois, and introduced a Senate bill to avert those nuclear plants’ closure, according to the Illinois General Assembly’s website.

“So they would like some assistances to avoid that [closure],” said Representative Elaine Nekritz (D), a chief sponsor of the Clean Jobs Bill.

As for ComEd, it supports  a House bill that calls for Illinois to continue encouraging electric utilities to modernize their services. The company’s proposed rate design changes have been criticized for increasing customers’ electricity bills when they adopt renewable energy sources.

“I think that we will see a package in Springfield, that’s not just for renewable energy and energy efficiency but other energy interests as well,” Walling said, adding that her organization will only support a bill that prioritizes clean energy.

“The budget issue is so overarching, and what that means for everything else we do is really hard for me to predict,” Nekritz, said. “At some point, I’m optimistic,” Nekritz added, saying that Illinois needs to update its energy policy and everybody recognizes that. “I believe something will move.”

Walling is also hopeful about the Clean Jobs Bill. “Because there are jobs there, there is economic development could take place in this country.”

Photo at top: Clean energy like solar has taken center stage in Illinois’ energy policy. (Yu-Ning Aileen Chuang/MEDILL)
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