Illinois becomes 1st Midwestern state to pass a law to phase out fossil fuels

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At a time when the Midwest is being battered by more severe storms due to climate change, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a landmark law this month that will transition the state to 100 percent clean energy by 2045, with benchmarks along the way.

While the effort has largely escaped national media attention, it is especially noteworthy for three reasons: Illinois is the first state in the coal-heavy Midwest to commit to eliminating carbon emissions; the plan received some Republican support; and it includes programs to ensure economic and racial equity.

“What we’ve now done is made it clear that [fossil fuels] are not in Illinois’s future,” Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, told Yahoo News.

J.B. Pritzker
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Although the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act stood a chance of passage only because Democrats control both houses of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion, the Republican response offers hints of a potential partisan thaw on global warming.

“We had some very, I would say, out-of-step rhetoric opposing the bill, but we no longer hear anyone doubting the science of climate change,” Darin said. “So even the most conservative objections to the bill did not question the science and the urgency of acting on climate. And, in fact, most Republican objections were couched in statements of support for renewable energy. Things that we used to hear Democrats say 15 years ago about an all-of-the-above strategy that includes fossils and renewables is kind of where the Republicans seem to be now.”

Perhaps that’s because the local effects of climate change are becoming impossible to ignore. Over the last 100 years, Illinois’s average temperatures have increased by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius, and annual rainfall has gone up by 12 to 15 percent, according to the state climatologist’s office, with the number of 2-inch rain days up by 40 percent.

“This summer in Chicago was among the hottest on record, with record heat and severe drought across Northern Illinois harming farmers and echoing costly droughts in 2012 that were ‘almost certainly’ driven by climate change,” noted the Natural Resources Defense Council in a recent blog post.

Kids escaping the heat
Kids escaping the heat in downtown Chicago in June. (Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images)

While progressive coastal states such as California and Oregon have already set similar clean energy requirements, Illinois’s neighbors have more modest ambitions. Indiana, for example, aims for 10 percent of its energy to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

One of the reasons that Illinois can afford to be so much more aggressive is that it has the largest nuclear energy fleet in the nation, so it can stop burning coal and natural gas for power even if renewables aren’t ready to meet 100 percent of demand.

The reliance on nuclear power is what brought some Republicans on board. A number of the state’s nuclear reactors, among the oldest in the country, need substantial maintenance and upgrades in order to keep from being decommissioned. When a nuclear power plant shuts down, reliance on fossil fuels typically rises.

So Illinois is investing $700 million in its nuclear reactors over the next five years, winning the backing of the energy utility Exelon and lawmakers from districts where those plants provide jobs and local tax revenue.

But Illinois isn’t just going to boost nuclear: The law will double the subsidies for renewable sources of energy, to around $580 million per year.

An Exelon Corp. nuclear plant
An Exelon Corp. nuclear plant in Byron, Ill. (Robert Ray/AP)

And as climate change’s effects fall disproportionately on poorer neighborhoods, the state set out to make the transition to clean energy economically equitable. The Illinois Solar for All program, which helps get rooftop solar power to low-income households, public buildings and nonprofits, will have its annual funding quintupled, to $50 million. There will also be low-interest loans to clean energy projects in low-income communities, and programs to assist people of color in getting clean energy jobs and construction contracts. Workers displaced by the closures of coal mines or power plants will get assistance with job retraining and placement and college scholarships for their children.

“We’re not the only faith-based organization in our coalition,” said the Rev. Mike Atty, executive director of United Congregations of Metro East, an interfaith organization that advocates for racial and economic justice in downstate Illinois. “One of the things we all agreed on is we’ve got to make sure that the least of these — the people who can’t take off work to go to Springfield for a rally day or a lobby day because they have to work, they don’t have that choice, they have to have childcare — that those folks will have to be a part of any legislation. So there would have to be a piece about equity, not only about job training for new jobs in solar installation, for example, but also for minority contractors, because we know that minority contractors have historically been left out when it comes to new construction.”

Climate policy expert David Roberts praised the law as “one of the most environmentally ambitious, worker-friendly, justice-focused energy bills of any state in the country” and “a model for how diverse stakeholders can reach consensus.”

Whether this model can be replicated in other states is a difficult political question. Only 12 of the 45 Republicans in the Illinois House voted for it, and they were clear they were doing so to protect their districts’ economic interests. (Some in the GOP argued that the bill would increase electricity costs for consumers.)

Power-generating windmills
Power-generating windmills near Dwight, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

And while environmentalists are singing the law’s praises, there are a few key components of climate action that it does not fully address, including emissions from transportation and coal mining. Still, it is considered a first step in a process that begins with cleaning up the power sector, then moves on to electrifying other major sources of emissions, like home heating and industrial processes.

The law includes provisions for statewide building codes to improve efficiency and begin electrification of heating. Illinois drivers can get a $4,000 rebate if they buy an electric car, with the state goal of reaching a million electric vehicles on Illinois roads by 2030. Still, that’s a long way from being carbon-neutral in a state with close to 13 million residents, but the bill’s backers say Illinois will take more action on other aspects of the climate fight, such as transportation, in the near future.

“Cars cause the majority of pollution in our area, so these are things we’re going to be addressing over the next three to four years,” said Democratic state Sen. Michael Hastings, a sponsor of the bill.

Illinois is also a major source of coal, most of which is shipped elsewhere to be burned. That will continue for the time being, as the law does not contain any new restrictions on coal mining.

The tension between greening one’s own home and exporting fossil fuels is a growing concern for environmentalists, but Illinoisans say the sources of climate pollution not included in the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act will be taken on eventually.

“Every piece of legislation is going to get criticized for what’s not in it, but I will say that the amount of time it took to get to this solution is progress,” Hastings said. “Over the next few years, I think you’re going to see a lot of these other issues addressed.”


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