By Ted Cox
The Senate sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act and a leading environmentalist joined Wednesday in insisting that climate change and COVID-19 are similar issues — especially in social equity — even as the pandemic has pushed climate to a back burner.
“The climate crisis is longer-term,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, “but if we can’t handle this…”
Walling and Sen. Cristina Castro of Elgin, a lead CEJA sponsor, took part Wednesday in a webinar sponsored by the Chicago Area Public Affairs Group on the topic of “Environmental Concerns in the Midst of the Pandemic.”
Both bemoaned how climate had been elbowed out by the urgency surrounding the persistent pandemic. CEJA was expected to be a key issue in the General Assembly’s spring session, but that session was greatly abbreviated by the social shutdown meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. “Our entire agenda was off the table,” Walling said. Yet both held out hope for CEJA in the fall veto session, especially after Gov. Pritzker released his eight principles for clean-energy legislation just last week.
Castro said the governor appeared to be cherry picking the best aspects of proposals like CEJA and Path to 100, with both advocating a jobs-oriented approach to shifting the state to clean, renewable energy.
“The prospects are very good for getting that done,” Castro said. “There’s a lot of opportunity too.”
Walling said it’s clear the governor “shares the values we have on environment” and that a majority of the General Assembly appears to recognize the need to address climate change. It’s just a matter of clearing the the way even as Illinois continues to struggle to control the pandemic.
“Who’s against it?” Castro said. “The obvious fossil-fuel companies, utilities.”
But both said they’re encouraged by Pritzker’s agreement that whatever CEJA bill emerges from negotiations will “not be written by the utilities.”
Walling cited the impact of the Future Energy Jobs Act, which had such widespread support it was signed into law in 2016 by former Gov. Rauner. She said it produced “a really sharp increase in the number of people employed in solar,” as well as energy efficiency, which she called “a quiet giant” in the amount of jobs it produces upgrading old systems to new demands in the climate crisis.
But Walling said that bill was ultimately watered down by utilities and the fossil-fuel industry, resulting in the need for CEJA as a follow-up to complete the process to set goals to achieve 100 percent clean, renewable energy.
Castro echoed Walling in saying, “Utilities have always driven this conversation. No more.”
Walling said it was entirely possible to eliminate both coal and natural gas from the power grid by the end of the decade. The Illinois coal-powered electric plants closed last year by Vistra cut a quarter of the state’s coal-power capacity, a good start, and wind and solar should be able to make up the difference by 2030. That would leave nuclear power to be addressed down the road.
Somewhat ironically, fossil-fuel groups fighting CEJA are airing TV spots attacking the bill as a “bailout” for utilities drawing on nuclear power, like ComEd and its Exelon corporate parent.
“I do want the nuclear plants to remain open, at least for now,” Walling said, as they’re supplying the majority of the state’s power. But she said that even those should eventually be shuttered down the road as renewable energy grows and becomes more efficient.
That’s where CEJA’s provisions for helping the workers idled by those power-plant shutdowns come in, as well as protecting the communities potentially left behind — the very same communities, both Castro and Walling pointed out, that are bearing the brunt of social disparities in the pandemic.
Walling pointed to Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, an area hit hard by COVID-19 infections that suffered a double whammy just as the pandemic was peaking this spring when the Crawford Power Plant was demolished in a way that dumped a cloud of dirt and other more virulent materials across the entire area.
Workers have to be retrained and their communities protected from the damage done by those power plants — both environmentally over the years in pollution like coal ash, and economically in depriving those areas of the economic engines they’re grown dependent on locally.
“Vistra wants us to pay for them to close,” Castro said. “The state’s not going to do that, in my opinion.”
Walling added that when those coal plants closed last year, it affected “workers who had good-paying jobs who lost their jobs last Christmas.”
Again, that’s where CEJA comes in, holding the utilities and power companies accountable to minimize the damage — including the nuclear firms when they eventually shut down. Workers will have to be retrained to shift into wind, solar, and overall energy efficiency.
“There are real jobs, real economic investment here,” Walling said.
August 26, 2020 at 04:13PM