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Lawmakers hope to address environmental justice in clean energy proposals

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus wants environmental justice for minority communities included in any new clean energy proposals. State lawmakers say many things play into social equity, but the environment and energy people live with can make a big difference for health and finances.

Many feel the Future Energy Jobs Act kickstarted the process of creating a stronger clean energy economy. However, advocates say it didn’t do enough for minority communities.

Elevate Energy says any new legislation needs to expand equity provisions for the market rate and adjustable block programs. Chief Operating Officer Delmar Gillus said Illinois should spread the wealth when it comes to deciding where projects start.

“Part of the challenge around why we don’t have as many jobs as all of us wanted is we also don’t have projects in Black and brown communities. So, we need to look at incentives, structures, and our processes around those,” Gillus explained.

He hopes the state will support minority contractors and laborers while also engaging with community organizations for energy solutions.

The Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) says the current energy affordability crisis disproportionately impacts low-income communities. Now, they believe lawmakers should have a transparent consideration of clean energy alternatives before making new investments in fossil fuels.

“I’m confident that dollar for dollar the clean energy alternatives will prove better for our communities,” said Illinois PIRG Director Abraham Scarr. “And that type of comparison is necessary before we invest billions of repair dollars in new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Affordable energy

Naomi Davis is the Founder of Blacks in Green, a green energy community economic development organization based in Chicago. Davis says roughly 16,000 ComEd and Ameren customers had power disconnected since the utility moratorium expired in September. ComEd officials told the Illinois Commerce Commission that those who can pay, should, as the vast majority of customers with past due balances weren’t low-income.

“This kind of willful misunderstanding of what is affordable is a core problem in our current utility culture and practice,” Davis added.

Advocates say the percentage of wages spent on utilities in low-income households is three times greater than in higher-income households. Meanwhile, groups like Illinois People’s Action have already tried to curb this trend. They provide soft skills training for jobs in solar energy. This is critical, as Rev. Tony Pierce says developments in digital technology “leapfrogged” minority communities in the past.

“Many if not most Black and brown communities across the country don’t have the digital bandwidth that mainstream communities have nor the digital technology in terms of the instruments that they have. And we cannot afford to let that happen with solar,” Pierce said.

Lawmakers emphasized systemic racism must be tackled to achieve environmental justice for Black Illinoisans. The General Assembly could continue hearings on the Clean Energy Jobs Act and Path to 100 proposals this fall.

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Mike Miletich

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