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Q&A: Here's How The Illinois Energy Bill Will Affect The Peoria Area

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J.C. Kibbey / Provided
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J.C. Kibbey speaks at a rally outside the office of then–Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., as part of the People’s Climate Movement following former President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Gov. JB Pritzker has given the green light to a bill that will put Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

On Wednesday, Pritzker signed into law the "Climate and Equitable Jobs Act," creating ratepayer subsidies for wind and solar projects in addition to mandating carbon emission reduction and the eventual closure of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants.

J.C. Kibbey works for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The environmental watchdog group's Midwest office is based in Chicago.

The NRDC also was one of the plaintiffs in the $8.6 million Edwards Coal Plant settlement. (NRDC attorney Selena Kyle helped put part of that money toward funding one of three new electric buses in Peoria.)

These Zero-Emissions Electric Buses Will Soon Hit The Streets Of Peoria

In an interview with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Kibbey talks about how the new legislation will affect the Peoria area.

J.C. Kibbey: For the last 10-15 years, the coal industry in Illinois has already been cratering. Not because of any law, but largely just because of market forces. Coal generation in this state declined by two-thirds in just the last 10 years. I think sometimes the refrain from the fossil fuel industry is that, 'The big, bad environmentalists are coming to get them.' But the truth is, is that coal's ticket was pretty much stamped before we even started here.

And it's more about making sure that that transition is orderly, and just, and supports the people and the workers and the communities that are impacted.

Hannah Alani: Ultimately, we just wanted to have a bit of your time, just to kind of hear from you how you think this bill will affect the Peoria area?

J.C. Kibbey: There actually is only one private coal plant in the state of Illinois that has not already announced retirement, and it is the Powerton plant. That move away from coal that we're gonna see next year with Edwards, and then at some point with Powerton. ... Often those stories focus on the economic impacts of those. And that's real. ... There are significant 'just transition provisions' here [in the bill] to support communities as they transition away from coal. That's up to $40 million a year in grants that can go towards property tax replacement, economic development, worker retraining, or whatever a community feels that it needs as it makes that transition.

...We're the first state in the country to have support for transition like that. Other states that have done it had done something more in the order of just a study. So Peoria is going to be one of the first places in the country to receive support for that transition.

Consent Decree Filed in Edwards Coal Plant Lawsuit

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Hannah Alani: Can you talk a little bit more about the environmental justice piece of this?

J.C. Kibbey: The health impacts of closing coal plants are huge. They are some of the most toxic facilities that there are. Looking here at the Toll From Coal report that is put up by the Clean Air Task Force, and was revised just a couple of months ago, shows that the ED Edwards plant causes an estimated 57 deaths per year, and the Powerton plant an estimated 17. So, you know, you have, according to those estimates, more than one person every week in the Peoria area, who is dying prematurely because of pollution from these coal plants. And those aren't the only health impacts. You have asthma attacks, visits to the ER, heart attacks, lost days at work. And so that is going to be an immediate and major improvement in the health of the people who live near these plants.

...I should also add that there are some other incentives for clean energy to site near where the coal plants closed, not only the coal to solar program, but also some some tax benefits for developers to locate in former coal communities. Again, just trying to bring that economic activity there. There are reasons, from the perspective of the electric grid, why it makes sense [to build where] there is existing transmission. We want to take advantage of that. It's just efficient. But really the intent and the heart of this is about the people in the communities.

...Fossil fuel pollution and climate change do not exist in a vacuum. We are all in the same storm. But we are not all riding in the same boats. Some of us are in yachts, and some of us are in row boats. And if you look at those environmental justice communities that are getting hit the hardest, there's an obligation to acknowledge those differing impacts that it has on people and to reflect that in our policy. So there's really no separating, you know, climate change from the social, the racial, the economic injustices
that underlie that.

Hannah Alani: I think when a lot of this newfound legislation rolls out, there can be a sentiment of, 'Oh, they just have Chicago in mind.' Do you have any response to that sort of general sentiment?

J.C. Kibbey: From beginning to end, in this process, there have been Illinoisans in every corner of the state who have been involved with this. And I think that the end product is a result of that. And I think, again, that the provisions to support communities impacted by the transition away from coal are unprecedented in this country, and many of those communities are rural are in central and southern Illinois.

