The IL Path to 100, Wind, & ERCOT: Clean Energy Connection EP. 4

(Interview starts at 0:24:00)

 

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.  

 

Jonathan Roberts, Vice President of Development, Soltage

Jonathan leads project and business development for Solatage in the Midwest Region of the US. Jonathan has over 10 years of combined experience in the utility and solar energy industry and has personally worked on over 100MW of projects in 7 states and internationally, ranging from rooftop C&I, to utility scale solar photovoltaic systems. He currently is active in energy leadership within Engineers Without Borders USA.

 

Interview Transcript

Joan E: Back here in Illinois, one big disappointment is that the clean energy bill did not get passed. Now there is talk that within a week or two that lawmakers will come back. One of the stumbling blocks was money to keep the nuclear power plants going until the solar and other things are up and running. That was settled. Then there was the timetable for closing the coal plants. Apparently that was settled. The last thing that they couldn’t get done was the timetable for closing up the natural gas plants, that just didn’t get done. So the legislation is on hold. Senate President Don Harmon is saying that he is confident though that it will get done. And hopefully, lawmakers will come back in a week or two to make that happen. But Exelon, which runs the two nuclear power plants, were supposed to get something like $700 million to keep those plants up and running until we could get some wind power and some solar power up and running and on the grid. Because the bill didn’t get passed, the money for Exelon isn’t there and they have now said that as they had planned to do before they are going to start closing down those nuclear plants. This will throw thousands of people out of work. They’re going to start retiring the Byron plant in September, followed by the Dresden plant in November. Obviously, if the bill does get passed, in a couple of weeks, those plans could change yet again. The hope is that those nuclear plants can stay online long enough to provide power and keep people employed until there are other options for jobs and for power. We do a regular sponsored segment here on WCPT with some of the people who specialize in clean energy. We are going to be talking to them right after this.

 

Joan E: As I mentioned a moment ago, lawmakers in Springfield decided that rather than continue to hash out the clean energy bill, they really, really, really wanted to go home and have dinner. So that’s what they did. Senate President Don Harmon and others believe that lawmakers could return within a few weeks, whatever amount of time that is, that they will be back to try to vote on this clean energy bill. The bill included $700 million that the nuclear power plants could use to keep running until other sources of energy and other employers could be up and running. Capital Facts reported for a while that some senators were trying to put together some kind of stopgap bill that would provide short term help that apparently did not save the day. So now we are waiting. Shia Kapos in Illinois Playbook reporting that the legislation, if or when it is passed, will fund renewable energy. it’ll improve labor and equity standards, it could potentially create thousands of jobs in these new industries of wind and solar and basic energy efficiency. The hope was again that the Byron and Dresden plants would stay on line for a little bit longer until this transition is made. This bill was worked on by so many people yesterday, we talked to one of the people who had been very involved in the negotiations. And up until the last minute, there was really hope that this bill would get taken care of. It sets new standards. It sets a timetable for our carbon polluters to close up and go away and it creates incentives to really help Illinois become a leader in a lot of these new green technologies. So it’s in many respects kind of a win win win. 


Joan E: This segment of Joan Esposito: Live Local and Progressive is brought to you by IPS, the leader in clean energy. If you are interested in clean energy, it’s a company you should be looking into. Eric Pasi is the Chief Development Officer with IPS, and today we also have another guest Jonathan Roberts, Vice President of Development for the Midwest company. Soltage. Welcome, gentlemen. How are you both doing? 

Eric P: Well, how are you, Joan? 


Joan E: Good. Good. Jonathan, how are you? Welcome to the show. Jonathan, let’s start with you. Give us a real quick description of what Soltage does and then give me your take on what’s happening in Springfield.


Jonathan R: Absolutely! I’m Vice President of Development with Soltage. We’re based out of Jersey City, New Jersey, but I live in Chicago. We both develop and own and operate solar projects long term. So all across the country in about 14 states, we’ve got solar projects, to the tune of about 400 megawatts that we are owning and operating. Illinois was a big market for us after FEJA, and I joined the company to help lead their efforts in developing projects. Today, we have seven community solar projects that are online and operating in the state. We’re working on bringing on more, but this current legislative situation is creating some wrinkles for all of us across the renewable sector in the work that we do.

  

Joan E: Talk about what the effect is going to be for you and your company and Illinois as a whole.

