We've Got the (Green) Power

As I drive down Interstate 57 south from Chicago, a flash catches my eye: red lights. At first, a few. Then more in the distance.

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By Nidhi Shastri


Looming in front of me is a massive field of wind power. Each light sits atop a 212-foot pole, with blades stretching 116 feet and rotating at 180 miles per hour. Terrifyingly tall yet intriguingly close, hundreds of these turbines span our Midwestern cornfields.

As I squint above me, I notice a ladder stretching from the top of one red light and disappearing halfway to the ground. I wonder how workers manage to climb so high — to reach all the way to the top and see Illinois stretched beneath them. I wonder what they think as they see the rolling fields to the horizon and know they are at the forefront of history, powering the Land of Lincoln to a clean energy future. These wind turbines provide more than electricity. The booming wind industry employs hundreds of people each year and powers thousands of homes and businesses with clean energy. It powers Illinois’ job market and economy. It empowers our people.

Can utility companies atone for past mistakes, while helping launch an energy revolution? Photo Credit: Midwest Energy News

Switch scenes to a barren lot in the heart of Champaign, Ill., a hundred miles or so down I-57. Yellow dandelions and brown-green grasses have popped up around the wire fence that cuts the area off from the houses and apartments surrounding it. Below the fence, a trickle of water from the dew-sodden grass makes its way onto the curb, mixing with the gutter water in the street.

This negligible stream of water then takes a detour from the curb, running  into a nearby yard. From that moment, lives are at risk. The lot this water seeped from used to house a coal power plant owned by Ameren, a natural gas and energy provider in central Illinois. The water contains high levels of toxic chemical compounds of coal ash that enter the soil, building up over time. Once dried, these dust particles will be blown up by the wind and into the lungs of children playing in the yard or passing by on the street.

Wind farms and a toxic lot … What do these two scenes have in common? Though they initially seem unconnected, one scene provides a solution for the other.  With investment in wind farms, the need for coal plants that pollute communities will shrink. It’s a win-win proposition: replacing coal with clean energy will not only purify our air and water, but also help low-income communities that are hurt by pollution the most.

Over the past year, I have become interested in this intersection of renewable energy and environmental justice in Central Illinois, digging deeper into the history of environmental hazards in my college town of Champaign-Urbana, while researching clean energy economics for a summer internship. What I found was a uniquely twenty-first century American story — one of how with a little trust, some much-needed research, and dedicated investment in clean jobs, Illinois can lead economic and environmental change for the whole nation, and potentially the world.


The Dirty Truth

In the Fall of 2018, I wrote for a class blog about a Champaign neighborhood known as Fifth and Hill. This low-income, largely African-American community is the scene of the “toxic lot” narrative above. At Fifth and Hill, residents have had their water and soil poisoned by coal ash for more than 20 years by Ameren and its predecessors. The area was said to be scrubbed and cleaned up in 2011 in response to pressure from local organizations. (“Scrubbing” names the process used to remove carcinogenic byproducts of coal ash and tar that come from power plants, which cause severe health problems in people of all ages and severe asthma in children.) But the reality suggests otherwise.

The former Ameren site remains fenced off from the rest of the Fifth and Hill neighborhood in Champaign, Ill. Photo Credit: Jordan Goebig

Though Ameren agreed to scrub the soil in one specific plot tested, the company failed to clean up surrounding houses, parks, and schools. Just as bad, many residents of the Fifth and Hill community who once lived about five blocks south of the plant were driven by the expanding University of Illinois and construction of luxury apartments to live in cheaper housing closer to the plant — a classic case of gentrification, and environmental injustice. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Parks Service, the permissible amount of coal ash-derived compounds in drinking and bathing water is less than 1 part per million (ppm). Worryingly, a University of Illinois study revealed in 2010 that the Fifth and Hill community had levels dangerously higher than that — about 1.5 million times higher than the acceptable amount of just the compound toluene alone.

Cases of headaches, fibroids, and an odd tingling in people’s hands and feet began popping up. Fifth and Hill residents began to develop rare, aggressive forms of cancer. One of the most heartbreaking cases I learned of was a 19-year-old boy who passed away after battling an extremely hard-to-treat cancer, leaving his single mother to mourn him.

