Semi trucks
Credit: Marcin Jozwiak / Creative Commons

When the Crawford coal plant in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood closed in 2012, residents hailed it as a victory for public health and environmental justice. But now a Target warehouse sits in place of the coal plant, with a constant stream of diesel trucks posing a new health threat and source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The neighborhood is just one example, local leaders and statewide advocates say, of why Illinois should adopt rules and programs moving toward electrification of medium- and heavy-duty trucks — starting with the Advanced Clean Trucks rule pioneered by California and now on the books in seven coastal states.

“Because of past decisions going back 170 years, we are without a doubt the freight and rail hub of North America — these freight facilities aren’t going anywhere,” said José Acosta, senior transportation policy analyst for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. LVEJO led the fight to close the city’s two coal plants and fought against the construction of the warehouse on the coal plant site. 

“If that’s the case, how do we mitigate all the impacts of it?” Acosta added. “The most pressing impact is the air pollution impact, the threat of PM2.5” — fine particulate matter — “nitrogen oxide and other things that have an impact on community health. That’s why it’s so important to electrify fleets.” 

LVEJO is among the coalition of environmental, community and labor groups called NET-Z demanding the state adopt the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, or ACT. The rule would mandate that electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles make up an increasing percentage of heavy- and medium-duty trucks sold in the state. With different benchmarks for different types of vehicles, the rule would mean almost all new trucks and delivery vans would be zero-emissions by 2040. Given fleet turnover, experts estimate this means almost all trucks on the roads would be zero-emissions by 2050. 

The coalition is also calling for the adoption of the Heavy-Duty Omnibus Rule, which would mandate stricter nitrogen oxide emissions controls on new fossil fuel trucks. Meanwhile, a bill introduced in the state legislature would ask the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to offer $200,000 vouchers for the purchase of class 7 or 8 large trucks, provided a diesel truck is scrapped in return. 

“It is not like all the trucks sold have to be electric” immediately under the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, noted Illinois clean energy advocate J.C. Kibbey of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a very gradual ramp,” and the omnibus emissions reduction rule could be “the peanut butter to the ACT’s jelly,” reducing emissions from fossil fuel trucks as the transition to zero emissions plays out.

Jobs and health potential 

In May, the Respiratory Health Association published a study showing that Illinois ranks fifth of all states in the number of deaths per capita attributed to diesel pollution. And 12 Illinois counties, most of them in the Chicago area, are among the top 9% of counties nationwide for exposure to fine particulate matter from diesel.

“People are getting sick and dying from what they’re breathing from the tailpipes,” said Brian Urbaszewski, environmental health programs director for the Respiratory Health Association. “And global warming is happening — when you look at who gets hurt most or first by those increasing extreme weather events, it’s going to disproportionately hit those lower-income vulnerable communities.”

Cleaning up trucks is also an environmental justice issue for workers in warehouses and other sites with heavy truck traffic. Warehouse Workers for Justice, an organization that has long fought for better conditions for workers in Chicago-area warehouses, is a leader of the NET-Z coalition. 

So far coastal states — California, Washington, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and North Carolina — have adopted the Advanced Clean Trucks rule, and 10 other states have signed memoranda of understanding agreeing to similar provisions. Illinois could be the first Midwest state to adopt the measure. 

A study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists found that medium- and heavy-duty vehicles make up only 7% of the vehicles on the road in Illinois, but account for more than a third of their greenhouse gas emissions and about two-thirds of nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions. 

The NRDC-UCS study used modeling to estimate that the least aggressive of three possible scenarios — the adoption of California’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule — would result in “up to 310 fewer premature deaths and 347 fewer hospital visits from breathing polluted air.” The study also found massive fuel savings to vehicle fleets and savings to electric customers, since the increased electricity sales for vehicle charging could help utilities lower residential rates. “Under the ACT scenario, by 2050 annual cost savings for Illinois fleets are estimated to be $1.2 billion, and annual bill savings for electric utility customers in the state could reach an estimated $62 million,” the study found. 

Modeling also looked at the adoption of the emissions-reducing omnibus rule along with the ACT rule, and at a most-aggressive scenario that would see almost all new trucks being zero-emissions by 2040. Those scenarios yielded greater health and economic benefits than the ACT rule alone.

