Illinois: Fossil Fuel–Free by 2050?

New legislation could put the Prairie State on the path to 100 percent renewable energy within decades.
Solar panels at an Exelon solar power facility—one of the largest urban solar installations in the United States—on Chicago’s South Side

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ambitious clean energy goals are beginning to sweep the country, one state at a time. California, New Mexico, Nevada, and most recently Washington have put laws on the books that will have them quitting their fossil fuel addictions over the coming decades. In the Midwest, Wisconsin and Minnesota have proposals in the works to do the same. But Illinois may take this trend the furthest by using renewable sources only (i.e., no nuclear). Its lawmakers have proposed new legislation that would transition the Prairie State to 100 percent renewable power by 2050.

And all that sun and wind power would be homegrown, so to speak. Already, Illinois plans to get a quarter of its electricity from renewables by 2025, up substantially from the current 8 percent. If passed, the pair of bills would help increase that figure by expanding on the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA). That law got the ball rolling two years ago by amending the way the state funded new wind and solar farms and the like while encouraging utilities to invest in them with incentives such as renewable energy credits (RECs).

Since then, solar and wind farms have been popping up in urban and rural areas alike. A solar array sits atop Aurora’s public library, bucolic McDonough County will soon break ground on a 150-megawatt wind farm, and John A. Logan College in Carterville is planning for a 2-megawatt solar array on campus. The future for Illinois’s clean energy job force also looks bright. Currently the industry employs more than 123,000 workers in the state, twice as many as the fossil fuel industry.

But FEJA is just the first step. Ever since the law passed in December 2016, the Clean Jobs Coalition, a group of companies and organizations (including NRDC) that represent environmental interests, businesses, and faith communities, has been wondering if Illinois was willing to raise the bar even higher. It held more than 60 meetings across the state, says J.C. Kibbey, a clean energy advocate at NRDC, to discuss renewable energy projects and goals and specifically to gauge Illinoisans’ appetite for shooting for 100 percent. “There’s a lot of expertise on these issues in the coalition,” says Kibbey, but in translating that goal into legislation, “we didn’t want it to be something that was just crafted in a room by policy wonks.”

The result of all those community meetings is the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The bill, proposed last month, could have Illinois going all in on renewable energy by mid-century. Another of its goals is to prevent a “solar cliff,” industry lingo for what happens when insufficient funding leads to a severe falloff in renewable energy development.

 A central challenge still faces the state’s growing renewable industry: There just isn’t enough money to go around. And without financial support from the state, many of the projects wouldn’t appeal to other investors. As it stands, state funding for clean energy will dry up after 2019. If that happens, Illinois won’t be able to reach even its legally mandated target of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

“It’s amazing how much construction could be happening right now in Illinois, and it’s unfortunate that we’re putting the brakes on just as we’re leaving the station,” says Lisa Albrecht, owner of All Bright Solar, a solar development and installation company she founded two years ago in Chicago.

Take a look at the solar industry. When the REC program rolled out earlier this year, the state received proposals for 1,800 megawatts of community solar electricity. These are local projects in which customers receive a credit on their utility bills for the percentage of solar power they buy. The proposals, however, were collectively asking for three times the wattage the community solar program could support.

Another problem is that only solar projects that are or will be connected to the grid this year can get the maximum federal solar tax credit. Under the federal program, developers can write off nearly a third of their installation costs on their 2019 taxes. (That percentage is set to decrease incrementally over the coming years, eventually reaching 10 percent in 2022.)

What renewable energy developers need everywhere is more funding and certainty on interconnection costs and timelines so they can plan their project budgets accordingly. For example, ComEd, the major utility in northern Illinois, has not connected a single utility-scale wind or solar project to the grid that applied after 2011. And since ComEd hasn’t made its connection queue publicly available, developers can’t see how many projects are ahead of them or estimate how long the process might take. The Path to 100 bill, introduced in February, seeks to correct that by requiring utilities to be transparent about how long it will be before a project goes online and how much it will cost to get it there.

If passed, the Clean Energy Jobs Act would make Illinois the first state in the continental United States to set its sights on 100 percent renewable energy. (In 2015, Hawaii committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.)

The bill, says Kibbey, could help create clean energy jobs for the areas that need them the most. These include former coal plant communities, like Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, where the Crawford coal plant operated until 2012, along with places that bear the brunt of fossil fuel pollution, such as suburban Waukegan, where an NRG coal plant still operates today.

The legislation also proposes to take the equivalent of a million gas- and diesel-powered vehicles off the road by 2030 by investing in electric vehicle charging stations and incentivizing electric buses. Finally, it calls for a network of “last mile” electric shuttles to get people from the end of a train or bus line to their homes and workplaces.

The Illinois state legislature recesses for summer in just a few weeks, and lawmakers will have to decide whether to hop aboard the renewable energy train. “It’s called the solar coaster, right?” says Lesley McCain, director of the Illinois Solar Energy Association. “But we’re trying to not to have that up-and-down here.” Instead, she and many others are counting on the industry enjoying a steady upward climb—without any stomach-dropping plunges.

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