The concept of creating a 100 percent clean electricity system only recently went from being fringe to mainstream. Now, the state of Illinois wants to up the ante.

California passed legislation to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order calling for 100 percent clean energy by 2050. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit in January with an executive order for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Hawaii was the first U.S. state to pursue a 100 percent agenda. But lawmakers there didn’t stop at “clean” — they went all the way to 100 percent renewable energy, which cuts out other low-carbon technologies, most notably nuclear. Hawaii doesn’t generate any of its electricity from nuclear power, so the focus on renewables isn’t as controversial as in other states. Illinois is a different story. 

Members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition want their state to upstage its peers by becoming the first mainland state to be powered entirely by renewables — not just clean energy. Last week, Senator Cristina Castro and Representative Ann Williams introduced legislation that would do just that.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB 2132/HB 3624), backed by 45 mostly Democratic state lawmakers, calls for transitioning Illinois to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The bill specifically states that utility procurement plans “shall” include “cost-effective renewable energy resources” equal to a minimum percentage of each utility's load for all retail customers as follows: 25 percent by June 2025; 45 percent by June 2030; 90 percent by June 2045; increasing to at least 100 percent by June 2050. It also sets an interim target of 100 percent carbon-free electricity in 2030. 

“To bring this vision to fruition, our energy policy must prioritize a just transition that incentivizes renewable development and other carbon-reducing policies, such as energy efficiency, while ensuring that the benefits and opportunities of a carbon-free future are accessible in economically disadvantaged communities, environmental justice communities, and communities of color,” the legislation states.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act builds on the success of the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, which set new rules for expanding renewable energy development while propping up Exelon’s struggling nuclear plants.

Building a 100 percent renewable electricity system is a big deal for a state that currently gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear, which accounts for more than half of the power produced in Illinois over the past two decades. But supporters of the legislation insist that a renewable energy-fueled Illinois is doable.

"It's not just a pie in the sky idea,” said Andrew Barbeau, president of The Accelerate Group, a Midwest-based strategic consulting firm, who works with the Environmental Defense Fund and advised other members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition on the Illinois bill.

“Putting us on a path to 100 percent renewable is feasible in a political context, as well as a policy and market context,” he said. “We're not focused as much on getting to that last percentage of renewables between 2040 and 2050. What we know is that we need to rapidly ramp up between now and 2030 to even get close to being on that path and to account for a lot of the [power plant] closures that we're going to see over the next 10 years anyway.”

Exelon expresses support

Coal plants in Illinois are already on the brink of retirement, Barbeau said. Nuclear plants in the state have a longer runway, but by 2050 most of them will have reached the end of their lives based on their current license terms.

Exelon, the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the nation, wasn’t quite as keen on the renewable energy language. David Fein, Exelon’s senior vice president of state governmental and regulatory affairs, avoided the term “renewable” altogether in an emailed comment on the new bill. 

“As the state’s largest producer of carbon-free energy, including nuclear plants that produce 90 percent of Illinois’ zero-carbon energy, we are committed to working with policymakers, the Clean Jobs Coalition, and other stakeholders on clean energy solutions for Illinois,” he said.

Utilities in neighboring states find themselves in a similar position to Exelon, with political leaders announcing proposals for 100 percent clean electricity in Wisconsin and Minnesota in recent days.

Capacity market reforms

One of the primary drivers of the ambitious new Illinois bill actually came from outside of the state.

Last summer, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that PJM Interconnection’s capacity market was “unjust and unreasonable,” because the regional grid operator proposed policy changes that failed to prevent state policies subsidizing renewable energy resources and nuclear power from infringing on competition in the region’s wholesale capacity market.

Clean energy advocates, meanwhile, said that PJM’s proposed market changes would penalize states, like Illinois, that were looking to invest in new renewables and implementing zero-emission credit programs for nuclear.

FERC’s decision “threw a lot of balls up in the air,” said Barbeau. But it also introduced the idea that if states want to pursue clean energy policies, then they should be given the responsibility to manage their capacity by themselves, through a so-called “fixed resource requirement” alternative.

“We looked at that order and said, ‘It sounds like a good idea,’” Barbeau said. “We turned what was going to be a bad proposal by PJM to penalize Illinois and make Illinois customers pay artificially high prices to subsidize existing coal and gas generators, [and] redirected that to invest in the massive ramp-up into renewables.”

PJM argues its capacity market approach is necessary to preserve and properly align price signals and incentives for energy resources. Illinois stakeholders simply don’t agree.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act requires the Illinois Power Authority to procure capacity to meet the state’s resource adequacy requirements, as a workaround to PJM’s market rules.