The study noted that there are currently more than 615,000 medium- and heavy-duty vehicles on the road in Illinois, ranging from heavy-duty pickups and vans to semi-trailers. The rules would cover only new vehicles, and only vehicles sold by manufacturers in Illinois, not those purchased out of state.

Kibbey explained that the ACT rule would be enforced through a system of credits: “The standard is implemented as a percentage of total truck sales per manufacturer in the state. They can buy, trade, and store credits. In addition to the manufacturers’ ability to price and market trucks in ways that increase sales, the crediting system allows for a lot of compliance flexibility. If a manufacturer doesn’t fulfill its credit deficit in a given year, they incur a financial penalty based on the class of vehicle, and the deficit rolls over to the next year. If they don’t address the deficit, they will continue to incur penalties.”

The NRDC-UCS study notes that a higher proportion of components for zero-emissions vehicles are manufactured out of the country and must be imported. The net macroeconomic benefits of a national transition to zero-emissions vehicles, therefore, depend on the extent to which the U.S. ramps up manufacturing of such components. This sector holds potential especially for states with a rich industrial history and infrastructure like Illinois, advocates say.

“This is such an opportunity for us, this is not a hair shirt,” Kibbey said. “This is an opportunity not only to add jobs in the clean transportation sector … but to be the best state in the country to drive and manufacture an electric vehicle. If we want to build them here, let’s create a market for them here.”

Last year the electric truck manufacturer Rivian opened a factory in Normal, Illinois, in a shuttered Mitsubishi factory. Rivian’s R1T electric truck produced in Normal was voted the state’s “coolest” product made in Illinois in a contest hosted by the governor’s office this year. As Capitol News Illinois wrote, the R1T is the “first electric truck in production that features four motors, eight driving modes and up to 400 miles of range on a single charge, combining off-road capabilities with the driving style of a sports car.”

The Canadian electric bus and truck manufacturer Lion Electric also has a factory in Joliet, the Chicago-area city that is also home to one of the nation’s largest warehousing hubs. This fall, the company produced its first electric school bus in the Joliet factory. 

Buses would be covered by mandates in the Advanced Clean Truck rule. Meanwhile, funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and various other incentives exist for electric buses, including funds from the Volkswagen lawsuit settlement that Illinois has earmarked for electric school buses.

“We’re making [electric trucks] in Illinois,” Urbaszewski said. “The problem is we’re not providing the environment to make sure they stay here and drive on Illinois roads, providing the pollution reduction and health benefits.”

Driven by clean generation 

The electrification of transportation in Illinois is especially appropriate given that the state’s energy law passed last year mandates the electricity generation sector phase out fossil fuels by 2045, meaning electric vehicles would be charged with clean power. 

“We’re not just going to be moving emissions around to a natural gas or coal plant that will make electricity to run an electric truck — we’re reducing in a real sense,” Urbaszewski said. “Pushing electric vehicles makes sense because it gives you added benefits to what we’re doing in the power sector.”

Illinois’ investor-owned utilities ComEd and Ameren are launching beneficial electrification plans mandated by the state’s 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, investing hundreds of millions in electric vehicle incentives and charging infrastructure. And the Inflation Reduction Act provides tax credits of up to $40,000 for commercial electric vehicle purchases and up to $100,000 for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The NRDC-UCS report noted that the Advanced Clean Trucks rule could mean that total electricity demand in the state increases by 1.3 million megawatt-hours in 2030 and 12.7 million MWh by 2050, an estimated total of 1.3% and 12.9% of Illinois’ electric load in those years. (The study notes that “current annual electricity sales to residential and commercial customers in Illinois total 74.2 million MWh and are projected to grow to 83.8 million MWh in 2050.”)

But that new demand would be met with clean energy and by charging vehicles at night when demand is otherwise low, advocates say.

“As long as you have the rate structures in place, the infrastructure in place, it shouldn’t put much strain on the grid,” Kibbey said. “Since the grid isn’t used that efficiently, we build it bigger than we need for most of the time. In Illinois at night, we have a bunch of nuclear energy, a bunch of wind energy” that’s not needed. “If you are charging [electric vehicles] off-peak, it not only avoids creating problems with the grid, but we end up using the grid more efficiently.”

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.