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Knox College students in the course 'Examining the Anthropocene' planting a rain garden to control water runoff. Knox College / Peter Bailley / Yale Climate Connections

Last spring, students at Knox College in Illinois traded their notebooks for shovels and planted a rain garden on campus. The garden is not just a bunch of pretty plants. It's designed to reduce stress on the campus drainage system during heavy rain.

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By J.C. Kibbey

The Clean Energy Jobs Act that was introduced Thursday would move Illinois to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and make the state a national leader in clean energy and climate action.

Clean Energy

The bill (SB2132) would rapidly ramp up renewable energy in Illinois towards the 100 percent target by 2050, starting with a target of generating 45 percent of our electricity from renewable sources — and none from fossil fuels — by 2030. That rapid expansion of clean energy would place Illinois at the forefront of job growth, investments, customer savings and health benefits from renewable energy.

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Wind farm with solar panels in southern California. 4kodiak / E+ / Getty Images

By Jeff Deyette

Despite the Trump administration's ongoing attempts to prop up coal and undermine renewables—at FERC, EPA and through tariffs and the budget process—2018 should instead be remembered for the surge in momentum toward a clean energy economy. Here are nine storylines that caught my attention this past year and help illustrate the unstoppable advancement of renewable energy and other modern grid technologies.

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Toxic coal ash waste, the red material in the river bank, from Dynegy's Vermilion Power Plant in Oakwood, Illinois, can be seen leaking into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Prairie Rivers Network

A new report written by Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club, revealed widespread pollution of the groundwater surrounding 90 percent of reporting Illinois coal ash dumpsites.

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1Flatworld / Flickr

It would appear that the Trump Organization's business practices aren't any more environmentally friendly than the policies of the current president, who ran it from 1971 to 2017.

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Mike Pence at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, MD. Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

A failed gas station empire owned by the family of Vice President Mike Pence has left communities in his home state saddled with millions of dollars in ongoing cleanup costs, the AP reported this weekend.

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Coal ash threatens the middle fork of the Vermilion River. Eco-Justice Collaborative / CC BY-SA 2.0

Illinois environmental groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that a utility company is violating the Clean Water Act by letting coal ash leak into a protected river.

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A fracking operation. Lock the Gate Alliance / Flickr

By Kari Lydersen

Four years ago, the Illinois legislature passed a law to regulate high volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, after months of contentious negotiations between oil industry interests, environmental watchdogs and community groups.

Leading up to the law's passage, companies had secured hundreds of leases to potentially frack in Southern Illinois.

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Illinois Sierra Club / Twitter

Illinois state legislators announced Friday a series of legislative proposals that would block any weakened environmental and worker protection standards from taking effect in Illinois, and also respond to President Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris agreement.

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Big Turtle Wind Farm in Harbor Beach, Michigan. Photo credit: Heritage Wind Energy

By Susan Cosier

On the final day of the Illinois State Assembly's 2016 session, a bill was passed that environmentalists can celebrate—one that significantly increases incentives for renewable energy and energy-efficiency requirements. Though the Democratic-led congress debated the Future Energy Jobs bill for months, legislators and Gov. Bruce Rauner worked together on a bipartisan compromise. And just in time.

Since the November election, the incoming Trump administration has threatened to cut back federal funding for clean energy and climate change initiatives, pull out of the Paris climate agreement and drop the Clean Power Plan (currently stalled in the Supreme Court).

But a handful of midwestern states are refusing to abandon their growing clean energy and efficiency industries, which support roughly 113,900 jobs in Illinois, 87,600 jobs in Michigan and 100,800 jobs in Ohio. Soon after the Prairie State passed its promising energy bill, Michigan enacted two of its own. And in late December, when a bill that threatened to kill Ohio's renewable dreams appeared on Gov. John Kasich's desk, he gave it the ol' Hell-naw veto.

"We have a very interesting message coming from the heartland," said Henry Henderson, director of Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest program. "These policies come from the most energy-intensive part of the country, and there has been a bipartisan embrace of clean energy as good for the public, good for the economy and good for states."

The broad appeal of the new bills is indeed hopeful. According to Henderson, they won support from moderate Republican governors and Democratic and Republican lawmakers who were making practical, not ideologically driven, decisions.

Gabe Pacyniak, a climate change mitigation specialist with the Georgetown Climate Center, agrees that there is broad public support for clean energy. "Many states see significant economic benefits from clean energy, including in-state jobs," he said.

