IL’s Solar Jobs Program & Climate Change: Clean Energy Connection EP. 5

(Interview starts at 0:21:00)

 

Proponents of Clean Energy: About the Guests 

Eric Pasi, Impact Power Solutions

Eric Pasi, Chief Development Officer, IPS 

As Chief Development Officer for Impact Power Solutions, Pasi has helped organizations analyze and adopt clean energy strategies nationwide.  He is extremely passionate about renewable power, entrepreneurship and the climate crisis. In 2020, he released his first book called “CleanWave: A Guide to Success in the Green Recovery” where he outlines the past, present, and future of clean tech, and its role in a post-COVID19 and post-George Floyd recovery.  

 

Interview Transcript

Joan E: Eric Pasi is the chief Development Officer of IPS and he joins me today to do a round up on a lot of things that are happening here in Illinois. Welcome, Eric. How are you?

Eric P: Good afternoon, Joan. I’m doing fabulous today. How are you?

Joan E: I’m doing really, really well. Summer used to be a time when everybody got kind of sleepy. We could do stories on trees in the park, that kind of thing. Ever since the previous administration in Washington, summer is no longer sleepy. Summer is like, oh, my god, there’s a firehose, what’s happening today. So it kind of kind of keeps me on my toes. Hey, one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, speaking of clean energy, was the clean energy bill in Springfield. It looked like a lot of people were working on it and it was very close to being a done deal. There were some last minute snags, then there was the report that maybe when they came back in a lame duck session it would be voted on there and that didn’t happen either. Is this thing permanently stalled do you think? Or is it just a temporary delay?

Eric P: I think it’s a temporary delay. The reason why is that there’s so much on the line for a lot of different industries, and specifically clean energy. Our company, Impact Power Solutions, has a ton of projects that are waiting to be constructed if that bill passes, and so we’re talking about billions of dollars that would be unleashed for new landowner payments, for new tax revenue within the state. Not to mention just transitioning the grid to a much cleaner state. So we do expect that by the end of next month, August 31st is kind of a soft deadline, where we expect some movement. There’s a lot of optimism from people that are very close to the negotiations. As maybe some of your listeners know, really what happened at the end of the session was that downstate Illinois was really hoping for an equitable transition from coal, specifically at the Prairie State facility that has contracts that are lasting into the next 25 years. We understand that coal has been a strong source of good paying jobs in the region for decades, and this transition should and will recognize coal’s importance to the state and help those workers and families transition to the green economy. That’s really our hope. And we’re optimistic about it.

Joan E: Well, speaking of transitioning and training, I’ve heard of something called the Illinois Solar Training Pipeline Program. What is that?

Eric P: Audrey Henderson, who joined us in April on this segment, wrote a great article about the pending program rollout for Energy News Network. The Illinois Solar Training Pipeline Program is one of three workforce development programs under the state’s 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act that hope to close the gap with clean energy jobs that disproportionately disadvantaged communities have not been able to access. We’re talking about bringing in folks that have been formerly incarcerated, former foster care members, women and people of color until the program is administered by ComEd. There is a goal of training 2,000 individuals, especially from those groups that I’ve just mentioned, with a target of 50% of these trainees coming from environmental justice communities where there are existing fossil fuel plants that are causing environmental harm. The program is really designed to promote renewable energy throughout the state, provide savings on utility bills for consumers and then most importantly, create a diverse pool of solar and renewable energy installers and give them an opportunity to land good paying jobs created throughout the state.

Joan E: Just to clarify one thing that you just said. We talked about the closing of the coal plants and how those people obviously need jobs. Did you just say that a certain percentage of this solar training program was going to be set aside for people coming from the coal industry? Did I understand that correctly?

Eric P: It’s actually a little bit more nuanced. The environmental justice communities are really where the plants are located, and not necessarily just the workers that are working at those plants, but really the facilities that are causing asthma and other health issues for the public and population that are located near these facilities. This program is really meant to address those individuals, first and foremost. There are separate kinds of training programs and transitioning programs that would be set aside, specifically for workers in the fossil fuel industry.

Joan E: How are the people eligible for this? I mean, it sounds great. People who’ve got prison records and have trouble getting work, people coming out of the foster program, people in these communities that have been built on coal. What kind of an outreach program exists? How are they going to find these people? Do you have any idea about that? 

Eric P: They partner with organizations that are really focused on the ground. So in Chicago, the Cook County Workforce Partnership, for example, will help ComEd find organizations to receive workforce development grants. Applicants would essentially be organizations within the community. Those grants range anywhere from $150,000 to a million dollars, which would be distributed over four years to really create a pipeline of applicants. Eligible grant recipients include not for profit, actual government entities and for profit entities, along with educational institutions. Organizations located in and providing services for environmental justice communities will have priority. They’re starting in the next two weeks. We’ll hear the first round of grantees for that program and we’ll understand more about what kind of communities are going to start to have to develop the trainings within this program.

