Kari Lydersen Energy News Network
As the coal economy that has sustained the region for generations begins to fade, clean energy has been relatively slow to catch on. But community leaders see increasing reasons to believe a clean energy future is on the horizon.
This story is the second in a two-part series co-published by the Energy News Network and The Southern Illinoisan.
In a sunlit, airy sanctuary in the town of Marion in far Southern Illinois, Pastor Wade Halva tells the tale of Paul in jail: staying in the cell even when he could have escaped, in hopes he could convert the jailer. Halva lauds Paul’s steadfastness, the value of taking chances and having faith.
“Paul takes a risk in staying in the jail cell,” Halva told his congregants. “Like when people refuse to give up on their neighborhood and go somewhere safer or nicer or with more resale value, when people say, ‘We’re staying.’”
The parable could symbolize the crossroads facing coal communities across Southern Illinois. The coal economy that has sustained them is in a seemingly inevitable decline, as the world pivots to cleaner power sources. Places like Marion could fade, too, as people and opportunities migrate elsewhere. Or the people who call them home will help reinvent their economies.
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For years, Illinois clean energy advocates, community leaders and legislators have tried to shepherd a “just transition” from coal to clean energy, with programs and legislation aimed at sparking solar and other jobs in the areas most affected by fossil fuels’ decline.
That transition is happening slower than some would like in Southern Illinois, which faces greater cultural, economic and regulatory barriers than other parts of the state. Slowly but surely, though, signs of change are appearing, and there’s growing faith that a new, clean energy economy will find a foothold thanks to people like Halva, who has made it a part of his personal mission.
“People can see a change,” said Halva, who is also Southern Illinois outreach coordinator for Faith in Place, a statewide interfaith organization focused on sustainability and justice.
A hub for the coal economy
The Marion area is home to both a massive coal-fired power plant and one of Illinois’s largest underground coal mines, Pond Creek. Both have taken their toll on public health and the environment, even as the number of jobs they offer dwindles. The Southern Illinois Power Cooperative plans to loom over the picturesque Lake of Egypt, shut down its largest unit in 2020. It needs to close entirely by 2030 under the state’s clean energy law passed last fall. Meanwhile, the Pond Creek mine is allowed to continue releasing contaminated water into the Big Muddy River, under recently issued state permits.
The closure of the SIPC and other coal plants means jobs and generation will need to be replaced. Solar incentives and job training programs in last fall’s Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) and the 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) are designed to help track those, but the solar industry has been slow to take off in Southern Illinois compared to others parts of the state.
Data from the Illinois Power Agency, which administers the incentives, shows that installations under FEJA are concentrated primarily around Chicago, Rockford and Champaign-Urbana in northern and central Illinois, plus the metro area around St. Louis. A separate incentive program for solar in environmental justice and low-income areas, called Illinois Solar for All, similarly saw projects concentrated around Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, with only a handful of projects approved for schools, a hospital and a church in Southern Illinois .
Marion is a rare bright spot in the region, with 10 community solar installations helping it rank sixth out of 670 zip codes statewide in terms of megawatts of solar incentives secured.
Driving through Marion’s historic downtown, Halva describes investment in solar as part of an overall revitalization. Colorful murals decorate newly rehabbed buildings around the town square, where a plaque declares Marion “the hub of the universe.” A mural on the back of a pizzeria celebrates Italian immigrant coal miners of decades past. Statewide, coal mine employment has plummeted from over 50,000 miners in 1930 to about 3,000 today. As other industries have also moved or shrank, the region has seen steady population loss and economic decline. But Marion is now gaining population, and arts centers and a co-working space are helping make downtown lively again.
“To see that the city is investing in long-range projects gives people confidence,” Halva said, “and solar is a longer-range project.”
Faith in solar
Halva’s church is in the process of getting solar panels through Illinois Solar for All, which allows nonprofits and families to get solar installations with basically no up-front costs and considerable savings on energy bills. Elevate, the organization that runs the program, said an average family with an Illinois Solar for All array saves over $900 a year.
At Halva’s First Presbyterian Church, solar fits with larger goals of sustainability and community support. A garden out back provided 350 pounds of produce to help ease food insecurity during the pandemic last year, and they’ve overhauled the church for energy efficiency.
After his service, Halva walks through a grassy field to show visitors the ground-mounted solar panels behind St. Joseph Catholic Church, an effort that has provided inspiration for Halva’s own congregation.
“It’s proof of concept,” Halva said. “People want to know what it does for your bills — I can say go talk to Father Brian.”
Another ground-mounted solar installation is tucked behind a liquor store. And rooftop panels decorate some homes, including ones built through Habitat for Humanity. Halva is working with civic leaders to try to get Illinois Solar for All installations on public housing in Marion, either on a high-rise apartment building downtown or on the grounds of a 64-unit development of brick duplexes.
