A vision of energy justice in Illinois

We write a lot about the fights solar supporters engage in to defend solar from unfair attacks by utilities or state commissions. Illinois offers a counterpoint. Energy stakeholders there are working to build upon a massive piece of energy legislation passed at the end of 2016, the Future Energy Jobs Act. Their goal is to use it to benefit low-income households. This effort, undertaken by numerous grassroots nonprofit and governmental organizations, shows what can happen when such groups forcefully express a shared vision of energy justice.

Illinois established its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) a decade ago. It requires investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and alternative retail electric suppliers (ARES) to produce 25 percent of their retail electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025. However, very little progress had been made toward achieving these goals and the state was not on track to reach them.

The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) was designed to fix the RPS’ flaws while stimulating job creation, attracting clean energy companies and investment, and preserving low energy rates for residents and businesses.

Controversially, FEJA also provided a 10-year bailout for unprofitable nuclear power plants in the state owned by Exelon. The bill as originally conceived was a strong bill with no nuclear component, but Exelon successfully lobbied to have the bailout added.

FEJA commits up to $750 million to help low-income communities save money and benefit from clean energy. This provision is thanks in large part to the efforts of grassroots organizations. The bill also requires that 4 million wind Renewable Energy Certificates – RECs – and 4 million solar RECs come from new build projects, as one major intention of the law is to incentivize the construction of new renewables projects. According to this article, that works out to about 3 GW of solar projects and 1,300 MW of wind projects.

The law requires the Illinois Power Agency to submit a plan forecasting future energy use in the state. IPA submitted the plan for comments last fall. This process gave stakeholders an opportunity to provide input on how the Future Energy Jobs act should be implemented.

“It’s awesome that in the bill there are no upfront costs for low-income participants,” said Ingrid Schwingler, Policy & Regulatory Coordinator for GRID Alternatives. “Front-line communities have many other financial obligations. However, there is also no floor for savings. The bill should make sure that savings that are incentivized with renewable energy credits are passed on to low-income participants. We want to ensure that both tangible economic benefits and savings are maximized in Illinois.”

Dawn Dannenbring, Environmental Organizer for Illinois People’s Action (IPA), an interfaith community organization, said that IPA wanted to make sure that FEJA met the needs of its communities. These communities consist mostly of people of color. After IPA joined the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition in 2014, the coalition tried to push the legislature to add a provision to its clean energy bill to create set-asides for low-income communities of up to 50 percent. In a compromise, the final bill created set-asides of 25 percent.

Dannenbring said that IPA joined the Illinois Solar for All (ISFA) Working Group, along with many grassroots groups, to make sure FEJA is “implemented in the most progressive way possible”. She noted there was a big set-aside of funds in the bill for low-income people, but that the legislature had tried to use that money to balance the budget. Grassroots coalitions worked successfully to stop this appropriation of funds.

Schwingler had high praise for the ISFA process, in which her organization interacted harmoniously with more than 75 individual participants.

“It was a truly fantastic network of hardworking, passionate organizations working in a way that benefits almost everybody,” said Schwingler. “I can’t say enough about the work ethic of all organizations involved.” She singled out for praise the leader of the group, Juliana Pino, Policy Director for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who “made us all ask what we really wanted” from the process. She summarized the experience as “very positive.”

In January, IPA held the first of four monthly community forums on FEJA and ISFA in downstate Illinois. More than 100 people attended. The forum described what the FEJA Act is and how people can claim their fair share under the law. The February forum discussed how to get a job through the act and what opportunities are available. The March forum will concentrate on entrepreneurship and the final forum, in April, will focus on community solar.

“The input that we receive from communities goes into the ISFA process,” said Dannenbring.

Efforts to expand solar access in Illinois can serve as a model elsewhere. “Organize your community and grow your numbers,” Dannenbring said. “Our opponents have all the money. We are real-life people with real-life stories.”

For more information about expanding solar access, click here.

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