Joan E: Okay. We are going to take a real quick break. One of the things I want to talk to you about Eric, when we come back after this break, is climate change, particularly the craziness that we have seen in the Pacific Northwest. We were talking with Tony Fitzpatrick a couple of weeks ago, a gallery owner out there, who said he doesn’t have air conditioning in his home, he doesn’t have air conditioning in his art gallery, because he’s never needed it. People out there wear jackets in July, and suddenly they’re dealing with 110 degree heat. Eric and I are going to have a conversation about what the hell is going on in the Pacific Northwest right after this.

Joan E: Before we went to commercial break, I said I wanted to ask Eric what’s going on in the Pacific Northwest. So Eric, I know that I see climate change. Do you think other people see climate change in that bizarre weather, the bizarre heatwave that they were hit with?

Eric P: It’s been very tragic to see what’s happened up there. I think any logical person looking at what had occurred over that two week stretch is coming to a conclusion that anything but climate change would be unrealistic. So you’re right when you talk a bit about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest having record heat. I was looking at the data, from 1894 until last month, Seattle had only recorded three days in its history over 100 degrees, and that happened three days in a row in June. Speaking of the tragedy, almost 200 people lost their lives across the Northwest and this is just becoming more common, unfortunately. 

Joan E: I was talking to an expert in the field of climate who said that heat as a natural disaster kills more people than all the other natural disasters. More than tsunamis, more than hurricanes, more than tornadoes, and we tend to think of those as catastrophic events. He said, if you’re really looking at the big picture, as far as the ways that weather can kill us, nothing comes close to heat.

Eric P: That’s right. And it really affects disproportionately, folks that are lower on the economic ladder. We saw this in Seattle, where about 50% of owner occupied homes have air conditioning, but for renters, it’s less than 30%. So when you’re talking about heat of that magnitude, really the ones that are most affected are the ones that have the least.

Joan E: Hmm. So what can government officials, policymakers, utility companies, what can they do to prepare for a future where weather is going to be more unpredictable?

Eric P: When we were looking at statistics for this segment, one that really jumped out to me was that in the US, according to government data in 1992, non weather related outages in the power system outnumbered weather related outages like heat waves, four to one. But by 2012, just two decades later, those numbers have slipped. Weather events account for four times as many outages now compared to non weather events. That number, just the total number increased by more than 10 times. So this is happening at a frequency that we’ve never seen before. Extreme heat in the Northwest may force the Bonneville Power Administration, who’s the grid operator up there, to impose rolling blackouts in Eastern Washington. This is similar to what was seen both in Texas earlier this year, and in California last year due to the wildfires. Grid operators are maximizing the available power by doing the easy thing. So scheduling all the maintenance that was said to be scheduled on the system gets put on a pause. Similarly, for any electricity generators, they must also generate electricity with no maintenance outages. Those are the easy things, but also the things that aren’t necessarily going to flip the needle here. We need infrastructure spending to the tune that the Biden administration is talking about. 10s of billions of dollars to beef up and secure the grid infrastructure to allow for the transfer of power from certain areas in the country to others when we do have these, these weather events. It’s more necessary now than ever.

Joan E: I’m looking at the Midwest, where I was talking to one of my girlfriends about a year ago talking about whether it was a good place to retire to. She is much more environmentally astute than I am, and she said, “You know, I’ve got to tell you, with all the reading that I’m doing about climate change, with all the mudslides and fires and outrageous temperatures and ocean rise” she said, “I’m starting to read that the Midwest is actually the best place to be to ride out climate change.” So Eric, what do you see happening around the Midwest, whether it’s Illinois or other states near us, as far as energy policies being talked about or adopted?

Eric P: I totally agree with your friend’s assessment. I think recently, and I forget who wrote the study, but they found that Duluth, Minnesota is the most climate crisis prepared city in the country with its access to fresh water and a temperate climate. In terms of Midwest policy, we talked a little bit about Illinois and the Path to 100. How important that is to the state’s clean energy economy and to the state’s ability to fight the climate crisis. I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a plug in for it. We are encouraging everybody that we know to visit www.Illinoissolar.org. There’s a tab for Path to 100 and then you can click on a link there to take action and notify your representatives about the importance that you find in taking action on climate. In Iowa, just next door, we’re seeing some countervailing or opposite results. They passed a law in 2018 that affected their energy efficiency policies in the state and we’re now just getting some updated reporting on the impact. Iowa’s largest utilities have dramatically scaled back efforts to help customers conserve energy since the 2018 law. We’ve seen that Mid American Energy reported kilowatt hour savings in 2020, which were 64% lower than what the utility achieved the year previously. Alliant Energy’s savings were down 40% during that same period. It’s very simple things like energy efficiency that you feel like should be a no brainer are getting lost in the shuffle in certain instances.