The residents of Fifth and Hill knew that something was wrong — it was more than just bad luck. Reports of foul-smelling water reached local news networks and prompted testing in the community in October 2016 — four years after the area was considered scrubbed and safe. Many in the community speculated that the delay in testing was due to the failure of government entities to provide proper resources to a low-income minority neighborhood.

This case is not unique to Champaign, nor to Illinois. The issue of environmental justice rose to national attention most recently with the Flint water crisis, and communities around the country have begun speaking up about the injustice related to toxic waste and unsafe water systems that aggregate in poor communities of color. With the recent introduction of U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s Environmental Justice Bill to Congress, which targets communities impacted by this type of pollution for government funding, hopes have been raised for tangible change at the national level.

Environmental injustice occurs when low-income communities are disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and hazards, which in turn creates a health crisis — such as young children developing the rare, aggressive forms of cancer spiking at Fifth and Hill. The political dimension of toxic waste arises when environmental hazard and racial injustice intersect, when low-income communities of color are made disproportionately more vulnerable.

As someone who has lived in and around Chicago my whole life, I know the toll low-income Chicagoland communities are experiencing at the hands of major polluters and large-scale power plants. Organizations such as The Black Youth Project in Waukegan and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) in Chicago’s Southwest Side are rising up to fight pollution in their communities.

While these organizations do great work, government mandates and legislative action are still lacking. Statewide progress on environmental justice issues is slow in Illinois, which means that major polluters are not only operating without restrictions, but affected citizens likewise continue to struggle without aid or protection.

The principal issues surrounding government and corporate inaction are these: first, although some legislation has been passed, commitments on environmental injustice have not been maintained by government departments such as the Illinois EPA. Second, there is a lack of responsibility on the part of companies and contractors who import the pollution industry into low-income, vulnerable neighborhoods like Fifth and Hill. Third, companies seeking to do the right thing often have to tiptoe around property rights when scrubbing private homes, yards, and water sources. This lowers incentives for action to clean up contaminated neighborhoods.

Looking to Solutions

But what if we didn’t have to clean up the contamination in the first place? We know that less coal power means less pollution, which means less toxic runoff in surrounding areas. If Illinois industry can transition away from coal power and clean up already polluted areas, we can look to solving this dimension of environmental injustice altogether.

Wind turbines already serve as a symbol of a transition to clean power, and the workers who build and maintain these massive generators empower the economy and this new chapter of our environmental history. Illinois is already one of the leading states in clean energy jobs. When we have wind turbines and solar panels powering entire counties — not to mention clean forms of heating, cooling, and ventilation — the need for coal plants rapidly diminishes.

As that inverse relationship suggests, with fewer power plants will come fewer disasters such as Flint, or Fifth and Hill, and these communities can begin to grow and thrive beyond their histories of environmental disadvantage.

Solar panel installation at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Photo Credit: Olivia Harris

So, how can Illinois be at the forefront of such landmark progress? First, the state is piloting policies that benefit clean energy. Second, growing cooperation between local businesses and local government is driving our Midwest clean energy revolution.

In fact, Illinois now leads the nation in solar-friendly communities, ahead of California. In addition to government investment, installing solar or wind power has become a serious hobby for many Illinois homeowners, helping lower thousands of energy bills. Meanwhile, huge Chicago suppliers such as Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) are launching programs to reduce energy consumption and incentives to use smart thermostats and appliances to reduce usage and output.

In summer 2018, I saw firsthand how clean energy and social justice are closely tied. I helped research and write a report titled “Clean Jobs Midwest 2018” for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). Based in Chicago, the team compiled data on 13 Midwestern states and their role in the battle for clean energy for all. The E2 in conjunction with the NRDC is working with other organizations to put this data and more on the table, and their sights are set on a sustainable and renewable grid as the future of the U.S. energy economy.

