The American Midwest is becoming a hot bed for renewable energy. Just two years ago, it was the place where Donald Trump was doing his very best Foghorn Leghorn imitation as he banged the drum for coal power. Today, his words sound ridiculous as, one after another, the US states with the highest concentration of coal-fired generating stations are rushing to embrace renewables, Robert Murray and his merry band of coal baron colleagues be damned.
First came news that Indiana — which could be the poster child for coal power in America — is getting into wind and solar power in a big way. Last week, Northern Indiana Public Service Company announced it was involved in three new wind farm projects.
100% Renewable Energy In Illinois
Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker signed an executive order in January making that state part of the US Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition committed to upholding the standards of the Paris climate agreement. According to the Springfield Herald & Review, Pritzker, who ran on a clean energy platform, said at the time of the signing, “We can’t sit idly by and do nothing here in the United States when we too have an environment that is at risk,” he said during a January news conference. “Our industry here is partly responsible to contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, in fact substantially so.”
State representative Will Davis plans to introduce legislation in the next two weeks that would move Illinois toward 100% renewable energy. Senator Bill Cunningham expects to file a companion bill in the state Senate shortly. Currently, Illinois’ renewable energy standard calls for 16% renewable energy by 2020 and 25% by 2025, but there is slippage between the standard and reality. As things stand now, the state will only get 7% of its electricity from renewables by the end of next year. The new legislation would bump the RE goal to 40% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
“The renewable energy industry is ready to invest billions of dollars in our state and deliver the clean, homegrown energy our citizens want,” Davis says. “I intend for this Act to benefit our state equitably and spread the economic development dollars to Illinois communities throughout the state and especially those that are most in need of jobs and economic growth.”
Goals are fine things, but mean little if the hard work of turning them into reality doesn’t get done. Currently, the Illinois Power Agency turns away about 90% of applicants for green energy projects due to a limited pool of available credits, says David Lundy, spokesman for the Path to 100 Coalition. By expanding the state’s renewable portfolio standard, the planned legislation would increase the available pool of private grant funding to be disbursed by the Illinois Power Agency.
Lundy adds the renewable energy expansion will add “a couple of bucks a month” to the average customer’s utility bill and will require no state funding. Fossil fuel proponents can be expected to run ads soon screaming about the intolerable burden on the poor those few extra dollars a month will be while completely ignoring the economic benefits that accrue to all citizens as the result of lower atmospheric pollution and having a planet that is actually capable of supporting human life.
Renewables Mean More Jobs For Wisconsin
Wisconsin is another state that gets most of its electricity from burning coal but it has little of its own. Its utility companies spend more than $14 billion a year to buy coal from other states, especially Wyoming. What if Wisconsin didn’t buy all that coal but spent that money to install renewable energy facilities within its borders? That’s the question the county of La Crosse asked COWS, a think tank based at the University of Wisconsin – Madison to answer.
David Abel and Katya Spears of COWS put together a report that finds investing that money in wind and solar power would create 162,000 new jobs in the state, improve public health, increase the state’s overall economic activity by nearly $14 billion, and add $570 million in tax revenue each year to state coffers.
According to the Madison State-Journal, Abel says “The impetus for this whole study was just to figure out whether producing our energy in-state would be beneficial to the economy and people and the environment of Wisconsin. What we find is that it really is beneficial to all three. There are solutions that don’t actually involve these traditional things we think of as trade-offs between the economy or the people or the environment.”
Abel admits the scenario contained in the report would raise the cost of electricity in Wisconsin by about 10% but says that increase would be more than offset by investments in energy efficiency. If fact, he believes the combination of renewable energy and gains in energy efficiency would result in an overall net decrease in total spending of 3%. The transition to renewable will not happen soon, Abel admits. “We’re not going to get to 100 percent overnight,” he says.
But progress always requires a goal first. After that, the hard work of creating a plan to achieve the goal begins. The COWS study is a goal setting exercise that would bring Wisconsin in line with other states like California that have committed to ambitious renewable energy targets. Considering the state is currently spending billions each year to buy coal from other states and the economic benefits of renewables would stay in Wisconsin, its a goal that deserves careful consideration.