In Illinois, a Model for a Just Transition From Coal to Solar

The passage of a new law has made the state a powerful new player in the renewable energy industry.

The passage of the Biden administration’s landmark climate bill in August marks the beginning of a new national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But some states are taking steps toward even more ambitious climate goals.

In Illinois, that’s playing out through the Climate and Equitable Jobs act (CEJA), a comprehensive green energy bill that puts the state on track to run on 100 percent clean energy by 2050, according to the State of Illinois.

​A demo solar home created by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The amount of solar capacity installed in the state is expected to grow by more than 1,700 percent over the next five years. Photo courtesy of the US Department of Energy.

The law, which took effect in September 2021, aims to make electric vehicles more affordable and accessible by providing tax credits for newly purchased EVs and building charging stations in all Chicago neighborhoods, as well as some rural areas.

But perhaps one of the most impactful aspects of the bill is its provisions to help power grids transition from coal to solar energy.

As part of the bill’s “Coal to Solar and Storage Initiative,” five coal plants are shutting down and being converted to energy storage facilities. An energy storage facility is essentially a large battery, storing excess energy on the grid so it can be used when the power is needed or it can be sold at a higher price. To aid the transition, each of the five coal plant sites will receive a total of $280.5 million over a ten-year period. The amount of money corresponds to the project size in megawatts for each site.

These coal plants, which were built in the last century with funding from electric ratepayers and were later acquired by out-of-state corporations (most recently Vistra Energy), have long served as the economic backbone of surrounding communities. But they’ve also been emitting airborne toxins and pollutants like heavy metals and nitrogen oxides that are known to cause asthma and breathing difficulties, brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, and premature death.

Many of the surrounding communities that were most affected by pollution were socioeconomically disadvantaged. Many individuals and organizations, like the Union of Concerned Scientists have, expressed deep concern about the health impacts on those living near the coal plants.

“These plants bore the disproportionate burden of pollution in Illinois,” said Jack Darin, the director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club.

Now, the coal plants will finally be put offline – in part thanks to the new bill.

Darin, a Steering Committee member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, was a member of the negotiating team for the nearly 1,000-page law. According to Darin, the companies that owned the coal sites actually did want to transition to more environmentally-friendly, and include options like solar and energy storage. The economics of producing coal are increasingly tenuous, and grants from the coal-to-solar initiative are contributing to a burgeoning clean energy industry in Illinois.

Before 2021, Illinois had been slowly building a solar industry. After the passage of the CEJA, Illinois has become a promising market for solar energy companies. Although Illinois currently ranks 16th in the country for solar power with 1,559 megawatts currently installed, the amount of solar capacity installed in the state is expected to grow by more than 1,700 percent over the next five years, according to estimates by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“Thanks to CEJA, we expect solar energy and related jobs to take off,” Darin said.

Illinois transformation is part of a broader national trend toward renewable energy. The Biden administration hopes to reach zero net-carbon emissions by the year 2050. The Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act will keep up with Biden’s energy goals, and possibly exceed it. The city of Chicago announced it is on track to transition all electricity consumption to renewable energy by 2035, in part due to a large solar installation downstate that will power the city in the future.

There are challenges in transitioning from coal to solar energy. Many of the coal plants hoping to complete their transformations into clean energy storage facilities are contaminated with coal ash, a toxic material produced by burning coal that, in some cases, has been seeping into surrounding groundwater for years. Coal companies have proposed a technique that would cap the coal ash in place, a tactic that the Sierra Club says will not prevent the ash from seeping into groundwater.

Other challenges include transitioning the workforce. The workers at these plants are prioritized for training opportunities in the clean energy economy in CEJA’s just transition programs. The bill provides money to community groups that will help former coal workers transition to clean energy jobs.

“We hope that the jobs created in these solar and storage projects will be opportunities for members of surrounding communities, including former workers at the coal plants,” Darin said.

Karen Clay, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, believes the shift from polluting power production to renewable energy was a long time coming. Like all economists, Clay also looks at the cost-benefit analysis. Although keeping fossil fuels might save jobs, “the jobs don’t come for free,” she says. The tradeoff is loss of life.

Illinois’ shift to solar energy is an acknowledgment that tradeoff is no longer acceptable.

“When it comes to Illinois’ clean energy future, this initiative will help deliver on the progress our residents deserve,” said Governor JB Pritzker in a news release. “Illinois is taking strides that no other state in the Midwest — and few in the country — are taking when it comes to combating climate change.”

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