“It seems like a no-brainer to put solar on subsidized housing,” he said.
Taking a LEAP
On the flat, expansive roof of Southern Illinois University’s engineering building, Justin Harrell steps over puddles as he surveys the array of 220 sleek black solar panels that provide up to 108 kilowatts of electricity, connected to a small microgrid. On this rainy day, the battery bank and controls located in a shipping container on the ground show the panels are generating 7.5 kilowatts.
The panels, installed last fall, are part of a foray into clean energy for a university long known for its research on “clean coal” technology, in a town — Carbondale — literally named for its role in the coal trade.
SIU leads a new regional consortium that was among 22 groups nationwide chosen by the US Department of Energy for its Local Energy Action Program (LEAP), wherein the federal agency will provide technical assistance to help areas embrace clean energy with equity.
“It’s all kind of squishy and amorphous at the moment, but hopefully it’s going to be a big change,” said Harrell, SIU’s facilities and energy management senior engineer. The initiative has SIU partnering with the city of Carbondale, the local NAACP and other groups.
From the engineering building’s roof, one can see the university’s coal-burning power plant, which generates steam for the sprawling campus-wide heating and cooling system, and co-generates up to 2.5 MW of electricity with the waste heat. Unlike the state’s larger coal plants, it is small enough that it is not required to close. The plant consumes about 50,000 tons of coal a year from a nearby underground mine.
Clean energy advocates would like to see the coal plant shut down, as would Harrell, but he said replacing the steam-driven district heating-cooling system — with six miles of pipes under campus — would be a massive, multimillion-dollar undertaking that must be done gradually in stages.
SIU has another solar array near the power plant, installed back in 2004. And Harrell is planning for more. He is toying with the idea of solar panels floating on the campus’s 42-acre lake, noting that it could host a larger array than building roofs.
“We’re figuring out how to keep the ducks and students off them. I don’t know which would be more challenging,” he laughed.
Harrell also spent several years investigating the potential for a wind turbine on campus. There are threatened and endangered bats living in the area, so the university undertook a federally mandated study with volunteers searching for dead bats to predict wind turbine impacts. But financing for the wind turbine fell through and Harrell scrapped the idea.
He and others hope the university can become a leader in clean energy education, just as it has been in coal. In a classroom overlooking the solar panels, students use monitors to study the panels’ output and microgrid operations. And the school is drafting its first climate action plan.
“We get a lot of push from the student body to be more sustainable,” said Harrell. “There’s a lot of momentum building.”
Not far from the SIU campus sits the Carbondale police station, buffered on two sides by black and silver solar panels contrasting with emerald green grass and yellow wildflowers. The city’s wastewater treatment plant and civic center are also powered by solar, all by Bloomington, Illinois-based StraightUp Solar in partnership with union contractor Burke Electric.
StraightUp Solar project developer Saxon Metzger is a transplant from a beachfront town in Southern California, drawn to Southern Illinois by the natural beauty, the allure of four seasons, and the affordability. Before working for StraightUp Solar, Metzger worked for the city of Carbondale developing its sustainability plan and organizing a solar group buy, where residents band together for cheaper prices.
Metzger thinks environmental awareness as well as finances are fueling a growing local interest in solar.
“The growing season in Southern Illinois has been extended” by climate change, “which seems like it might be good, but it introduces a huge element of uncertainty and chaos,” Metzger said. “We’re having hotter summers, and winters that don’t freeze and kill off pests in the same way they used to. There’s a huge temperature shift happening with more rain. The consequences of these changes are no longer theoretical.”
Metzger’s colleague in promoting solar in the heart of coal country is Brent Ritzel, a Carbondale native who returned to his hometown after publishing magazines in Chicago; then selling mortgages in Colorado — during the mortgage crisis; and Christian trading cards — “the perfect job for an atheist,” he said. Pinion feels confident solar will only grow and become more profitable and accessible for the region. He notes the police station is predicted to save at least a million dollars in energy bills over the life of the panels.
“People are being able to see that this is an industry getting ready to bloom,” Metzger said.
Advanced Energy Solutions or AES, based in Carterville, is one of the only solar developers based in far Southern Illinois.
Founder and CEO Aur Beck has been doing solar in the region for 24 years, starting when there was very little solar anywhere in Illinois. He also hosts a solar- and sustainability-focused weekly radio show on WDBX, Carbondale’s independent radio station. Beck hires union electricians for installations, and runs a jobs program called Coal to Sol, though he doesn’t see many workers coming from the coal industry. He concurs that solar is becoming increasingly popular in Southern Illinois.
“We’ve sold more business since the end of March than all of last year,” Beck said in early May. “Last year we sold twice what we did the year before, and we just hired two more people. This is definitely happening.”
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