  

Jonathan R: Absolutely! It kind of affects our past work or present work and our future work. Our past work with respect to the seven projects that we have online and operating. These are community solar projects that residents across Illinois in ComEd and Ameren service territories are able to sign up for and get credits on their bill and achieve savings after being able to support and sign up for solar projects. There’s a glitch in the past FEJA bill or law now. The Future Energy Jobs Act that was passed back in 2016. There’s money collected in the RPS collection on the on-bill collection that supports the renewables programs. The money must be spent within a certain time period. If it’s not paid out, it has to be refunded. So many of us, through COVID, had longer lead times supply chain issues. Many of our projects from FEJA have been built. The community solar projects; they’re out there. Steel’s on the ground, boots on the ground, building these things, turning wrenches. And now we’re online energizing, ready to operate, fulfilling our contracts respectively with Comed and Ameren and the money collected is being disbursed back, unless the legislation phase happens that creates a rollover. For our current work with the projects that we’re currently trying to develop or acquire in the Illinois market, everything’s kind of on hold until we see what’s in the legislation if that’s passed. Then of course, future work, including projects that were waitlisted in the state, from eight to 900 megawatts of projects that both Eric and I have worked on that are ready to go, shovel ready, and are kind of held hostage to this legislative impasse.

 

Joan E: Eric Pasi, as I said before, is the Chief Development Officer for Impact Power Solutions. Eric, I think you can take this one. How long for some of these projects that are in the works or some of these projects that are now in limbo? One thing we learned with COVID is that you can only be in limbo so long before you pack up your tent and say it’s just not worth it. Don Harmon is saying we’re coming back sort of “TBA, hold on. Uh, we’ll come back. We’re going to get this done.” We’re not quite sure when, but we think it’s going to be soon. What kind of a window? Does he really have to get this done before some of these projects just fall through?


 Eric P: That is a great question, Joan. You can hear it both in my voice and Jonathan’s voice. I mean, we are exhausted following this issue and the bill down in Springfield. So, you know, really what Jonathan was alluding to, which is this funding gap that we’re facing, has immediate consequences within the next, I would call it six months. So this is something that we absolutely need to address as soon as possible. It affects existing projects and existing contracts with the utility and the states and then as developers and owners of projects, with our customers. So it’s a really, really tricky issue and I think both Jonathan and I were on Twitter following this over the Memorial Day weekend, as the session wore on, late into the evening. I think I saw one of Jonathan’s tweets at like one or two AM. I hope you got some rest that weekend! But yeah, this issue is set to really hit the existing projects hard, not to mention everything, all the future investments that we’d like to make, really in the next six months.


Joan E: Jonathan,  there’s been a lot of talk about how this bill is so important for labor and equity, but nobody’s really explained exactly how that fits into this new bill. Can you explain that to me?


Jonathan R: For labor, there are provisions for both new programs that are going to come about with respect to both wind and solar development of requiring a prevailing wage for a lot of the larger projects, including the type that I build with these community solar projects, in farm fields in the countryside. There’s a big element for labor in ensuring in Illinois that living and prevailing wages are provided to the workers that are benefiting from the work opportunities in these bills. As far as equity, there are a number of very progressive ideas that are in this bill. It’s a very large bill, and includes a variety of job training opportunities for the BIPOC community and minority owned businesses. There are also provisions in a program that’s called ‘Solar For All’ that allow a substantial amount of savings for low income individuals. So there are quite a few provisions in this bill that build off of ideas from the last bill and make them bigger, better and stronger. And that’s kind of what is in the bill. As far as labor and equity. Obviously, labor also is very interested in the jobs associated around the nuclear topic that is also a part of the DNA of this bill.


Joan E: Jonathan, you mentioned that you have seven solar projects going on now or that have been completed. When you say solar projects, are you talking about a solar farm? What is the range of things that can create solar energy?


Jonathan R: Absolutely. So this bill contains the whole gamut. When I speak of my solar projects, they are more or less the solar farm, on anywhere from 10 to 20 acres, the old program had a cap of about two megawatts AC. That’s enough for about 400 average Illinois households that are subscribed to these. The bill has provisions for residential solar. There’s a number of our brothers and sisters in the industry that work for residential installers for people that put these on their house. The types of projects  that I do are for folks that maybe solar doesn’t make sense to put on their house, but they still want to participate in the savings that they add supporting carbon free electricity, and signing up to solar in this community path. There’s also utility scale provisions for the really large solar and wind projects that are also a part of this bill for how the IPA will procure these RECs, or renewable energy credits that are the key denominating unit of the output of these projects of 1000 megawatt hours of electricity per REC.


