Clean, equitable jobs for Illinois

Deputy Director Emma Fisher reflects on the Clean & Equitable Jobs Act, newly passed in her home state of Illinois.

November 8, 2021

In October 2018, I stood in the library at University of Illinois-Chicago in front of a room full of students and community members. At the time, I was working as an organizer with Illinois PIRG, training dozens of student volunteers to run voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives across several Chicago-area college campuses in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections. But on this particular day, I was hosting a community input session on behalf of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which was seeking public input to inform the framework for a big forthcoming clean energy bill.

The students in the room shared their vision for a clean energy bill that would not only scale up clean energy as quickly as possible to make Illinois a leader in tackling climate change, but also do so in a way that would make life better for everyone — through advancing equity, environmental justice, and expanding access to good-paying clean energy jobs. The coalition held sessions like this in over 50 communities around the state that year — a democratic process that I was proud to be a part of, and that helped to inform a truly transformative agenda. ‍

Three years later, this fall, Illinois became the first state in the Midwest to commit to achieving a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050.‍

It was a long and arduous process to get this bill across the finish line. So long, in fact, that I lived in 3 states running various other campaigns before moving back home and seeing this one come to fruition. It also included a harrowing final few months, in which the entire negotiations almost went up in flames multiple times. The bill is far from perfect, but the rigorous community engagement process and incredible organizing by environmental justice groups and labor unions across the state helped Illinois set a new standard. ‍

Illinois’s “Clean & Equitable Jobs Act,” which passed in September, is one of the most ambitious economy-wide decarbonization bills in the nation, and has some of the strongest labor and equity standards seen in this type of legislation to-date. I’m excited to see how many of the innovative new programs will take shape in my own community!

So what’s in it, and how did we get here? 

The Clean & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) puts Illinois on track to achieve 100% renewable electricity by 2045, and net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. It also dramatically increases funding for the Illinois Solar for All program which increases access to solar in low-income communities and on community buildings, and doubles other funding for renewables. It also seeks to align utilities’ incentives with energy efficiency, equity, and clean energy goals through “performance-based ratemaking.” And on transportation, it scales up rebates for electric vehicles, requires utilities to make plans to electrify our transportation system, invests more in public transportation, and seeks to channel at least 40% of these benefits to economically disadvantaged communities.

CEJA raises the bar on labor standards included in big clean energy bills like this. I’m really excited about the Clean Jobs Workforce Network Hubs Program, which will create 13 hubs around the state to ensure job training and clean energy opportunities are accessible to Black, Latinx, and low-income communities. I can’t wait to check out these hubs when they start popping up across Chicago! The bill also creates a “displaced worker bill of rights” with funding to assist communities transitioning off of fossil fuels. And it requires most renewable projects to use project-labor agreements, pay prevailing wage, and meet minimum diversity requirements to counter the historically white-dominated trends in this industry.

One of the most exciting pieces of the bill, to me, is that it requires shut-down dates for fossil fuel facilities to be determined by proximity to low-income and marginalized communities. This is a huge win for environmental justice organizers in Chicago and across the state, who have fought to make the disproportionate burden of fossil fuel pollution on Black, Brown and Latinx communities central to the negotiations. Groups like Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Blacks in Green, and others truly elevated this bill through strategic organizing and setting the agenda with environmental groups early on. As a result, they won some important steps forward for public health in over-polluted communities, as well as carve outs to ensure these same communities are not left behind in the clean energy transition. ‍

Of course, there were compromises. And some big ones, which almost tanked the whole effort multiple times over the final few months. First on the list: the Prairie State Energy Campus won’t be required to fully shut down until 2045.‍

Prairie State is a coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois. It’s by far the largest polluter in the state by far (by almost two times), and the 7th largest polluter is the country. Despite that, it’s also one of the newest coal plants in the country, and it never should have been built. It was finished in 2012, at a time when it was clear that coal could no longer compete with wind and solar. As a result, it’s been a “financial disaster” – in addition to a public health and environmental disaster – and a recent analysis by RMI found that consumers would save money by shutting it down by 2030. Shutting it down early would have freed hundreds of small municipal and Rural Electric Cooperative utilities from expensive, dirty, but inescapable contracts. ‍

Alas, late last summer, an attempt to exempt Prairie State from CEJA altogether (possibly influenced by the fact that Senate President Harmon’s top aide was a former coal lobbyist?) almost killed the entire bill. After months of last ditch attempts, Governor Pritzker brokered the 2045 deal, and the bill became law.‍

The other continuing source of controversy: Exelon got their second nuclear bailout in 5 years, although the final amount was whittled down from their initial egregious request. No one wanted to give Exelon more handouts, especially after the still-fresh ComEd bribery scandal, but nuclear makes up 58% of Illinois’s electricity, and replacing that carbon-free electricity with more gas or coal before renewables could fill the gap was in no one’s interest. ‍

I’m hopeful there will be other opportunities to shut down Prairie State before 2045. By all accounts, it only makes sense. And in the meantime, I’m thrilled to see the new programs, investments, and incentives laid out in CEJA come to life. ‍

It’s been a wild journey watching this bill evolve and ultimately pass. I am so deeply grateful to all of the environmental justice organizers that worked for years to ensure the clean energy revolution in Illinois would be as ambitious and equitable as possible, and to all of the advocates, organizers, and volunteers who worked tirelessly for years to hold community input sessions, lobby days, rallies and more to get the job done. ‍

This bill makes me proud to be an Illinoisan!