Experts Only Podcast #102:

With J.C. Kibbey, an Illinois Clean Energy Advocate for NRDC

[ Illinois Clean Energy Advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) ]

Listen now:

Transcript

Jon Powers:

Welcome back to Experts Only. I’m your host Jon Powers. I’m the co-founder of CleanCapital and served as President Obama’s chief sustainability officer. On this podcast, we explore solutions to climate change by talking to industry leaders about the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance. You can get more episode to cleancapital.com.

Jon Powers:

Welcome back to Experts Only. I’m your host Jon Powers. As many of you know, recently in Illinois, there was a monumental piece of legislation passed, the Climate and Equitable Jobs act recently signed by Governor Pritzker there. And what it does is it presents a binding 100% carbon free energy standard by 2045, and really establishes Illinois as a national leader in terms of equitable clean energy policy. Today, we speak with JC Kibbey, who is with the National Resource Defense Council and is an Illinois clean energy advocate and has really has been monumental in pushing that legislation forward. He and I sort of talk through the legislation itself and the opportunities it presents for investing and developing clean energy in Illinois. It’s a little bit different than our standard episode, but I really wanted to get into the heart of this so people can understand the new legislation that’s out there today. As always, you can get more episodes at cleancapital.com and I hope you enjoy the conversation. JC, thanks so much for joining me at Experts Only

JC Kibbey:

So glad to be here, Jon, thanks for having me.

Jon Powers:

Well, first of all, thanks for your leadership. Really driving through a monumental piece of legislation in Illinois and for the audience, we’re going to talk in depth about what it means for clean energy there. But before we do that, you work for an amazing organization, the Natural resources Defense Council, NRDC. For those folks that aren’t familiar with NRDC, can you just let folks know some of the work you do, NRDC does, both nationally and at the state level?

JC Kibbey:

Sure. So, we’ve been around for just over 50 years. We celebrated our 50th birthday last year, we’re one of the largest environmental organizations in the country. We have about 800 staff, now, in offices all around from Chicago to New York and LA and other places. And we have a membership, I think that’s like 2 million or so now. And we do a lot of different work. We do policy advocacy, we do legal work and litigation. We’re getting more into organizing. So, one of the things that I love about working here is we kind of do a little bit of everything. We’re not just lawyers, we’re not just legislative advocates. So, it’s really cool to have the whole package at one organization. We do some city work through a project we have right now called The American Cities Climate Challenge.

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

Some of that work is here in Chicago. So we’re working on…

Jon Powers:

Is that in partnership with the Bloomberg Foundation? Is that the Bloomberg Initiative?

JC Kibbey:

Yep. We got some support from Bloomberg for that. So, we’re working with a lot of other stakeholders on a plan to decarbonize the city of Chicago, including buildings and other parts of that. At the state level, I mostly work on climate energy issues. And, obviously, what we’re going to talk about today, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act is a big part of that, but we also work in other policy areas. Some of my colleagues are doing great work on water, on freight, on land use. There’s a lot of environmental justice issues here in the city…

Jon Powers:

Sure.

JC Kibbey:

… in terms of nasty industrial processes that are being done right next to people’s homes. So, a lot of different types of work happening and that’s just in Illinois. So…

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

JC Kibbey:

… an exciting time.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I think for folks that aren’t familiar about the role that NRDC plays, or organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, it’s groups like this that really help policy makers understand the art of the possible with policy. Because, many times when, and I’ve worked with a lot of NRDC folks in the white house when I was there, when you’re in those jobs, you don’t have time to actually think about where you’re heading. So, having that homework done on your behalf and really bringing in the thought leadership is so critical and really designing the climate solutions that we need to address the problem. So, thanks for all the work you guys are doing at NRDC.

JC Kibbey:

Thank you, Jon. Absolutely. Yeah. Had a lot of opportunities to collaborate in the way that you’re talking about with some really great policy makers here in Illinois in the last couple years. So maybe we can dive more into that.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, for sure. So, this is a little bit of a unique episode for the listeners where we are really going to dive hardcore into Illinois, really looking at the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act that recently was signed by Governor Pritzker there, and really is a monumental roadmap for addressing climate change in Illinois and taking some of the best lessons learned from places like California, Massachusetts, and New York, and putting them into a strategy that’s going to work well for the state. Before, JC, we talk about that solution and the opportunity and the path that you all pushed to get this thing signed. Can you just paint a picture for folks of Illinois today, before this got signed, what’s the situation there in terms of energy and climate?

