CARBONDALE — At a community forum Thursday evening, a panel led by the Shawnee Group Sierra Club asked residents to envision a Southern Illinois transformed by job growth in renewable energy.
There are currently 600,000 people in the Midwest working in the clean energy sector, a 5 percent growth since 2015, said Elizabeth Donoghue, who serves on the executive committee of the Shawnee Group Sierra Club and helped organize the event.
“We know this is an economically disadvantaged area. We need jobs more than ever — good ones. And that is the opportunity that this holds,” Donoghue said at the forum, which was held at the Carbondale Civic Center.
The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which went into effect June 1, aims to position the state as a leader in clean energy by making new investments in renewables. It also expands energy efficiency provisions and devotes monies to programs that provide training for clean energy jobs.
The panel and discussion, sponsored by several local environmental and nonprofit groups, was organized to help Southern Illinois organizations gain an understanding of how to take advantage of the billions of dollars FEJA frees up for investment in solar and wind.
Kady McFadden, deputy director of the Illinois Sierra Club, called FEJA a “nationally significant” piece of legislation that was built on grassroots action.
“We have been working for almost seven years, in some form or another, to get these policies through,” McFadden said.
FEJA will spur the state to build the equivalent of five coal or nuclear power plants in renewables and to reduce its carbon footprint 33 million tons by 2030 — the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road. Baked into the legislation are specific targets that ensure the energy is produced within the state.
Southern Illinois currently has fewer than 100 megawatts in solar energy, said Shannon Fulton, past president of the Illinois Solar Energy Association and director of business development at StraightUp Solar. 1 megawatt powers about 160 homes.
“We need to get to … 1500 (megawatts) by 2020. We’re not far off from 2020; that’s a lot of solar, coming in the form of utility-scale, community solar, solar on churches and homes and businesses and schools. It’s gonna come in all flavors,” Fulton said.
Ameren's energy-efficiency goals
FEJA requires utility companies to meet ambitious energy-efficiency standards. Last week, the Illinois Commerce Commission approved Ameren’s proposal to reduce the goals it had previously set as part of the legislation for the next four years.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Citizens Utility Board and the Environmental Defense Fund have accused the utility of backing out on its promises.
Sarah Moskowitz, outreach director of the Citizens Utility Board, said Southern Illinoisans are “getting ripped off” when it comes to energy efficiency offerings.
She said Ameren doesn’t have much to offer in the way of energy efficiency programs compared to Commonwealth Edison, or ComEd, which serves Northern Illinois.
“There’s a lot of really good, cost-effective ways to encourage energy efficiency and to bring it into the hands of everyday residential customers like you and I that Ameren, right now, is not going to be required to do,” Moskowitz said.
“(Ameren’s) customers are going to see fewer energy savings, which leads to less economic savings and less environmental benefits overall, because Ameren won’t be achieving as much energy efficiency savings as they previously committed to,” Christie Hicks, Clean Energy Regulatory Implementation manager with the EDF, said in a phone call.
"Ameren Illinois' energy efficiency programs are ranked among the most effective in the United States," Richard J. Mark, chairman and president of Ameren Illinois, said in a statement. "The plan approved by the ICC will give us an opportunity to build on this success while providing needed energy efficiency assistance to our moderate-to-low income customers. We will also equip community-based groups with the tools to train workers to provide services in the energy efficiency arena, providing an economic boost in local communities and ultimately benefiting the entire state."
“This is something that we need to make sure that Carbondale and Southern Illinois is fighting hard for. Ameren has been trying to wiggle its way out of these energy efficiency targets since this bill was passed and they agreed to it,” McFadden said at Thursday’s forum.
Moskowitz said that the Citizens Utility Board plans to appeal the ICC’s decision.
“You should call the Commission. Get on record. Call your elected officials too,” Moskowitz said.
Rev. Booker Stephen Vance, policy director of the Chicago-based, religious environmental group Faith in Place, said Southern Illinois residents tend to stay informed about energy efficiency and renewable energy, but that they need to be organized as well.
“When it came to organizing (in Southern Illinois) to fight Ameren, we had some problems, and it was because of a historical reality that sometimes the north and the south and the central and the city don’t have conversations … we’ve gotta put some of that old stuff down so that we can work together as partners … so that we can see change happen,” Vance said.
“As we are seeing hurricanes ravage parts of this country, I think a lot of people are here because they know we have to act on climate,” McFadden said.
There is a movement in communities across the country to set a goal of 100 percent clean energy, McFadden said. She called on attendees to submit petitions urging Carbondale to do the same.