Guest Blogger: Tyler Fitch, MS (Energy Policy) ’18 (Environmental Defense Fund Fellow, Clean Jobs Coalition)
I spent my summer as one of all small team of experts in Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)) Midwest Clean Energy team as a part of the Clean Jobs Coalition. It was an incredible opportunity not only to dig in to some of cutting-edge topics in renewable energy, including smart inverters and the value of distributed energy resrources, but also to better understand the human and political side of policymaking. To top it all off, our work revolved around implementing the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), a monumental energy bill with “[benefitting] all citizens of the State, including low-income [communities]…” as a primary goal. The energy landscape is changing in Illinois, and the future promises to be brighter for everyone.
That commitment to inclusive, clean, accessible energy didn’t happen by divine inspiration or altruism. It was the result of months of hard work and negotiation from the Clean Jobs Coalition, a group of 200+ environmental, business, and faith organizations dedicated to promoting clean energy. And that commitment translates to commitments, goals, and programs throughout the Act. In addition to overhauling Illinois’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and providing new incentives for nuclear and solar energy, the Act includes a comprehensive Solar for All program, a solar installer training pipeline, and a consistent focus on environmental justice. FEJA was passed in December 2016, enshrining those lofty goals in law. The Act went into effect on June 1, 2017—my first day on the job.
Engaging with FEJA was my first foray into crafting clean energy policy. I found that in policymaking, the people matter just as much as the financial / engineering model. Making effective policy means ensuring that the numbers work, but also that the policies will benefit people on the ground. At EDF, I benefitted from the insight of experts who knew intuitively how incentives might be used, or where consumer protections were needed. Building an effective policy strategy involves marrying quantitative force with intuition, with no small amount of politicking thrown in.
From Policy to Action
My work revolved around submitting policy proposals to the Illinois Power Agency through its Request for Comments. IPA is responsible for implementing the policies of FEJA, but only once it has approval from the 5 governor-appointed commissioners of the Illinois Commerce Commission. Requiring approval on complex policies like solar incentives gives an incentive for stakeholders to work together in drafting their own proposals, and we worked closely with community groups like Faith in Place and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization to ensure our proposals would work for the faith and environmental justice communities. Projects I worked on included:
- Community Solar. The Act brings community net metering to Illinois, alongside incentives to drive new community solar projects. Community solar, where off-site customers can subscribe to a portion of the energy produced, unlocks the benefits of solar energy to the 49% of households who aren’t able to install systems onto their own rooftops. I drafted community solar policy that provides flexible and transparent incentive to projects, while at the same time ensuring that small customers are able to participate and community solar ‘gardens’ aren’t crowded out by commercial and greenfield projects.
- Curbing Local Air Pollution. FEJA exhorts the Illinois Power Agency to “maximize the health and welfare of its residents,” by reducing local air pollutants like sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. In a state where 38% of its electricity comes from coal, new renewable energy holds real potential to reduce reliance on those plants and bring cleaner air and healthier lives to Illinoisans. In comments to IPA, we recommended a compensation mechanism for new renewable energy projects that reduce our reliance on coal plants, and prioritizes the communities hit hardest by pollutants. Part of that work included mapping environmental damages of coal-fired plants in Illinois.
We’re already starting to see FEJA come to life. After a US district court decision upheld FEJA’s authority in July, we’ve seen the Illinois Power Agency release their zero emission credit procurement strategy and local utility Commonwealth Edison unveil their workforce development implementation plan.
If it meets its goals, FEJA will set a precedent for bipartisan, inclusive, clean energy legislation across the country, and being able to see the policymaking process in action (and contribute to it!) has been a privilege. We’ve put our best foot forward on clear, powerful, flexible policy. Now we’ll have to watch it unfold.