A coal miner statue in front of the Illinois State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois.
A coal miner statue in front of the Illinois State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois. Credit: Daniel X. O'Neil / Creative Commons

Illinois communities that have long depended on coal industry jobs won’t be left empty-handed under the state’s massive new clean energy law.

A “just transition” for coal mine and power plant workers is a central component of the legislation signed last week by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. The law will close all fossil fuel plants by 2045, though most of the state’s coal plants were already slated to close within a decade.

Municipal leaders and advocates had envisioned fossil fuel companies paying to replace lost tax dollars, retrain workers, and fund community-driven projects to transform the sites of fossil fuel plants — including by developing renewable generation or other clean projects on-site. 

What ended up in the new law are scaled-down versions funded by ratepayers, with the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity — a long-time backer of the state’s coal industry — deciding how much funding is needed and for what projects. There are incentives for energy storage at the site of five specific coal plants, and for solar on the site of coal plants or mines. 

While the programs are not all that advocates had hoped for, many are still lauding the provisions as promising parts of a historic law. Now much depends on the implementation, from rule-making in a state administrative body to outreach and participation by local leaders. As this process unfolds, advocates say it is crucial to ensure communities have a real say in the commerce department’s decisions.

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club, said members of the Clean Jobs Coalition that took the lead in the just transition discussion are “jazzed” about the years-long process culminating in the law because it included extensive input from communities statewide who have been harmed by the fossil fuel industry and left out of energy industry jobs.

“It’s been very difficult to start conversations about just transition because whether you’re a local official dependent on property taxes or a worker or union who represents them, everyone has known these changes are coming — but it’s been difficult to embrace for those most affected,” Darin said. “This eliminates any uncertainty about the when and whether [closures] are happening, and with some resources available, we’re confident we’ll see some creative community ideas come forth. We tried to make this a program to respond to community needs — not the state coming in to tell you what’s going to happen at your old coal plant site.”

The new law, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, has the same acronym — CEJA — as the bill proposed by the Clean Jobs Coalition of environmental and community groups — the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The just transition and equity components in the law that passed are largely modeled on the earlier version. 

Multiple community and environmental group leaders involved in negotiating the bill said they feel Pritzker’s administration is genuinely committed to the just transition and equity components. They are hopeful the new law will provide relief and opportunities for communities and workers impacted by fossil fuel generation and by the closure of fossil fuel plants.

“We need to stop burning fossil fuels, but communities historically dependent on fossil fuels must not be left behind,” said Amanda Pankau, energy campaign coordinator for the Prairie Rivers Network, a leader on just transition in downstate Illinois. “The just transition policies in CEJA give impacted energy communities a short-term boost to replace lost tax revenue that funds critical social services, like their schools. But in the long-term, we want to empower them to leverage local assets and plan for sustainable and equitable economic growth.”

Read more: Faulty equipment, poor training are main factors in Illinois coal mining deaths

Community grants 

The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, or DCEO, is responsible for deciding how much money specifically is needed for different equity and job training parts of the bill, up to a total of $180 million per year. The state’s utilities will then collect that amount from ratepayers. 

The Clean Energy Jobs Act called for power companies to pay for just transition projects. Darin said Pritzker’s administration was supportive of this idea, but the legislature balked at making power companies pay. Nonetheless, the total rate impact of the bill is expected to be about $6 a month for average households, with the equity and just transition programs representing a small slice of that.

The law authorizes the creation of Energy Transition Community Support grants totaling up to $40 million per year. Communities can apply for the energy transition grants if they have a fossil or nuclear plant that has retired or significantly reduced service in the past six years, or is expected to in the next six years. Communities home to the Wood River coal plant that closed in 2016 and the Waukegan coal plant slated to close next year are among those expected to seek support under the law. 

The commerce department is charged with administering the program and evaluating grant applications.

“Forty million is really good but there are some unknowns baked in,” said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer for the Prairie Rivers Network. “We’ll see how it starts to play out. DCEO can decide if they want to prioritize some communities for a couple years or spread the money around.”

In years past the department was a major supporter of the state’s coal industry, providing millions of dollars in grants and support through its office of coal development. Recently, renewable energy and just transition are becoming increasing parts of the agency’s portfolio. In 2013, the agency reviewed the curriculum touting the benefits of coal that was distributed to Illinois schools under state law, and ordered a revamp to base the lessons in science and focus on both the pros and cons of coal-fired power. The new law calls for the creation of a board of stakeholders to help advise the agency, a measure advocates say is critical. 

“Implementation is everything — so many of the devils are in the details,” said John Delurey, senior regional director for Vote Solar. “It’s really important that communities have a seat at the table, and my hope is that DCEO takes the time to listen to fossil communities and fossil workers to help them use all the tools the bill provides in the best way possible.” 