JC Kibbey:

Sure. So, before this, what we had on the books was a renewable portfolio standard, which is a measure that requires you to get a certain percentage of your energy from clean sources, like wind and solar, a renewable portfolio standard of 25% by 2025. And that had actually been unchanged since like the late oughts. There was a bill a few years ago called the Future Energy Jobs Act or FEJA. And that fixed the funding for the renewable portfolio standard, which had been broken for reasons that are complicated, and I won’t go into here, but the RPS had stalled out in the 20 teens because of a funding issue. That bill fixed it, it did some other things like create some programs that focused on job training in communities that needed them the most and low income solar. And as we’ll see, those helped to set the stage for some of the things that we really did more at scale and in a more ambitious way under the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act or CEJA, which is what we just passed a couple of weeks ago.

JC Kibbey:

There also, as some folks know, had been some tumult in the last couple of years with corruption issues that had arisen…

Jon Powers:

Sure.

JC Kibbey:

… by some of our utilities here, CommEd. So there was a scandal where they had to pay a substantial sum of money and the Illinois speaker ended up stepping down and there’s a federal investigation now. So, all this happened on the backdrop of some of this utility corruption. And I think what we’ll get into is that some of the measures in the bill to reform the way utilities do business and put higher ethical standards on utilities, was a reaction to some of those things that we saw in the past.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. I wanted to ask about that, because if you think about… I often paint Illinois a little bit like Virginia, where dominion really holds sway, and it was a major push to get them to change. Same in Illinois, you guys have done a monumental push to get the utilities in line to make progress here. How much of their stumbles over the last few years basically gave you the political space to create this sort of monumental piece of legislation?

JC Kibbey:

I think it was really important. I mean, I think the necessity to make some of these reforms and to implement some of these ethics measures was always there.

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

But I think the fact that literally the utilities were not in the room when we were writing these policies allowed us to have a really different kind of conversation and to design policies that, first and foremost, were addressing equity, addressing climate change, creating affordable, clean energy solutions and not necessarily focused on what was best for the utilities. And so I think that this drew attention to the undue power that they had had on the process and the limiting effect that they had had, unfortunately, on some of our clean energy policies and with that renewed attention and with them not necessarily in the center of the conversation, you can find several places where Governor Pritzker, among others, very clearly said, “The utilities will not be writing this energy policy.”

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

That allowed us to do things that we would not have otherwise been able to do.

Jon Powers:

So, let’s talk about what’s in this legislation, because it really is a phenomenal, sort of, roadmap and really one of the first of its kind not just to adjust a carbon free economy and a carbon free energy standard, but also really tackling an equitable, clean energy future. Climate justice is talked about a lot and things that have passed in the previous to this, maybe mentioned it, but there’s a really fascinating roadmap here around jobs and access. So, for folks that aren’t aware the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act really will make Illinois the first state in the Midwest to have a 100% carbon free energy standard by 2045. And that’s binding as well as a national leader in terms of clean energy policy that’s equitable. So, what are some of the main components of this piece of legislation that drive that?

JC Kibbey:

Sure. Well, first, just to expand a bit on the 100% carbon free standard, which we’re really proud of and worked really hard for, and frankly, there were folks at the beginning of this who said that just wasn’t possible and in a state like Illinois, and I think it’s exciting that we’re passing policies that help redefine what is possible, because if we’re going to have…

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

… a policy response that’s anywhere near the scale of what we need to address the climate crisis, we are going to have to continually be redefining what is possible. So, one key policy measure I’ll note there is that there are interim emissions reduction. So, it’s not just run till 2045 and then carbon falls off a cliff, but there is a sort of a gradual phase out of fossil fuel plants. And within that, we prioritize phasing out the dirtiest fuels first and also those plants that are most proximate to environmental justice communities. And so, I don’t know for certain if we’re the first state in the country to explicitly-

Jon Powers:

Who holds that responsibility to create that map? Setting that priority.

JC Kibbey:

Yeah. So it’s laid out pretty explicitly in the legislation. It prioritizes… The whole methodology is a little bit complicated

Jon Powers:

My question’s really about who then holds the scorecard and is the one that’s saying, “Okay, these are the ones that we’re going after first.”