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...Illinois has a reputation for, you know, smoke-filled back rooms, and legislation being written that way. And we set out from the very beginning to have this be the opposite of that. So for more than a year, and across more than 70 meetings in church basements and small businesses and people's living rooms all over the state, we asked people, 'What do you want to see in Illinois energy future?'

Hannah Alani: What are some key examples you give when people say, 'Climate change is just a coastal issue. It's not something I would ever have to deal with here in the Midwest. I'm safe from hurricanes. I'm safe from flooding and rising sea level.'

J.C. Kibbey: Unfortunately, the effects of climate change touch everybody, and that includes us here in the Midwest. The Midwest is actually warming faster than the rest of the country. And that translates to flooding. It translates to heat waves. And it translates to droughts. ... You know, I think the floods that we saw in 2019 did something like $6.2 billion of damage to the economy in the Midwest. The 2012 drought did something like $3.5 billion with the damage to crop losses here in the state of Illinois. And we're coming off, by the way, the hottest summer ever on record in the United States.

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Hannah Alani: You know, as journalists, we always have to ask about the pocketbook. ... We've seen as low as $3.55 a month increase in energy bill. Then the AARP came out and said, 'No, it could be up to $15 a month.' My question is two-part. One, what do you think about those numbers? And then two, utilities in general disproportionately rise against income, not with it. Are people on the south side of Peoria going to be dealing with $15-a-month-higher energy bills?

J.C. Kibbey: I will start by saying we're probably talking about a cup of Starbucks a month. That $3.50 range is what we have seen both from legislative staff analysis, and from an analysis that the Citizens Utility Board, a consumer organization, did on this bill. As to those AARP numbers, that is wildly different from what anyone else who has looked at this has done. I don't know what the methodology was behind that. And I think if you're going to make a claim that's orders of magnitude outside of what anyone else is saying, then it is incumbent upon you to share your methodology, and how you came to those conclusions.

...In terms of, 'How we are mitigating those costs?' That's a really important question. ... I can't leave out energy efficiency programs. This bill sets a new bar for how much of that energy efficiency spending needs to go to low-income households. And [it] also provides support for households. If they can't implement those energy efficiency measures — say there's mold or asbestos or whatever — it provides funding to help them to get that fixed, so they can get that energy efficiency measure to save money.

...I also think that we can't talk about costs without talking about benefits. The implications of this are not just what shows up on your electric bill. And I think that sometimes we get a little myopic about that part of the puzzle. Think about the deaths that we were talking about earlier that are caused by these coal plants, like, what is the price that you put on that? What is the price that you put on worse flooding and worse heat waves and worse droughts that are ruining people's lives and our economy, in this day, as climate change gets worse? What's the price we pay on, you know, breathing pollution from from gasoline-powered cars? And if you live in a community that's getting support for just transition, or in an environmental justice community where there's benefits in this bill ... Again, you have to weigh those costs against those benefits, which I think are really, really significant. I always ask, 'What is the cost of doing nothing on climate change, on fossil fuels and on dirty air?' And the cost is astronomical.

Hannah Alani: What about ComEd?

J.C. Kibbey: We are planning to start proceedings at the Illinois Commerce Commission about creating a low-income rate, which is something that other states have already done. You know, we haven't even talked about the provisions in this bill to hold utilities accountable, to make those processes more transparent, to change the way they do business and put new ethical rules on them. It's too soon to say exactly what the impact of that will be. But I will say that, for too long, we had a process by which utilities basically wrote their own check for how much money they wanted to spend.

...The Illinois Commerce Commission was not empowered and did not have the time, I would argue, to do a sufficient amount of sort of watchdogging of that. ... This [bill] would go to a new model for how we plan the electric grid, how utilities are paid and the amount of scrutiny that we have on them — where there will be an open process where anybody can take a look at what the utilities are proposing, and submit comments to say, 'Well, that isn't right,' or, 'That's not the most cost-effective way to do this,' or whatever it is. And I think that long term, having a more a more transparent and forward-looking plan for our electric grid, and our utilities, is going to yield benefits for the consumer.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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