Joan E: Jonathan, do you have your own workers when you do these projects? Do you hire local people to build this stuff out?

 

Jonathan R: When we build this stuff out, we often do RFP processes just like any construction firm would. It stands for request for proposals. So we’re looking for people that have experience. These are really expensive assets, where my company brings the capital stack of the money to finance the projects to make them happen. Given how expensive and the technicality involved in constructing one of these renewable energy assets, we have to make sure that whomever we hired to do it is both qualified and capable to build the project.


Joan E: After they’re built, is there a staff that monitors them or tweaks them or keeps an eye on them? Is it a forever job for some people?


Jonathan R: On the larger projects, you definitely have dedicated staff. On our smaller projects, on these solar farms that are 10 to 20 acres, we’ll have an operations and maintenance team that’ll be hired. Often we’re looking at local companies for that type of work. They’re visiting the site anywhere from three to four times a year, as well as any of the tax revenue that comes from the tax payments on the parcels that we’re on. We’re usually also renting the land from local farmers, and providing income for them, as well as the groundskeeping personnel that are hired to take care of the land and mow it and so forth.


Joan E: Eric, or Jonathan, whichever one of you wants to handle this. I was reading a few weeks ago that one of President Biden’s proposals is to put wind turbines out off the coast in the ocean. I don’t know if that was a special location with lots of wind or if that just works. Anytime you have a body of water, do you think we could put some wind turbines out in Lake Michigan? Would that help us out in any way shape or form and is that feasible?


Eric P: Jonathan, you want to take this? I know that what you’re referring to, Joan, is regarding opening up key areas in the Gulf of Mexico, where you already have expertise in building oil and gas extraction. So definitely, though, I mean they don’t call it the Windy City for nothing. There’s lots of wind out there. But yeah, Jonathan, I don’t know if you’ve probably had a lot of these types of conversations before.


Jonathan R: I’m an engineer by training, but my heart and soul and career are in the solar industry. I know that Chicago is home to a lot of great wind energy companies, including Invenergy, for instance. We see over in Europe that they’ve really advanced in the offshore industry, in a lot of the countries and more Nordic areas. And of course, there’s a lot of wind companies out of Spain and the UK, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and they’ve really advanced the game in terms of developing offshore wind. In the United States, we have a lot of offshore construction capabilities and as Eric mentioned, in the Gulf of Mexico is a ripe opportunity, also on the east and west coast. I don’t see why we couldn’t figure something out for Lake Michigan.


Joan E: Well, after what we’ve just seen at the statehouse, I think that there’s a lot of wind in the Capitol, down in Springfield. Maybe at the statehouse we could put a couple of turbines and really have some benefit there from all of the political discussions that take place. We need to take a break. Jonathan, I know you have to go. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing with us your thoughts on this. Jonathan Roberts, Vice President of Development for Soltage, and we’ll be back with Eric Right after this.

  

Joan E: Eric, what the heck is going on in Texas? I know that they had some bad weather that led to some power problems, but they seem to be having so much trouble down there. What’s going on?


Eric P: Yeah, I, along with most of the country, have no idea what is going on down there and what they’re thinking. Right now as many of your listeners will know, there is an issue that has popped up again regarding the energy infrastructure in the state. Folks remember, back in February, ERCOT, who’s the regional operator of the grid had problems keeping their energy generation plants online and resulted in killing more than 100 people. Just on Monday this week, the ERCOT officials said that energy generators reported about 11 gigawatts of generation that were offline under repairs. To give an idea, one gigawatt powers roughly 200,000 average homes. About 80% of that is thermal generation, which includes natural gas and coal facilities. That’s over two times as much as what is typical in the state. This is causing shutdowns and really a lot of hardships. In the statement, ERCOT is asking residents to set their thermostat to 78 degrees or higher, turn off lights, cool pumps, and avoid using large appliances. This is really problematic. The advice that they’re giving is almost identical to what California was recommending last summer, during its own heat wave. We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a little bit about politics, but at that time, US Senator Ted Cruz, attacked California for conservation and represented that that was a train wreck of an energy policy. In a tweet, he went so far as to say “it’s hot everywhere, try Texas every summer. But the rest of the country doesn’t have a dysfunctional state government where you can’t turn on the lights or AC. That’s the policy failure of the dems.”That’s what he said back then, It’s so typical that this is now coming back full circle in a way that really just highlights some of that hypocrisy. Texas’s insistence that they need to go it alone by isolating their grid infrastructure is causing issues less than four months from the last disaster that hit and so that’s a snapshot of what’s going on down there.


