UPDATE — On June 15, the Illinois Senate adjourned without acting on the proposed clean energy bill. In a statement released to media, Faith In Place Action Fund said they were “disappointed in the Illinois Senate’s decision to adjourn without taking action on a comprehensive clean energy bill yesterday—however, we remain undeterred. Our communities desperately need equitable, clean energy investments that address the global climate crisis, as well as clean job creation in communities of color.”

Illinois state lawmakers will soon vote on a new bill that will create green energy jobs for Black Chicago communities, reduce light bills and improve the quality of life and air in those neighborhoods. 

Although the new bill doesn’t have a name yet, most of its key components come from another proposed bill called the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA), according to Scott Onque, a South Shore pastor and the policy director at Faith in Place Action Fund (FIPAF). Faith in Place is a member organization of Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (ICJC), which has been working on CEJA since 2018. 

State legislators and Gov. J.B. Pritzker will meet next week to begin discussions about the bill.

CEJA is a proposed comprehensive clean energy bill that includes educating marginalized communities on the green workforce, and getting them access to more green jobs. The bill, as written, also places an emphasis on outreach to formerly incarcerated citizens and alumni of the foster-system by creating the Returning Residents Clean Jobs training program, as well as an in-facility training program for currently incarcerated people.

The ICJC presented their final draft of the bill to state legislators on Feb. 10. But the group has been met with opposition from big energy companies. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the green energy legislation hit a snag last month over the proposed closure of Prairie State, a southern Illinois plant that would have been forced to close by 2035.

“We’ve built this piece of legislation not from the top-down but from the ground-up. This is a victory three years in the making,” said Onque of St. Luke Missionary Baptist church in South Shore. “We had some strong opposition from those in the fossil fuel industry, big energy companies like ComEd [and] coal companies. It’s been tough.”

He said the push for the bill has been no cake-walk. Energy corporations like ComEd — that still use fossil fuel-burning plants — aren’t into the idea of having to close them all to switch to green energy. CEJA’s guaranteed cost savings plan would require ComEd to maximize its energy efficiency so that consumer’s light bills would be reduced by a minimum of 5%. 

“Thankfully working on this bill was a different kind of process. Typically the utility companies would have a big part of the say in creating energy legislation. Not this time,” Delmar Gillus said. He is chief operating officer of Elevate Energy, another member organization of the ICJC.

“State legislature was very clear on wanting to ensure that this was a process that centered community input like CEJA,” he added.

With this new energy bill, Gillus said that his priority is to create job growth and wealth building in Black communities. If all goes well during the vote, the new bill should generate billions of dollars in green energy investment from the state. 

“Historically, the problem has been that the investment doesn’t always reach communities of color. Part of my job was to ensure that the economic development was focused on those communities,” he said.

In the proposed CEJA bill, some of the economic benefits include the expansion of Solar For All, which would allow people to have solar panels installed for little or no cost. That could drastically lower power bills by offsetting the cost of energy from utility companies.

Trainees working on a solar panel. Photo courtesy of Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition.

Gillus added that there is also a Seed Capital Grant program written into the proposed CEJA bill. The program would allow Black business owners to apply for funding to install solar panels on their businesses, as well as the creation of a green bank that’ll provide low interest lending for green energy projects.

Workforce Hubs are also included in the proposed CEJA bill. These hubs would provide training and job placement for people interested in a career in green energy work, and opportunities for those interested in green energy entrepreneurship to learn the particulars of the industry. 

According to Gillus, the hubs would be located in what he calls Environmental Justice Communities, areas across Illinois that have been disproportionately affected by pollution. The current proposal allots for about 16 hubs in communities such as the South and West sides of Chicago, Peoria, Danville, and Metro East. Each hub would include transportation assistance, equipment and uniforms, childcare, and a stipend for the trainees participating in the program.

“If this legislation goes off as we expect it to, this would be a game-changer for communities like South Shore,” Onque said. “Think of a workforce hub on the South Side where people can go and get training and placement for jobs that pay a living wage.”

Yearly salaries for green energy jobs, such as a solar energy technician, range between $43,000 and $81,000 in Illinois.

“We’re not talking about minimum wage jobs. We’re talking about competitive pay so that people can comfortably take care of their families, especially for people returning home from the criminal justice system,” Onque added.

Onque said they began working on CEJA in 2018 when the ICJC facilitated town hall discussions across the state that took community member input on clean energy jobs. 

Black Chicagoans are, of course, no stranger to the perils of environmental racism. A 2018 report from the Respiratory Health Association showed that Black Chicagoans visited hospital emergency departments for asthma-related issues at a rate 75% higher than the citywide average, and Black kids accounted for 63% of all asthma-related emergency department visits in 2015. 

Also, the EPA published a 2018 study that showed Black Americans were over one-and-a-half times more likely to be exposed to PM 2.5, a pollutant caused by the burning of fossil fuels. 

“We will be the leader not only in the Midwest, but in the whole United States in addressing the environmental inequities that have plagued our communities for years,” Onque said. “And we’re ready.”

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.