Joan E: That seems counterintuitive. I mean even skeptics are now saying that at least they see bizarre weather patterns, even if they might not attribute it to climate change. But everyone acknowledges that we’re seeing these extremes, more so than we have in years past. How does a state justify not doing not only not doing more, but actually doing less?

Eric P: It baffles me and if I knew the answer, then maybe I wouldn’t be with you here. What we found is the best policy regarding energy efficiencies for utilities is when you decouple profits from revenue. What I mean by that is, if the utilities are incentivized to sell more energy, they’re going to make sure that you’re buying less efficient equipment, and not conserving energy. As we’ve seen in Minnesota, when we’ve decoupled the profits from the utility and from revenue, basically guaranteeing a rate of return, that then incentivizes the utilities to do as much as they can to preserve the amount of power that’s being produced. It’s really about aligning the interests of the publicly regulated utilities and the general population. We all understand that climate is a big issue and now it’s time for corporations, and specifically utilities, to step up and do their part in that regard.

Joan E: It’s kind of a catch 22, isn’t it? Because utilities, they really are a public good. They are very necessary for us to live our lives. But by the same token, as somebody who may buy their stock, you’re expecting them to show some kind of a profit. It seems like they’re being pulled in two different directions, to some extent.

Eric P: That’s right. I mentioned Minnesota, this legislative session they passed the ECO Act, which actually increases the amount of money available for energy efficiency projects in the state. it emphasizes the amount that’s available to under-resourced and communities of color. It’s almost a complete 180 from what you see in a neighboring state.

Joan E: I had an opportunity to look up Illinoissolar.org and click on the Path to 100 and I’ve got to say, it is a really clearly laid out page that will show you the legislation that is existing. They know who’s doing what, what it’s going to accomplish, and if this is something that you care about. I know that a lot of people who listen to this radio station do care about it. This is a great place to go to look at the legislation that is being considered and that Will Davis and Bill Cunningham are two of the people who are really working on this. You should reach out to your state rep and your state senator and let them know that this is something that’s important, especially as we’ve got this clean energy bill. Part of it is “when are we going to close up these coal plants?”. then down the road “Well when are we going to be sustainable enough that we can close up the nuclear plants and and move forward”. I just can’t see anybody being in opposition to that. Unless maybe you make your living off of coal? .

Eric P: Right. We recognize that there are interests, especially in Southern Illinois, as we mentioned before, that have decades long involvement with coal and we by no means want to disrespect them or those traditions, but right now we’re in a time of transition and we need to start thinking about our children’s future and their children’s future. If we continue with the status quo, it’s simply unsustainable. So you’re right, go to Illinois solar.org/path-to-100, or you can just go to the homepage and click on the link there. It really does lay out everything that’s at stake. Our company, and many companies like us, have developed projects spending money in the state as far back as five years ago, when the original Future Energy Jobs Act was passed. Now we’re looking at a cliff, essentially, where funding is dried up for these types of projects. We’re set to lose an estimated 3,500 jobs in the solar industry. It’s just untenable to me to know that there’s so much need for what renewable energy is, there’s so much need for it in the world, yet we’ve gotten in our own way, in terms of politics, that are preventing progress on this very issue. So, lots at stake and we’d encourage your listeners to head over there, Illinoissolar.org, and take action.

Joan E: I just tweeted out that link so if you are a listener who follows me on Twitter, I’ve tweeted out the link, and you can click on the link. So you think that we have a soft passage date of the Illinois clean energy bill by the end of August? Also, I’m imagining that there would be some benefits for Illinois once Joe Biden gets his infrastructure package passed? Because I know that there were some provisions in there to build more electric charging stations and things like that. Will that be a big help to Illinois as well? 

Eric P: Yep, absolutely. You’re right that the infrastructure bill goes beyond just clean energy to talk about the transformation of the transportation system. As you mentioned, there’s funding in there too, to install upwards of half a million electric vehicle charging stations across the country. There’s investment into research and development for everything from carbon capture to green fuels that can be used in airplanes. This is a monumental opportunity in terms of federal policy that we’re cautiously optimistic about. It’s time for progressives to put their foot down and just say “if we have a bipartisan bill on infrastructure that doesn’t address climate, that’s not acceptable”. The very infrastructure that we’re talking about is crumbling due to the climate crisis so any discussion about infrastructure without climate is not acceptable. We were hopeful for this two path approach that seems to be ironing itself out with half of the bill essentially going through budget reconciliation, but it’s tough to hold your breath for anything these days so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Joan E: Eric, thank you so much. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. And I know, it’s an interesting conversation for our listeners. Thank you for being here. 

Eric P: Thanks, Joan. Have a great day. 

 

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