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Pritzker’s signature climate law has seen slow progress on clean energy, green jobs promises

Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Calumet City, was hoping for immediate benefits to his business from a 2021 Illinois climate law. He’s been training new workers — but with funding from past government programs — and has been frustrated that aspects of the law have been slow to come together.
Anthony Vazquez
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Chicago Sun Times
Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Calumet City, was hoping for immediate benefits to his business from a 2021 Illinois climate law. He’s been training new workers — but with funding from past government programs — and has been frustrated that aspects of the law have been slow to come together.

Two years ago, Illinois legislators passed a law that made big promises to fight climate change.

It would reduce air pollution by phasing out electricity created by burning fossil fuels and lead to the creation of thousands of new jobs in clean energy industries, especially for Black and Latino residents, who often bear the brunt of pollution because of their proximity to coal-and gas-burning power plants.

So far, though, only limited progress has been made toward reaching those goals.

On energy, the aim by 2025 is to have Illinois homes and businesses reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, are supposed to account for one-quarter of all power, the law says.

Today, renewable sources make up only 10.5% of power. That includes not only current projects but also others planned with promises they will soon come online.

On the promised new “equitable” jobs in clean energy industries, the state has yet to train or help place even one worker, though training programs are being set up to be in place by next year.

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker amid fanfare on Chicago’s lakefront, set a timeline for phasing out fossil-fuel energy sources, setting a deadline of shutting them down by 2050, with a sped-up timeline for communities most affected by pollution.

A lag in training and other workforce programs, though, has fueled a backup that operators of solar and other renewable energy businesses say is delaying their projects.

One big reason: Renewable energy companies have diversity requirements under the law and are expected to hire from the state-sponsored workforce programs — which aren’t yet in place.

“The slow rollout of job-training programs has led to some growing pains,” says Lesley McCain, executive director of Illinois Solar Energy and Storage Association. “While these programs require significant time and resources to launch, these vital programs are not yet producing the results the bill was intended to help. We’re hopeful that these programs will come online soon.”

Contractors, advocates and others called out Pritzker late last year for dragging his feet on workforce development.

Pritzker administration officials say they need to take time to set up the job-training efforts “to ensure the programs are designed in a manner that benefits target populations.” Officials say all of the programs are expected to be in place by next year.

Officials with Pritzker’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity say the law “supports an equitable economic transition,” in part through training.

“Creating clean energy jobs is an overarching, long-term goal of [the law], but it’s not a direct function,” they say.

Christopher Williams, owner of Millennium Solar in Calumet City, was excited when the law was passed two years ago. He was looking for the law to help his five-person business train prospective workers in the new green economy.

He hoped to train 1,000 students in five years — potential job candidates from disinvested communities or people formerly incarcerated or experiencing other hardships.

Williams says so far that he has trained 600 people — with funding from past government programs — and has been frustrated that aspects of the law have been slow to come together.

He isn’t alone in seeking job-training dollars from other sources as they wait to see the state’s promises fulfilled.

Senyo Ador, co-owner of Sesenergi Eco Solutions Enterprise, has made job training a bigger part of his business thanks in part to help from the Chicago nonprofit Elevate.

He says his business has trained about 140 students in a little more than two years.

Ador says he’s thankful for the law because it’s helping foster a new economy, and that his business is still small, with just seven employees, but that he’s confident it will grow.

“Illinois has made it white hot,” Ador says. “We understand there’s going to be a gestation period.”

Sanyo Ador, CEO of Sesenergi Eco Solutions, says he looks forward to a growth in business once there’s more progress on the promised benefits from an Illinois clean-energy jobs law.
Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere 
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Chicago Sun-Times
Sanyo Ador, CEO of Sesenergi Eco Solutions, says he looks forward to a growth in business once there’s more progress on the promised benefits from an Illinois clean-energy jobs law.

Elevate also is hoping to win grants from the state to help train more solar and other green energy workers.

“It’s taken longer than we hoped to begin rollout of the CEJA workforce programs,” says MeLena Hessel, Elevate’s associate director of policy. “We just want to see the forward momentum continue — to see the remaining programs bid out, winners to be selected and the program to be stood up and start training folks.”

One of the law’s major accomplishments was to bail out the state’s aging nuclear power plants, which have had a difficult time competing with less expensive electricity sources. The plants don’t generate carbon dioxide and, if they had been shut down, it’s likely that the state would have increased its use of fossil-fuel power plants to fill the gap, increasing carbon emissions. Unions lauded the bailout because it saved jobs.

In another job-saving move, Pritzker announced $281 million in grants over 10 years funded by the law to convert five coal plants into solar battery operations.

Workers install solar panels at the Double Black Diamond solar farm near Springfield, a 593-megawatt project that will produce clean energy for the city of Chicago.
Richard Saal
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Provided
Workers install solar panels at the Double Black Diamond solar farm near Springfield, a 593-megawatt project that will produce clean energy for the city of Chicago.

Another program provided $40 million in community grants to 50 local government bodies affected by closings of fossil fuel plants or coal mines. 

A clean energy advocate points to the Illinois Shines program, which encourages small-scale solar development. The program is a successor to one that suffered from underfunding and long wait lists before an update with the 2021 law.

“There are parts of CEJA that are going gangbusters,” says Will Kenworthy, Midwest regulatory director for Vote Solar.

But that program is a relatively small part of the state’s plan to build enough renewable energy to meet goals like relying 25% on renewable energy sources by 2025, 40% by 2030 and 50% by 2040.

The state is at 10.5% renewables today, including current and contracted projects, according to the Illinois Power Agency. That’s based on the law’s counting method, which is limited to projects tied to renewable energy credits purchased by the state’s three main utilities: ComEd, Ameren and MidAmerican.

If all projects — even those not part of the utility programs — are counted, the share so far this year is about 15%, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Still, using either count, the state remains far short of its target.

To meet its goals, Illinois needs to have far more large wind and solar projects. But the state’s incentives for encouraging investment have drawn limited interest from developers, especially from wind power companies.

Developers have been reluctant to participate because the state’s requirements are too rigid and carry too much risk, among other issues, according to Jeff Danielson, vice president for advocacy for the Clean Grid Alliance industry group.

ComEd says the number of big projects coming online is “falling significantly short of achieving the state’s objectives and targets.

ComEd’s comments were part of the Illinois Power Agency’s process of analyzing and updating its rules.

That process is leading to changes to the state rules, designed to attract more developers by addressing their worries about contract terms and risks.

Kenworthy says the state is moving in the right direction but that he thinks there’s too much ground to make up to be able to reach the 2025 goal.

Companies that want to build wind and solar projects also face challenges outside of government control, including long waits and high costs to get connected to multistate electric power grids.

Much of the talk about the law at the time it was signed had to do with jobs. It’s difficult to draw conclusions based on statewide job totals, though, because so little time has passed.

Illinois had almost 124,000 clean energy jobs in 2022, up from about 121,000 in the prior year, according to the Clean Jobs America report released a week ago by E2, a clean energy business group. The majority of those jobs are through energy-efficiency programs, with the fastest-growing portion related to electric vehicle manufacturing. Total employment in Illinois is 6.2 million.

The state ranked sixth in the nation in clean energy jobs, one spot lower than the previous year, having been passed by Michigan. The top five are California, Texas, New York, Florida and Michigan.

Now that the state workforce programs seem to be closer to getting going, Williams, the business owner in Calumet City, says he’s getting more interest from developers.

“Lately, my phone has been ringing,” Williams says. “More companies, more contractors are reading the law and seeing they don’t have minority participation. I’m now getting the calls I should’ve been getting in the first year” of the law.