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An Advocate Fights For Equity In New Energy Legislation

Power lines and power-generating windmills rise above the rural landscape on June 13, 2018, near Dwight, Ill.
Scott Olson
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Driven by falling costs, global spending on renewable energy sources like wind and solar is now outpacing investment in electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear power.

This Illinois Senate on Monday passed a sweeping energy bill that made its way through the House last week. The legislation now heads to Gov. JB Pritzker for his signature. In addition to putting Illinois on track for a "100% clean energy future," the bill focuses on equity in clean energy jobs.

The Rev. Tony Pierce ofIllinois People's Actionis a longtime advocate for fairness in the green-energy economy and authored many of the bill's sections. Pierce said the legislation contains the strongest equity provisions in the nation.

The Rev. Tony Pierce of Illinois People's Action.
The Rev. Tony Pierce of Illinois People's Action.

“There’s money targeted to train people for these jobs, and to incentivize the hiring of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people for these jobs,” said Pierce, co-senior pastor at Heaven’s View Christian Fellowship in Peoria.

But what he really pushed for, Pierce recounts, is the creation of a prime contractor program that will put BIPOC people at the top of the hiring process.

“Because people tend to hire and promote people who look like them, to just train people for these jobs … and then to think that somehow, magically, majority-white contractors out there are going to change the history that they’ve had in place for many, many years in this country is naïve,” Pierce said.

Pierce thinks of the rapidly expanding clean energy economy as a “green revolution.” He said a generation ago, a similar phenomenon — the “digital revolution” — promised to create billions of dollars in economic opportunities, including jobs.

“And it did all that,” he said. “Except it leapfrogged Black and brown communities. And they’re suffering from that today.”

With its focus on job training and equity, Pierce said, Illinois’ energy legislation will not only help minority communities prepare for the green economy but ensure them access to it.

The bill will also address another problem faced by minority communities: environmental racism. Air pollution tends to be concentrated in economically disadvantaged communities, a problem that disproportionately affects minorities.

Pierce said 80% of Black Americans live in close proximity to sources of air pollutants like coal-fired plants. The resulting air quality causes disproportionate rates of health problems like asthma and other respiratory problems — as well as death — in those communities, he said.

Illinois’ new energy legislation aims to wean the state off a dependence on fossil fuels within three decades. For Pierce, the bill holds the promise of delivering both clean air and clean jobs to generations of people who need them most.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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