Applications for the community grants are expected to come primarily from municipalities and county or local agencies, who can seek funds directly related to alleviating the impact of the closure. Other entities like nonprofit organizations could also make applications for specific projects, if they partner with a government agency. 

The law included $700 million in subsidies for three nuclear plants that is likely to prevent the otherwise planned closure of the Dresden and Byron plants. Significant funding from the energy transition grant will also likely go to the community of Zion in northern Illinois, where a nuclear plant closed in 1998 and decimated the town’s economy. The law authorizes any nuclear plants already closed — namely Zion — to receive increased tax valuations for waste stored on-site.

The legislation calls for community energy transition grant funding to make up any difference between property tax revenue and the rate of $15 per kilogram of waste stored on site, which those involved with the negotiations said could add up to about $5 million per year. The grant amount would be reduced or eliminated if Zion receives funding under federal legislation proposed by U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, for communities with closed nuclear plants.

The law also institutes a displaced energy workers bill of rights, that demands companies notify the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity about planned closures of coal mines, coal plants and nuclear plants, including job descriptions of those being laid off and information on any support the company is offering. 

The law says the department will notify workers at these plants or mines “as far in advance of the scheduled closing date as it can,” and will offer them career counseling and information about job training and entrepreneurship programs created by the law that may be available to them. 

The law doesn’t include a specific advance time frame within which the department must be notified. The federal WARN Act calls for notification 60 calendar days before a plant closing or mass layoffs for employers with more than 100 employees. The Illinois law says the commerce department will engage with the employer and workers within 30 days of a WARN Act notice, notice to the regional transmission organization, or other announcements about closures. 

“The bill of rights, even though it doesn’t come with a lot of funding, is forcing companies to be accountable to their workers in ways they might not otherwise be inclined to do,” said Delurey, who was involved with the bill’s negotiations. “Awareness and information for those workers is such a crucial first missing piece.”

Just transition and equity 

The law also calls for up to $1.1 million to be made available each year for higher education scholarships for the children of workers displaced from the fossil fuel or nuclear industry, if the families show economic need. 

The workers themselves would be eligible for retraining and education as part of the Workforce Hubs that the law creates. People affected by the energy transition are also eligible for help in starting small businesses, including training and access to capital.

The law has been heralded by supporters as the country’s most expansive example of equity enshrined in clean energy legislation, prioritizing communities of color and environmental justice communities, as well as communities affected by the energy transition. The law creates community-based “energy navigators” to help people find careers in clean energy and overcome barriers such as child care and transportation, and it offers a pre-apprenticeship program meant to funnel people from marginalized communities into union jobs. 

There is overlap between the just transition and equity prongs of the law, including for environmental justice communities that long suffered the pollution and other impacts of coal plants in their midst. But the equity and just transition parts of the law also serve different populations, as marginalized workers and the workers of color that the law aims to support in the clean energy economy in many cases never had the chance at union and well-paying power plant jobs.

“Many of the communities who are experiencing transition are also environmental justice communities — for instance, Waukegan” in northern Illinois, where an NRG coal plant is slated to close next year, said J.C. Kibbey, Illinois clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“There are also communities that perhaps are not environmental justice communities that are experiencing transition. It’s a different situation because we’re talking about communities that have been enjoying the economic benefits of [fossil fuel] energy to date — they got the jobs, they got the property taxes, the economic benefit of that coal plant. In some cases they are also impacted by the pollution although many times the workers don’t actually live where the plant is located — Fisk and Crawford are quintessential examples.”

The Fisk and Crawford coal plants in largely working-class, immigrant communities in Chicago closed in 2012, so they would not be eligible for community transition grants. 

“On one hand, you have people doing reasonably well by the fossil fuel economy,” then losing that revenue stream, “and on the other hand, there are people who never got the benefits [of the fossil fuel economy] to begin with. We can never make that right, but this is an effort to begin to repair some of those harms and injustices,” Kibbey said.

The bill’s passing came in the wake of bribery charges and federal investigations involving the utility ComEd and its parent company Exelon, and the law ultimately included significant ethics measures for such companies. Darin and others said that context may actually have helped lead to stronger equity and just transition components. 

“We had these utility scandals that significantly handicapped the powers that be in these conversations, so we came up with a much more community-centered bill” than might have happened otherwise, Darin said. While much remains to be seen in how the programs are designed and play out, he and others who negotiated the bill hope it can be a national model for clean energy, equity and just transition. 

“Obviously other states have set 100% clean energy targets and decarbonization deadlines, but Illinois is the first historically large coal state to do so,” Darin said. “We’re hoping that implementing this well not only does what it’s intended to do in Illinois, but shows states who have not made similar plans that it can be done.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.