What the Future Energy Jobs Act could mean for Waukegan was the topic of a town hall hosted by the grassroots group Clean Power Lake County at the North Shore Church of Christ Saturday.
The new law, which came into effect June 1, aims to bolster the clean energy economy by creating jobs and providing consumers of all income levels energy sources that don’t harm the environment.
On Saturday, the meeting was led by state Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, who co-sponsored FEJA, she said, because bringing new jobs to the district to grow the economy is one of her priorities.
Some of the speakers were environmental group representatives and others from the business sector.
Speaker Christine Nannicelli of the Sierra Club began the meeting by saying there is great uncertainty about how the federal government views the transition from coal to clean energy since some of the environmental regulations put in place by the previous administration have already been rolled back, including the most recent pull out of the Paris Agreement.
The good news, Nannicelli said, is that the challenge to fight climate change is being taken up now by citizens and politicians at a local level and FEJA policies support that grassroots activism.
“Over 280 mayors have stepped forward to announce their commitment to reduce their carbon pollution to the same level as the Paris Agreement,” Nannicelli said.
FEJA’s renewable energy standard means energy utility suppliers have to provide 25 percent of their power from clean energy by 2025, Nannicelli said.
Juliana Pino of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization spoke about one of the most significant features of FEJA, the Illinois Solar For All Program, which legislators say will provide jobs, training, investment and cleaner air.
Pinos said the program helps the economy in many ways, as it provides access of solar energy to homes of those who were economically disadvantaged.
“This is the first program of its kind in the Midwest. It’s really really exciting in terms of households that want it will be able to access it in a way they haven’t been able to before in Illinois, and in a lot of the country,” Pino said.
What the program means is that anyone, regardless of income, can save money on their electric bills by taking part in community solar pilot projects if they can’t particpate through residential solar projects, Pino said.
Jon Carson of Trajectory Solar, a company that works with non-residential sites such as schools and hospitals, said through community solar projects subscribers signed up for a certain amount of panels located on a community rooftop would be credited for that energy on their electric bills.
Carson said Trajectory Solar is currently looking to work with groups to identify those type of projects in Waukegan.
“In 2017 we are looking for sites, talking to the community about where we should be building solar because where we place the solar, that’s where the jobs will be created. In 2019, the construction is going to start happening all across Illinois,” Carson said.
Other features of the Illinois Solar For All Program are career opportunities. The program prioritizes environmental justice communities, which Pino said qualifies Waukegan due to its “historical environmental” Superfund sites and coal plant.
“Priority is going to be given to projects that show meaningful involvement of community members. Think about what that means. You should be involved from the get-go in terms of project ideas,” Pino said.
Karen Ahlers from Blue Raven Solar, a residential energy company that recently opened an office on 10th Street in Waukegan, spoke about a program already in place and said the company is now recruiting job-seekers.
Other speakers talked about the public health aspect of clean energy, and money and energy-saving programs that will expand thanks to FEJA.
Although not in attendance at the meeting, David Gaier, spokesman of the New Jersey-based power giant NRG Energy, which owns the power plant on Greenwood Avenue, has said the company has spent $100 million on emissions controls at the plant and looks forward to continuing work with the city.
Only a few comments were made by the audience at the closing of Saturday’s meeting and all were in support of clean energy measures.
Local representatives who attended the town hall were newly elected Lake County Board member Vance Wyatt, Lake County Board member Mary Ross Cunningham, Waukegan’s 3rd Ward Ald. Greg Moisio, Ald. Lisa May, 7th, and Ald. David Villalobos, 4th.
Villalobos, who is a member of Clean Power Lake County, ended the meeting by inviting those who wanted to learn more about FEJA to another meeting next month.
Yadira Sanchez Olson is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.