SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly are reviving a plan to make Illinois reliant only on renewable power sources by 2050 with policies and regulations to encourage a switch to generating energy from such sustainable sources as wind and solar.
The Clean Energy Jobs Act has a new boost with the election of Democratic President Joe Biden and the urgency engendered by the triple whammy of a global pandemic, a racial justice crisis and a corruption scandal involving the state’s largest utility, advocates said at a news conference Tuesday.
Add to that Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s pledge a year ago to reject energy legislation written by utilities and last month’s ascension of a clean-power advocate, Hillside Democrat Emanuel "Chris" Welch, to the House speaker’s post, and proponents say the pieces are in place to prevent the plan from stalling as it has previously.
"Illinois and Oregon are the only states in the country led by Democrats that have not passed a measure to ensure 100% clean energy by 2050," said the Rev. Scott Onque, a minister on the south side of Chicago and policy director of the nonprofit Faith in Place. "Our job is clear. We need to pass comprehensive clean energy legislation that combats climate change, creates equitable jobs and holds utilities accountable."
The wide-ranging plan, sponsored by Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago and Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin, includes government subsidies but also creates and expands programs to encourage private investment in clean energy, particularly in neighborhoods populated by people of color, where fossil-fuel-powered plants often are located. It pledges to ensure an equitable number of jobs created would go to people of color. That’s all the more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has battered the economy, and a renewed focus on racial justice borne of the civil unrest after police-involved killings of Black people, said co-sponsor Sen. Robert Peters.
"We have a plan to create tens of thousands of good paying jobs, and let’s be clear," the Chicago Democrat said. "We don’t just want electronic vehicle charging stations, rooftop and community solar and energy efficiency programs competing in Black neighborhoods and communities. We want Black workers installing them. And we want Black-owned businesses designing the projects and getting them built."
An addition to past plans is en emphasis on accountability for utilities, particularly in the aftermath of last summer’s announcement that utility company ComEd paid a $200 million fine in a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department over a yearslong bribery scheme in the Legislature. Such accountability assurances are also found in the clean-energy plan Pritzker released just a month after the ComEd scandal became public.
Paul Elsberg, a spokesman for ComEd, which provides power to much of northern Illinois, said the utility will be reviewing the legislation for proposals "that ensure all of our customers benefit from clean energy investment and that jobs and economic opportunities go to our under-served and vulnerable communities."
There was more skepticism from Ameren Illinois, which supplies 1.2 million customers in central and southern Illinois. Spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said the plan is written to benefit Chicago-area consumers to the detriment of customers in the rest of the state, who she said would see $1.8 billion increase in electric bills.
"We support affordable solutions to give downstate customers the benefits of clean energy while maintaining the grid investments that have yielded improvements in service reliability and created thousands of good-paying jobs," Love said. "Illinois is not a one-size-fits-all state."
COVID-19 has seriously hampered legislative work since last March. The House, originally scheduled for nine days of work in Springfield this month, will meet only once, on Wednesday, to adopt its rules for the new two-year session begun last month, with a notable addition allowing for remote legislating by video conference.