My experience at E2 and the NRDC changed how I saw Illinois in the battle for clean energy. In writing the clean jobs report, we broke down complex environmental topics such as climate change and environmental justice for legislators, business people, and interested citizens to digest. We worked in conjunction with the Clean Energy Trust (CET) to write detailed profiles of what type of clean energy jobs are available, and how they are benefiting the Illinois economy and environment. Over the summer months, I investigated where the biggest growth for clean energy was happening, tabulated locations of coal and natural gas plants, and tracked where plants were closing.

Job security, of course, remains a sticking point. I found that while many of the aging coal plants were in low-income communities, as these plants close, some people will lose their jobs — including low-income workers who rely on coal jobs as a main source of income.

How do we justify investing in clean energy to people who will lose their jobs in this inter-generational industry of coal power? Clean energy undoubtedly benefits the Illinois population at large, but the economic burden falls unevenly on lower-class workers employed in the carbon energy industry.

The answer is clear: clean energy job programs. Such programs are gaining traction in Illinois as a bridge between the dying coal industry and the clean tech boom, targeting locations with closing power plants, and working to transition the workers who would be laid off into training programs in clean tech. All we need is a little trust — and a big push — to ensure the training programs function effectively in the communities that need them.

According to Clean Jobs Midwest 2018, Illinois led the Midwest in renewable energy jobs (such as solar and wind power), as well as in energy efficiency jobs (heating, cooling, and ventilation). The future of these jobs is bright: energy employers anticipate an 8.5% growth rate in hiring in 2019 alone.

In more good news, clean energy jobs in Illinois are growing faster than Illinois jobs overall.  According to the report, “only 33,970 workers in Illinois were employed in fossil fuel industries such as coal, natural gas, and oil,” compared to the 123,247 workers employed in clean energy and tech.

Bottom line: The energy industry in Illinois is already experiencing an irreversible shift. If we can harness this potential, our state can pave the way for the entire Midwest, and possibly the whole country.

The signs of the energy revolution are everywhere, from wind turbines along the highway to glossily packaged research on its benefits. Photo Credit: NRDC

One of the most important methods for developing clean energy jobs in Illinois is with government assistance and subsidies. These help to transition those who lose their jobs in the fossil fuel industry — as well as those who are affected by environmental injustice — into job training for clean jobs instead. Enrolling those who have lost their jobs in coal power into paid job training programs creates an economic cushion.

Job prospects are bright for those who enter the clean tech and energy industries. Because of the demand for trained employees and the need to maintain and expand energy farms (wind and solar), people who enter the industry can expect decades of job security. Instead of the boom-and-bust found typically with coal powered jobs, this clean energy bloom will foster long-term economic growth and allow the employment sector in Illinois to blossom.

The 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), which passed in Illinois under Gov. Bruce Rauner (and puts Illinois on track for 25 percent of the state’s energy to be renewable by 2025), shows the progress we are already seeing in the economy. After the passage of FEJA, the Illinois economy grew 2.4 percent overall, with clean energy jobs at a trailblazing 4 percent growth rate.

Furthermore, communities affected by environmental injustice will begin to see change immediately, such as lower costs for energy and the shutting down of nearby polluters. The more we invest in clean technology, the more the Illinois environment, economy, and polluted communities will thank us — It’s a win-win-win situation.

It’s time for Illinois to make the full-fledged transition to clean energy — for the economy, for the environment, and for our citizens. This includes addressing the deep fear of thousands of Illinois workers that they will lose their jobs during the energy transition. To alleviate this anxiety, we need proper education on the availability of job training programs as well as a positive public image of the clean energy industry. We need to ensure that we have well-educated staffers and politicians who promote green policies that protect against environmental injustice. We need to make sure that the power industry transitions from fossil fuels to clean tech rather than abruptly switching or leaping from one to another. If we focus on the intricate connections between environmental injustice, clean tech, and the economy, we can make this transition smoothly.

The job market is booming, with clean jobs at the forefront. Illinois is on the rise as an economic and environmental world leader. Clean energy is no longer a thing of the future — it is something we are harnessing right now. The story of our carbon fuel-free destiny is being written, and it is in our hands to ensure that it reaches a prosperous and just ending.