JC Kibbey:

So what it is, is that it prioritizes plants for emissions reductions that are within three miles of environmental justice communities, or disinvested communities and the environmental justice community definition was developed over a period of years through processes that the Illinois Power Agency originally as part of the low income solar program here.

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

But I think the key part to note there is that the environmental justice communities themselves were at the table in the development of that definition. They literally helped to write it. And so the key thing here is that this is not some arbitrary definition or one that was developed just with a bunch of policy makers or whatever, but was developed over period of years with direct input and leader it by the EJ communities themselves.

Jon Powers:

Excellent. So, as you have the off ramping of some of these dirtier plants, these fossil plants, and the onboarding of more and more renewables, one of the things we’ve had trouble with in Illinois is financiers of the program. Because there’s been this relatively constant shift in policy there, right? It’s hard to wrap our heads around, “Okay, if we’re going to invest in something like the Illinois Solar for All program, how do we even manage the revenue on this for 20 years?” Right? Because that’s when a lot of folks are looking for terms of these investments. So, what does this do to begin to bring certainty to the marketplace in Illinois to increase the outside capital that’s going to be needed to expand the footprint of the clean energy industry there?

JC Kibbey:

Yes. Well, as you noted, or as I noted earlier, Jon, there have been historical hiccups with the stability of that funding, and we had come upon one just again this year, what some people in the renewable energy industry had called the solar cliff…

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

… where the level of renewables funding that was allocated to our RPS in 2016 really was not adequate to the scale that we needed to build at. So, this significantly increases, more than doubles, the amount of funding on an annual basis for the renewable portfolio standard. So it’s $580 million a year are going to be invested in the RPS. And that is ramping us up to a 40% renewable portfolio standard by 2030 and a 50% portfolio standard by 2040.

Jon Powers:

Interesting. Can we break down Solar for All within this, for a second? Can you explain to the audience what that program is and then how, when you’re looking at, maybe, a development of an asset, how would you view that project and the off take of that project? Because it’s much different than if you had a PPA with Walmart and in Illinois, this is a program it’s very similar to community solar, but it has certain sort of paid incentive structured around it.

JC Kibbey:

Sure. So, I would be remiss here if I didn’t acknowledge that I am not the foremost expert on Solar for All in our coalition. And there’s a lot of other really great folks at environmental justice organizations, like Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and others who have worked really hard on this and are intimately familiar with it. So for my part, I will say high level, the Illinois Solar for All program is a program that is designed to specifically provide solar energy, essentially, at no cost and actually at guaranteed bill savings, for people in Illinois who have low incomes. And the funding on Solar for All I think was at about $10 million the year before and is being increased by five x. So, we’re looking at that $50 million.

Jon Powers:

They burn through that in a heartbeat. They burn through that 10 million bucks in a heartbeat.

JC Kibbey:

Yeah. So there’s a lot of demand for this low income solar, and this is really sort of in microcosm, what we’re trying to do with this bill, which is not just create a bunch of clean energy, although we are doing that, but also make sure that that clean energy, the benefits of it flow to the people who need it most. So, I think, historically, there’s been an issue with solar being seen as something that only white, affluent…

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

… suburbanites can get, and so this is intended, and is, and will provide access to the solar energy, including the economic benefits in the form of lower bills to people with low incomes and people in disadvantaged communities.

Jon Powers:

So, I want to move past solar for a second. Let’s talk about sort of transportation and, and Navys and, and some of the incentives that were based on that, because that’s such a major part of the emissions’ portfolio in Illinois. What put in place to incentivize both EVs and, and more clean public transportation in Illinois?

JC Kibbey:

Sure. So I think the most digestible, but maybe not the most important piece of the transportation section of this bill, is that there is a $4,000 rebate for electric vehicles and that will be income qualified. And there’s going to be a process to figure out exactly what that cutoff is. And this is actually something that we… We looked at what California went through a few years ago with their EV rebate program where it originally was not income qualified, and then it turned out that a huge amount of these rebates had been going to people with really high incomes who didn’t actually need them.

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

So, then they changed it to income…

Jon Powers:

They were buying Teslas. Yeah.

JC Kibbey:

… qualified. Yeah, exactly.

Jon Powers:

Exactly.

JC Kibbey:

So, we figured we would just skip that step and get right to the part where we’re providing EV rebates to people who need it most, because a lot of rich folks who want a Tesla are going to go out and buy one anyway and don’t really need the rebate. So there’s both, I think, an efficiency argument and an equity argument to that part of it.