Here's a closer look at how Midwesterners have been sticking up for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Illinois

Aside from California's energy policies, the Future Energy Jobs bill "might be the most significant state energy legislation passed in the U.S. in decades," wrote David Roberts on Vox. Though several media outlets have called the legislation a bailout for two Illinois nuclear plants, it does much more than that. Of the money coming from various provisions in the bill, just 30 percent will go to the nuclear plants. The remaining 70 percent will go toward clean energy and energy-efficiency programs, including retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient, green jobs training, and money for communities to access solar power.

Wind turbine tower segments being transported.Heritage Wind Energy

The bill keeps the state's existing requirement that utilities get 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025, but it fixes certain structural barriers within the renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in order to help Illinois reach that goal. For instance, the revamped RPS now redirects dollars to developing in-state renewable projects (instead of buying renewable credits from out-of-state operations) and will, at a minimum, bring 3,000 megawatts of solar and 1,300 megawatts of wind to Illinois.

The bill also protects people who generate their own renewable energy (think rooftop solar panels). Energy companies wanted to prohibit the sale of such electricity back to the utility when the homeowner wasn't using it. The practice, called net metering, doesn't just make for a more stable electric grid, but it also helps encourage more small-scale renewable energy installations. The new legislation allows net metering to continue.

And that nuclear power provision? It gives the plants money to operate for another decade, allowing time for investments in efficiency and renewables to scale. This would ease the eventual transition away from nuclear power to a more distributed grid. Previously, they were going to be phased out over the next six years as natural gas facilities, which emit more carbon, took their place.

Michigan

Just two weeks after Illinois made its climate intentions known, Michigan lawmakers also passed two pieces of legislation that boost the state's solar and wind industries. Michigan's laws are more modest than its southwesterly neighbor's, but in a state where energy efficiency and renewable standards were almost removed, these bills are strong steps in the right direction. Senate Bills 437 and 438 increase Michigan's renewable energy standard, requiring the state to generate 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2021. The state reached its previous goal of 10 percent renewables in 2015 and Pacyniak said it already looks like it's on track to hit the new target.

Stoney Corners Wind Farm in McBain, Michigan.Heritage Wind Energy

The bills also offer bigger incentives for energy efficiency. The goal there is to meet 35 percent of the state's energy needs through a combination of energy conservation and renewable energy by 2025. Although this target is non-binding, it shows that Michigan is looking ahead and optimistic about its renewable energy future.

Ohio

The bill Gov. John Kasich vetoed at the end of 2016 would have given electric utilities a pass for not complying with renewable energy and efficiency requirements. Ohio requires energy companies to get 12.5 percent of their electricity from renewables and cut consumer energy use 22 percent by 2025. In 2014, however, the state froze that mandate for two years. A bill passed by the state legislature in November would have extended the time frame of that clean energy freeze, but Kasich vetoed it, saying the bill "amounts to self-inflicted damage to both our state's near- and long-term economic competitiveness."

When more than 60 green energy businesses and advocates testified against the freeze before the Ohio Senate in November, they said the state needed to be more hospitable to renewables if it wanted more alternative energy companies to move there. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 227 solar companies employ 4,800 people in the state. By vetoing the bill, Kasich said he's also encouraging the growth of energy options prized by high-tech firms, ones that could bring jobs to the state.

On top of ending the freeze, Kasich also vetoed a bill that would have given $264 million in tax breaks to oil and gas companies. The message behind Kasich's double whammy is pretty clear: Ohio is ready for a change.

Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. Cosier previously worked at Audubon magazine and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program.

Three Midwestern states are closing out the year with big clean energy changes on the horizon.

Both Illinois and Michigan passed major clean energy bills in the last hours of their lame duck sessions, encouraged by the state's Republican governors.

And while Ohio's legislature extended a freeze on the state's renewables standards, earlier comments from Gov. Kasich indicate he may veto the bill.

"Ohio lawmakers decided to significantly stall the state's clean energy efforts, putting politics over economic growth," Dick Munson, Midwest clean energy director for Environmental Defense Fund, said. "The governor should continue the leadership he has demonstrated and reject this harmful legislation, so Ohio can get back to work building its clean energy economy, opening the door to well-paying jobs and millions in investment."

Dave Anderson, policy and communications manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, agrees. "Governor Kasich has an opportunity to show that Ohio's energy policy is not for sale to utility lobbyists by vetoing HB 554 and unfreezing clean energy in the Buckeye State," he said.

In Minnesota, while a Republican legislature could curtail progress on the state's emissions reductions plans, some policymakers have hinted that clean energy policies could be ground for bipartisan compromise.

Michigan, Ohio, Illinois: Midwest Energy News

Minnesota: Midwest Energy News, MPR News

Commentary: Crain's Chicago Business, Will Kenworthy op-ed

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