Those rules are still under negotiation. FERC is currently considering another PJM proposal, which clean energy advocates say is no better than the first. So they aren’t waiting around to act.

“Today, we have the ability to pull Illinois out of the capacity market completely and do our own procurement structure that focuses on building new renewables,” said Barbeau. “The only question is if FERC comes out with a favorable order that allows us to carve out a portion of our capacity market and pursue renewables that way, then we could look at that. But right now we're looking to be flexible so we can adjust to what will happen.”

Exelon shares the position that the state should manage its own capacity.

“The Clean Jobs Coalition’s plan is a positive step forward, and we are pleased that the [Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition] shares our view that there is an urgent need for the state to take control of the capacity procurement of zero-carbon energy resources as the best way to help achieve the state’s clean energy goals while benefiting our state’s economy and jobs, and keeping energy prices affordable,” said Exelon's Fein.

Getting to 100 percent

A lot more needs to happen besides capacity market reform in order for Illinois to hit a 100 percent renewables target.

The state currently gets about 8 percent of its energy from renewable energy resources, and existing law calls for reaching 25 percent renewables by 2025. Meeting 45 percent of the state’s electricity needs with renewables by 2030, as the new legislation stipulates, would require deploying an estimated 24,000 megawatts of new solar and wind.

To get there, the bill calls for developing “new renewable energy resources in Illinois, including brownfield solar projects and community solar projects.” It also seeks to promote continued growth in the rooftop solar market through an expansion of the state’s existing Adjustable Block Program and a rebate program that will compensate homeowners and businesses for the value the solar energy these systems provide to the grid.

The bill would also expand the Illinois Solar for All program, which works to provide solar access to low- and moderate-income communities that face high energy cost burdens.

To minimize costs, the Clean Energy Jobs Act states that utilities must engage in a transparent and comprehensive distribution system planning process in order to capture opportunities to use customer-sited solar and energy storage to meet grid needs. 

“A distribution system planning process can minimize distribution system costs to consumers while advancing other Illinois energy policy goals by supporting integration of distributed energy resources and the procurement of non-wires alternatives to capital investments,” the legislation states.

Other energy resources that qualify as “renewable” under the Clean Energy Jobs Act, besides solar PV and wind, include solar thermal energy, geothermal energy, biodiesel, anaerobic digestion and hydropower that does not involve new construction or significant expansion of hydropower dams. Landfill gas produced in the state also qualifies, but the incineration or burning of any solid material does not.

Illinois statute currently says that the state “should encourage the use of advanced clean coal technologies that capture and sequester carbon dioxide emissions to advance environmental protection goals and to demonstrate the viability of coal and coal-derived fuels in a carbon-constrained economy.” And some Republican lawmakers have sought to support a small-scale “clean coal” power plant in eastern Illinois.

This existing language is also included in the new Clean Energy Jobs Bill, but supporters say that, in practice, coal use will be rendered moot by the move to 100 percent carbon-free and renewable electricity.

The bill also explicitly calls for supporting Illinois communities and workers affected by closures or reduced utilization of coal on the journey to 100 percent renewables, “by allocating new state economic development resources for new business tax incentives, workforce training, site clean-up and reuse, and local tax revenue replacement.”

Electrified transportation and community development

In addition to promoting a shift to cleaner energy resources, the 365-page bill includes a target to remove the equivalent of 1 million gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles from the state’s roadways by 2030, and incentivizing electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure.

Incentives aren’t only aimed at residential EV owners, but also to electrify city bus fleets and provide last-mile electric shuttle transportation in "transit deserts."

These and other elements of the Clean Energy Jobs Act are designed to build wealth in Illinois communities — especially in economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color that have had to bear the disproportionate burden of fossil fuel pollution — in a Green New Deal kind of way.

“It’s important that not just the six-county area around Chicago benefits. We need the benefits to reach all 102 counties, and every part of the state,” said Jen Walling, coalition member and executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “This bill does exactly that.”

The 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act in Illinois has already increased the level of “energy literacy” in the state, according to Barbeau. Suburban and rural communities are starting to see new opportunities in the transition to a clean energy future, like jobs and investments stemming from community solar projects. The Clean Energy Jobs Act is expected to bring an additional $30 billion in private investment into the state.

“It's fantastic that we have all this new energy literacy, but it also means people want to keep doing more,” said Barbeau. “I think people see that there's a real path to get there.”