June 11, 2009

Springfield Delivers Big Gains for Clean Energy

While the severity of the state's financial crisis makes it difficult for anyone to call this year's legislative session a success, there were major advances for renewable energy and energy efficiency that make Illinois a national leader in energy innovation at a time when Congress and the Obama administration are considering similar changes for the country. As a result, Illinois is better positioned to attract and create good-paying green energy jobs, save ratepayers money, and reduce air pollution in our communities.

A top priority for environmental advocates this session was new requirements that our natural gas companies launch programs to help residents and businesses cut their gas usage and bills. SB 1918, now on Gov. Quinn's desk, requires gas companies to take steps to reduce statewide gas consumption 7% by 2020. They are expected to do this with incentives for upgrades to more efficient furnaces and boilers, weatherization assistance programs, and assistance to businesses to reduce wasted heat. Another innovation, "on-bill financing", will give you 0% financing on high-efficiency boilers, furnaces, and other appliances, allowing you to pay off the purchase with the savings on your gas bill. These programs are going to slash heating bills, create jobs in home weatherization, and make a dent in global warming pollution by reducing natural gas consumption. We established similar programs and targets for electric utilities in 2007, and our combined programs will be noticed in Washington, as first the House and then the Senate take up energy and global warming legislation. Credit for moving Illinois from the back of the pack to the head of the class in energy efficiency goes to a broad coalition of environmental advocates, consumer advocates and utilities who participated in negotiations, and especially the strong leadership of Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, which forged agreement on truly bold new programs.

HB 3987 is another major advance. It replaces a confusing patchwork of local building codes with a uniform, statewide, state-of-the art energy-efficient building code. In the future, all new residential and commercial construction in Illinois will be built to the regularly updated standards of the International Energy Conservation Code. This will reduce energy waste for as long as these buildings are in use, provide certainty to the construction industry, and make significant reductions in energy use and pollution. SB 2150 makes minor adjustments to our new renewable energy requirements (our 25% renewable requirement by 2025 is far stronger than what is on the table right now in Congress, unfortunately), including jump-starting the solar power industry in Illinois.

While these new ways of thinking about energy are poised to become law with Governor Quinn's signatures, the legislature rejected attempts to maintain Illinois' historic focus on coal and nuclear options. The Illinois Chamber of Commerce made a major push for the so called "Energy to Jobs Act", but the package of coal and nuclear incentives looked very dated to many in the legislature, and was never a serious threat to pass.

It's hard not to draw parallels to the debate underway on Capitol Hill, where Reps. Waxman and Markey are preparing a plan to go in a bold new direction, while House Republicans, unfortunately, just rolled out a package of mostly old ideas that is very heavily slanted toward production against efficiency - always the cheapest, fastest, cleanest, most job-creating energy source.

Not long ago, Illinois was anything but a laboratory for innovations in energy policy - we were pretty much all-coal, all-nuclear, all the time when it came to energy. At least on one major issue, change apparently has come to Illinois, and we are rejecting the old ideas in favor of new. If Illinois, of all places, can shift its focus to the solutions of the future, surely Congress can do the same for America.

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