Jon Powers:

Sure.

JC Kibbey:

There are also rebates for electric vehicle charging infrastructure because you can’t drive an EV unless you have a way to charge it. And there is going to be transportation electrification plans that the utilities have to put forward and that are reviewed and approved at the Illinois Commerce Commission because everybody can’t just go out and buy an electric vehicle and a charger and then we’re done. There’s a lot of preparation that has to happen at the grid level to make sure…

Jon Powers:

Totally.

JC Kibbey:

… the grid can support it, to make sure that that charging is happening at times that are most optimal. And there’s both a pollution and a consumer reason for that. And to make sure that the grid is prepared for heavy duty fleets and public transit. And there is a portion of the utility system investments that are going to have to go towards heavy duty vehicles and, in particular, in low income communities, because in addition to the really serious climate impacts of transportation, there are criteria pollutants that drive health problems disproportionately…

Jon Powers:

There, of course. Yeah.

JC Kibbey:

… in disadvantaged communities. So, we want to make sure that we’re attentive to that too.

Jon Powers:

Fascinating. So, one of the key components that I think so important too, is the focus on opportunity jobs for those communities. Because there’s no doubt that clean economy is really beginning to boom. We’re seeing it today. A lot of us in the marketplace today are actually having trouble hiring because the job market’s hot, but two, there needs to be continued training and apprenticeship programs and other sort of key aspects to folks that are coming into this industry. Illinois is obviously very strong from that perspective, from a union perspective, in the past. What does this bill do to help create the sort of 21st century workforce to really drive that economy there?

JC Kibbey:

Sure. So, the workforce development and equity provisions of this bill are hugely exciting. And I think some pieces like the de carbonization were kind of just running up with the rest of the path, nationally. But I think that this is actually nation leading. I’m not aware of any other states that have done this at the scale that we’re talking about. So, this is intended to invest in both the workforce and the entrepreneurship and business side of the clean energy economy and to do it in a way that’s specifically targets against disadvantaged communities. So, on the workforce side… and all that funding together is about $115 million a year, which is really meaningful.

Jon Powers:

Yeah, for sure.

JC Kibbey:

So, it creates workforce training hubs all over the state. There are 13 of them and that was done with inputs from the of communities to understand where they’re most needed.

JC Kibbey:

And those are job training programs that folks can get into and learn how to participate in the clean energy economy. But importantly, and this is a lesson that we learned from the last bill that we did here, that job training can’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not going to do everything you want it to do if it just exists as a job training program floating out there. So, the focus here was having a pipeline that flows all the way through from making sure that people are aware of these programs, and that is funded as well, and support something called energy transition navigators, which are community based organizations that do the outreach and the recruitment to make sure that the people who are most in need of these programs know about them and get into them. Once they’re into the programs, there’s a stipend available to make sure that these programs are accessible.

JC Kibbey:

So, if you need childcare, if you need transportation, those can be real barriers to participating in these programs. There’s a stipend available to make sure that you can do these things and participate. And then finally there are incentives on the backend to make sure that the people who come out of these job training programs, that there’s an incentive for the renewable energy developers to hire them. So again, it’s a whole pipeline with support systems…

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

… and outreach in it to make sure that people get these jobs. On the entrepreneurship side, there’s a clean energy contractor incubator, which is also across the state, which is to provide support. How do you get financing? How do you do your books? How do you do HR to provide that? Folks who are in Chicago know about 1871, which is a tech incubator here, this is the same idea except for clean energy businesses, because especially getting capital and developing the social capital and the know how is one of the obstacles for people in disadvantaged communities to starting businesses. And so it’s making sure they have those support so that they’re not just employees in the workforce, but that they’re all so entrepreneurs and CEOs on the business side of the clean energy economy.

Jon Powers:

So, developers, financiers, they want to learn more how to get involved in Illinois and start bringing capital into the space. Can you talk about some of the resources out there to help people understand this legislation better?

JC Kibbey:

Like where they can go literally to learn more…

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

JC Kibbey:

… about what’s in the bill? Yeah.

Jon Powers:

Yeah.