Joan E: Well, speaking of politics, the Joe Biden infrastructure bill, do you think we’re gonna see it anytime soon? And how will that help the clean energy industry?


Eric P: You’ve seen this group of 10 senators that announced the bipartisan $1 trillion spending package earlier this month, and that was spearheaded by Senators Sinema, Manchin and Portman, the Republican from Ohio. The issue with that is that Democrats said they would negotiate with Republicans on a bill that focused on traditional transportation. If a deal can’t be reached, then Democrats would fold that into a larger climate bill. The initial package now is this bipartisan bill that seems to be wavering. Focus is now coming back to a larger package that may be passed through reconciliation and so the main confrontation here was really within the Democratic Party. This two pronged approach, passing a more simple, traditional infrastructure package, and then trying to focus on climate is like having your dessert before the main course. Senator Ed Markey, a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, is very adamant that there needs to be a guaranteed deal on climate in the infrastructure package that is consistent with what the crisis demands. We’re at an inflection point here, quite frankly, where the Democrats need to decide if this issue is something that they’re going to need to take up. I think the answer is yes. We’re gonna see how that unfolds over the next week. It sounds like Biden is going to make a decision with or without the Republican support by next week. I think we’ll start to see what that looks like. In terms of what that means for the climate, the $1 trillion package does have some of the elemental components to what we need to succeed in it. That would include the extension and basically making the existing tax incentives permanent for wind, solar, and then also new technology like batteries and energy storage. At the very minimum, I think that passes. Things are generally going in the right direction, but as you know, we have really only about 15 years to turn this massive ship that is the global economy around to be consistent with what we need to do to positively correct the climate crisis.


Joan E: We’re at an inflection point it feels like, the way things are in Washington. It’s hard to believe that everything we want the way we want it is going to get passed, but I still have hope. Nancy Pelosi said she’s not given up on Joe Manchi and so you know, I hope there’s reconciliation. There’s lots of different ways, lots of different angles. Hey, Eric, how long has solar been around? Is it 30 years?


Eric P: Solar has been around since the 1950s. Our company, though, is celebrating our 30th year in business, this month actually, and we’re very blessed to be one of the oldest and longest standing solar specific solar companies in the country. We couldn’t have done that without really good policy. I’ll tie this back to what we’re really hoping for, which is that we’re optimistic that the Illinois legislature can take up the energy issue and come to a positive resolution, on behalf of clean energy. You heard it in Jonathan’s voice, you can hear it in mine, there’s a lot of discomfort, and really, borderline desperation that we really need this legislation to save jobs in Illinois, and really to also to affect the climate crisis in a positive way. We would urge all your listeners to please call your state legislators and tell them how much the climate and clean energy jobs mean to them. Jonathan talked a little bit about the equity components of this bill, really focusing on BIPOC owned businesses and communities. There is a lot to be celebrated in this bill, and frankly, we just need to come to a resolution on a few key points regarding jobs in natural gas and the nuclear industry. I think we can do that, but one place to start, as I mentioned in the last few segments, is Illinoissolar.org. That will bring your listeners to the website for our trade association, who’s really rallying behind legislators and trying to get this thing across the finish line. Again, thank you and I very much appreciate the platform that you’re able to provide for Jonathan and myself to just talk a little bit about how this affects our community and how this affects our planet,


Joan E: There are so many people who want this to happen, whether or not we get what we want on the federal level in the way we want it. I think that here in the state of Illinois, this bill is definitely going to become law. I really think that there are just too many groups that support it. Eric, thank you so much. I really appreciate your talking about this and you always make things so understandable. Thank you for being here.


Eric P: Yes, thank you, Joan. Hopefully  we’ll see some sunshine at the state legislature and have solar there instead of wind, right?


Joan E: Yes, that would be lovely!