Midwest common sense will drive clean energy shift, despite D.C.
The following is an opinion piece by the Joyce Foundation’s Ellen Alberding and MacArthur Foundation’s Julia Stasch. It was originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business on February 9, 2017.
As the Trump administration takes the reins in Washington, those concerned about the need for investments in clean energy fear all is lost as Obama-era federal policies and international commitments appear to be on the chopping block.
But as leaders of two Midwest-based philanthropies working to address climate change, we have reasons to be optimistic about advancing sensible energy solutions at the local level. In the Midwest, Republican governors in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio each ended the year by mapping a route to a more cost-effective and less polluting energy mix.
Here in Illinois, despite an ongoing and crippling budget stalemate, state leaders ended 2016 by finding common ground on greater choice, growth and reliability of energy, an important issue that affects family budgets as well as the future of our planet.
The Future Energy Jobs Act will create $15 billion in private investment in clean energy, a proven job creator. Job growth in clean energy outpaced the economy overall last year, growing 9 percent. The new law will stabilize consumers' utility bills, even as it keeps two nuclear plants running for another decade. This is a watershed moment that should be recognized and celebrated: a big step forward to a reliable, diversified 21st century energy mix that puts consumers first by modernizing outdated energy regulations that have long hampered economic growth.
Businesses were key in making the case for updating Illinois' energy policy. More than 170 companies were part of the influential Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, from multinational firms with significant regional footprints, like Iberdrola Renewables and Schneider Electric, to leading local clean tech startups like NuMat Technologies and SiNode Systems. And Commonwealth Edison embraced changes to how it invests in energy efficiency. This shift puts Illinois at the forefront of efforts to establish new utility business models that fit the emerging low-carbon power grid of the future.
To pass the bill, Illinois' bipartisan leadership stepped up and worked together, from the governor's office to the Legislature, as well as civil society groups such as Elevate Energy and the Environmental Defense Fund. For industry, corporations and small business, the updated energy policy offers certainty and employment opportunities. For all of us devoted to creating meaningful social and institutional change, the legislation reinforces the need for innovative policy solutions that deliver both economic and broader societal benefits.
In signing the bill, Gov. Bruce Rauner made clear the stakes for workers and consumers: "I refused to gamble on thousands of good-paying jobs . . . I refused to gamble on the energy diversity options for the people of Illinois."
The Illinois compromise means an update to state standards that will spur clean energy for low-income communities and reduce carbon emissions by more than 50 percent from utilities, substantially more than required under the federal Clean Power Plan. The deal brought together nuclear and clean energy advocates to preserve 4,200 jobs at the two Exelon plants and keep momentum in the clean energy workplace, which already employs 114,000 statewide.
Markets and consumers are driving the clean energy economy around the globe. Since 2009, solar prices are down 62 percent, and wind and solar energy is now cheaper than coal in some parts of the world. The cost of new technologies such as LED lighting are also dropping, enabling improved energy efficiency. The Midwest is rapidly adapting to these changes.
Also in late 2016, Michigan utilities and clean energy advocates compromised on the first major energy policy update in eight years, with the support of Gov. Rick Snyder. Ohio Gov. John Kasich vetoed an extended freeze on the state's clean energy rules, emphasizing that he was preventing "self-inflicted damage to both our state's near- and long-term economic competitiveness."
Just as the internet brought us today's connected world, we are in the midst of a revolution in energy. The costs of powering our economy are plummeting thanks in part to new innovations in renewable energy and energy efficiency—the cheapest and cleanest of all being the energy we do not have to use in the first place.
This transition will provide many good-paying jobs and create opportunities for entrepreneurs, a necessity for any state that needs to jump-start its economy.
These common-sense Midwestern steps should be seen as bellwethers, demonstrating that progress on clean energy solutions can be made regardless of federal policy headwinds. The free market and state economics are already driving this issue, and the nation can look to the Great Lakes region for leadership and the way forward on clean energy policy that will strengthen our economy.