JC Kibbey:

So, I’ve got a blog post up on this that a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about here, that it just dives into in more detail…

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

A lot of other organizations have done write ups as well. There is going to be agency involvement and buy-in with all this. So, look for processes is coming up at the Illinois Commerce Commission to do grid planning at the Illinois Power Agency to set up the next procurement for renewable energy, which is going to be a lot bigger. And so if you’re actually interested in coming and investing in this state, those may be processes that you want to keep an eye on or even participate in.

Jon Powers:

Excellent. And then, I know you guys have done a lot with our friends at Vote Solar in the past. So, through this, can you talk for a second, just for folks that are not as familiar with just the mechanics of moving this through a state capital like that, how does NRDC, for instance, and Vote Solar and others work in tandem to move such an important piece of legislation forward?

JC Kibbey:

Sure. Well, we’re for fortunate here in Illinois to have a big, broad and deep coalition it’s called the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, both us and Vote Solar are members of that. It also includes some labor groups, it includes a lot of community and environmental justice groups, it includes faith groups, clean energy businesses, a lot of different folks who are a part of that. And it’s from all over the state. And so that coalition is where we do most of the coordination. That coalition is where we developed a lot of the policies that eventually became the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. That coalition is where we did community meetings all over the state, more than 70, before we even started writing the bill…

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

… to hear from people from every corner of the state, what they wanted to have in it. And so this coalition worked with elected officials and industry stakeholders and others to actually move this bill through the legislature. I don’t know if you want to get into the

Jon Powers:

Part of my question sort of leads to the next, is just, okay, now this is past, right? I mean, one of the things we see up here in rural New York is significant campaigning obstacles too, for instance, bringing solar to farmlands, right? Those are very well funded and many would argue Koch brother esque campaigns, what does a coalition now do going forward to make sure that the utilities that are on their heels, for instance, don’t come back aggressively and undercut this stuff and just make sure that over the next few years, the implementation of this legislation continues to go forward. I mean, NRDC is a real leader in this. So, what do you sort of see in the horizon to continue to push that forward?

JC Kibbey:

Yeah, well, I think, we’re definitely going to be along with many of our allies out there communicating to the public about what is in this and why it matters. We’re going to be at all the different implementation dockets, like I said, at ICC and many other places. So, the folks who want this to go well, it’s important that we show up and actually participate in those processes because, as you said, sometimes folks who don’t want this to work will come in and try to gum up the works…

Jon Powers:

For sure.

JC Kibbey:

… as part of those processes. So we need to make sure that not only our organization is engaged on the technical side of this, but that the public knows what’s going on, and this is all done as much out in the sunlight as possible. And I think we’ve opened the door for more of that through some of the utility ethics and utility planning reforms that we’ve done in this bill, where before the way that our grid investments got planned is, basically, utilities put forward a plan, it was more or less a black box, it got approved by the state utility regulators pretty quickly and usually without any changes to it. And so they were kind of writing their own check.

Jon Powers:

Right.

JC Kibbey:

And so, one of the processes, to your point, that’s coming up now, that’s going to be really important for us to all pay attention to are these workshops and docket it’s at the Illinois Commerce Commission to revamp the way we do our grid planning and revamp the way utilities get paid. So, not to get too far into the weeds, but we’re going to start doing performance based regulation here in Illinois, where utilities get paid based on, among other things, their ability to enable more clean energy and to invest in the communities that need it the most. And so, and a lot of other things too, there’s going to be more transmission planning, which obviously is tremendously important for clean energy. So, that docket is going to be critical to get it right, because the grid is what enables all the renewable energy development. Similarly, at the Illinois Power Agency on the renewables side, there’s a process there that is going to determine how much renewables get procured, where, and at what price, et cetera. And that also would encourage folks to participate strongly in.

Jon Powers:

Yeah. One of the reasons I raise it, it’s super important for all the listeners to think about how you can support this type of initiative and either one, bringing your voice to the table during these hearings or two, just go to places like nrdc.org and donate so that some of the funds can be used to help push these type of campaigns. JC, we really appreciate one, the work you’re doing to move the ball there and adjust climate change in Illinois. And second, just be on the show and help with walking us through this.

JC Kibbey:

Cool, thanks so much for having me, Jon great conversation.

Jon Powers:

Absolutely. And we will definitely link to your blog on the website and push folks that are looking to learn more and specifically wanted to thank Kyler Sumter and JC’S team and our production team, Colleen Young and Carly Battin. As always, you can get more episodes at cleancapital.com. And I look forward to continuing the conversation.