By Whitney Richardson and Leah Hartung
Since its debut in the state capitol two years ago, Illinois’ Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA) has become incredibly popular.
As of May 2020, 8 in 10 Illinois voters supported passing the comprehensive grassroots bill, according to a poll released by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition.
Now an updated version of the bill is generating new support. Last month, more than 1,500 people submitted pro-CEJA witness slips before a House Energy & Environment Committee hearing. A majority of the committee’s members voted to send CEJA to the House for a vote.
Let’s look at four ways that passing CEJA will help Lake County residents.
1. Relieve the heavy burden of toxic pollution
CEJA will transition our power sector away from fossil fuels by 2030 and significantly expand clean energy generation. That will lead to significant improvements in air and water quality as well as in human health across Lake County.
How? Coal-fired power plants emit vast quantities of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (which leads to climate change) plus dangerous mercury, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter (soot). Solar energy systems do not produce air pollution or greenhouse gases. Wind turbines do not release emissions that can pollute the air or water, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“The shift to clean energy offers a chance to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, while lessening the toll that dirty fossil fuels are currently wreaking on some of our most vulnerable communities,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a 2015 report.
Waukegan, Lake County’s largest city, is one such vulnerable community. Its residents have been paying a heavy toll for dirty fossil fuels for more than 100 years—thanks to the local coal-fired power plant. The plant, owned by NRG Energy, is the largest point source of air and water pollution in Lake County, according to the Sierra Club.
“Breathing polluted air contributes to an increase in health problems, including asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes, respiratory and cardiovascular harm, reproductive harm, lung cancer, and early death. Some groups are particularly at risk—including children, older adults, communities of color, and those with existing health issues,” according to the American Lung Association.
CEJA also will provide economic development incentives for communities where coal plants have recently closed, help protect workers’ benefits and give them access to higher education and vocational training, and ensure that polluters pay for the environmental damage they cause.
2. Hold utility companies accountable to consumers
CEJA includes strong provisions to protect consumers from rate hikes and prevent corruption, such as the yearslong bribery scheme to which ComEd recently admitted (Capitol News Illinois).
One such provision is capacity market reform.
Utility companies say the capacity market is a form of insurance: They are paid to guarantee that energy will be available during predicted peak use times. In reality, the capacity market has operated as a fossil fuel bailout mechanism: Coal-fired power plants are paid years in advance to supply energy to consumers during peak usage times that may or may not come down the line.
CEJA will remove Illinois from the multistate capacity auction (conducted by the federally regulated PJM regional transmission organization). Instead, it will allow the Illinois Power Agency (IPA) to buy capacity. The IPA could then emphasize purchasing solar and wind energy rather than power created by burning fossil fuels.
“If we implement CEJA, [Illinois] will stop paying $1.8 billion on fossil emitting coal plants and that’s something we’ll be able to tangibly see the impacts of on day one,” Rep. Ann Williams, chief House sponsor of CEJA, said in a February news conference.
In other words, CEJA can remove undue economic and environmental burdens on Illinois residents while taking the fossil fuel industry off life support.
Another provision is ending automatic rate hikes for utility delivery services. CEJA calls for performance-based rate settings: The Illinois Commerce Commission would be allowed to approve only utility investments, programs, and rates that are cost-effective and contribute to a renewable energy electric grid.
3. Create environmental justice empowerment zones
CEJA will create Clean Energy Empowerment Zones (or Environmental Justice Empowerment Zones). These will offer tax breaks and other types of support for new clean energy businesses in areas where coal plants have closed in the past 10 years or where they may close in the future, according to an October 27, 2020, article by Kari Lydersen in Energy News Network.
The point is to help fossil fuel workers who might otherwise be left behind in the shift to clean energy as well as communities that have suffered disproportionately from environmental harms, unjust permitting, and limited job opportunities.
CEJA also will create Clean Jobs Workforce Hubs. The statewide network of frontline organizations will offer direct, ongoing support to minority and disadvantaged communities. For example, hubs could connect workers with job opportunities in the clean energy sector.
As a recognized environmental justice community, Waukegan is slated under CEJA to become a Clean Energy Empowerment Zone as well as a Clean Jobs Workforce Hub. Among other things, this means Waukegan will get funding, job training resources, and guidance for economic development and revitalizing the Waukegan coal plant site (once it closes).
These measures will be funded through emissions fees and coal severance fees.
4. Protect public health and our children’s future
CEJA will help Illinois avoid the worst impacts of climate change in three ways:
- Transitioning Illinois’ power sector completely away from fossil fuels by 2030
- Supporting workers and communities impacted by the decline of coal
- Significantly expanding clean energy generation and good-paying clean energy jobs
It’s a vicious circle: Burning fossil fuels—coal, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuel—decreases air quality and emits carbon. Carbon release contributes to climate change. Climate change can put our health and safety at risk. Climate change also can make it harder to clean up pollution.
Extreme heat and flooding have already cost Illinois more than $6.5 billion and hundreds of lives in recent decades. According to Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition estimates, if no action is taken, climate change by 2050 will cause nearly 1,200 deaths and more than $6 billion in damage each year in the Midwest.
The damages will be even greater in areas with poor air quality, such as Lake County.
Illinois can’t afford to wait: We need to pass CEJA this spring.
Let’s make it happen!
CEJA is headed to the House floor for a vote this spring. If you haven’t contacted your representatives about CEJA, now is the time to voice your support. If you have contacted your representatives about, now is the time to remind them you hold them accountable for supporting this important bill. You can write them here.
Next, ask your families, friends, and neighbors to contact legislators, too. We need legislators to hear, loud and clear: “Lake County supports CEJA!”
Last, but not least: Join friends and neighbors in your district and coalitions across the state for Spring Virtual Lobby Day on April 26. You will have the chance to talk with your legislators about the need to pass CEJA.
Our clean energy future can’t wait any longer.
Whitney Richardson lives in Vernon Hills, Illinois. She recently completed an MSc abroad in International Environmental Studies and conducts legal, legislative, and policy research.
Leah Hartung is from Libertyville, Illinois. She is a rising senior at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia) studying environmental science as well as a member of Clean Power Lake County’s steering committee.