MATTOON -- How can Coles County benefit from a clean energy economy that cuts energy costs and creates jobs? That was the discussion initiated when local residents, area leaders, experts, and elected officials gathered at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in Mattoon for a Future Energy Community Conversation.
According to a press release, Coles Progressives worked with Prairie Rivers Network, Citizens Utility Board, and Faith in Place, all Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (ICJC) partners, to organize the facilitated conversation about Illinois’ clean energy future. The ICJC successfully championed the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), historic and bipartisan legislation that helps Illinois meet its goal to obtain 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.
"Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act is proof that great things happen when we come together with the goal of achieving a clean, equitable energy future," said Amanda Pankau, Energy Campaign coordinator with Prairie Rivers Network. "The Mattoon turnout shows that people in Coles County are eager to gain from the economic, environmental, and health benefits that come with clean energy."
Event participants discussed topics of clean energy, carbon-free power, and electric vehicles, as well as their associated economic benefits and jobs. The cost-saving opportunities and environmental benefits that solar and energy efficiency upgrades offer customers were key topics of interest to the attendees, although they expressed concern for the need to ensure these benefits reach rural electric cooperative customers.
Attendees were also eager to explore creative ways to take advantage of the new opportunities created by FEJA, such as repurposing empty factories to provide permanent renewable energy manufacturing jobs for local workers and using land that can’t be farmed, like landfills, for community solar panel installations.
“We were very pleased to be joined by representatives from the City of Charleston, Coles County Board, Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative, and several candidates for office,” said Annalisa Switzer, co-chair of Coles Progressives. “We know our local governments at the city and county levels work hard to improve all our lives, so we’re hopeful that they will be proactive with education campaigns and renewable energy projects to ensure we get our share of the economic benefits sooner rather than later.”
The evening concluded with an expert panel of representatives from Straight Up Solar, New Prairie Construction, and Tick Tock Energy, as well as Joe Tillman, instructor and sustainability coordinator from Lake Land College, and Dr. Peter Ping Liu, professor and director of the Center for Clean Energy Research and Education at Eastern Illinois University.
“Solar is a good fit for Coles County,” said Tillman. “The college has 351 kW of solar PV as well as the ability to make 800+ gallons of solar heated water daily. Both systems have exceeded our expectations.”
The panel fielded questions about the economics of a potential “clean” coal plant in Coles County, agreeing that the price of coal-fired power would be uneconomical given the low cost of natural gas and the falling costs of utility scale solar and wind.
“According to a recent report from Lazard, a financial advisory firm, the cost of producing electricity from solar is now half the cost of producing it from coal.” said Pankau. “We’re seeing coal-fired power plants all around the state talk about closing their doors. Opening a new coal plant in today’s energy economy is not a good strategy for long-term economic benefits.”
When the discussion turned to moving away from coal-fired power, the majority of event participants hoped to see transition plans in place that include economic development, coal ash clean-up, and worker retraining and job placement for coal plant communities.
Liu ended the evening by saying, “Tonight’s event has given me hope.”
Switzer echoed that sentiment, stating, “The residents of Coles County are poised to benefit directly from the renewable energy revolution. We just have to be forward thinking and continue the conversation we started tonight.”
Convention speaker Nicholas Gordon with Prairie Solar of Urbana will be holding a meeting for interested homeowners at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Charleston Public Library in Rotary Rooms A and B.
Solar panel installations for homeowners and businesses will be discussed, as well as a "group buy" option that will lower the price for everyone if many people/businesses are interested. This event has been arranged by the Charleston Huddle.