Community solar projects seen as key step toward energy justice in Illinois

Community solar projects seen as key step toward energy justice in Illinois

An effort led by Chicago’s Blacks in Green has been recommended for $12.5 million in renewable energy credits to help develop three community solar projects to benefit underresourced communities.

The three projects totaling 9 MW are valued at $25.7 million and will be developed by the Green Energy Justice Cooperative, a project launched by Blacks in Green and other partners, to benefit Black, Brown and low and moderate-income subscribers in and around Aurora, Naperville, and Romeoville, Illinois. The Illinois Power Agency ranked the projects first, second and fourth among proposals vying for renewable energy credits in the Illinois Shines competition.

Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green, says the recognition is the culmination of a long effort to ensure energy independence for her community.  

“The importance of the industry was made very, very clear to me and others right from the start,” she said. “The opportunity was presenting itself with renewable energy credits that Blacks in Green and others had fought for, for over a decade to really build out the toolkit for the renewable energy industry in Illinois.”  

“We’re delighted to partner with Blacks in Green to help create new sources of renewable energy in Aurora and Romeoville through the Green Energy Justice Co-op,” said Vibhu Kaushik, senior vice president and global head of energy, utilities, and storage at Prologis in a news release. “As a member of the local business community, Prologis is focused on working with our customers, local governments, and local partners like Blacks in Green to help create a vibrant and sustainable economy.”

Launched in 2022, the Green Energy Justice Cooperative, or GEJC, strives to provide low-income communities of color with the economic and political power of owning energy generation. It coordinates the efforts of organizations that have been working toward economically and racially just ownership of local clean energy and related energy justice issues in the Chicago area for decades. 

Davis founded the Green Energy Justice Cooperative along with these board members:

Anton Seals, Grow Greater Englewood

Cheryl Johnson, People for Community Recovery

Olga Bautista, Southeast Environmental Task Force

Patricia Eggleston – Treasurer, Imani Village

Tony Pierce – Vice President, Community Transformation Ministries, Sun Bright Energy LLC and Community Transformation Partnership Power (CTP-Power)

Kendrick Hall – Secretary and alternate for Cheryl Johnson, People for Community Recovery 

The co-op also receives support and advice from Claretian Associates, North Lawndale Employment Network, Chicago Environmental Justice Network, Urban Juncture and Greenleaf Advisors.  

“This is a tremendous win for Chicago and further highlights why collective action works,” said Anton Seals, Jr., GEJC board member and Lead Steward (executive director) of Grow Greater Englewood, in a news release. “Our communities need work and opportunities to support the brilliance and creativity to build a new economy that centers new concepts for commerce and energy in Black communities across the globe.”

Co-op member organizations, both individually and collectively, have sought to implement community-based solar since the passage of Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021 that set ambitious goals for the equitable transformation of the state’s energy portfolio by 2050. Davis deliberately chose and invited members of the co-op to work alongside Blacks in Green to ensure maximum collaboration and productivity. 

“A cooperative is a democratically operated business entity. So, I was looking for people, number one, who I knew to be highly productive organizations; number two, whom I enjoyed being with and around and communicating with; [and] number three, that I trusted in a business context,” Davis said. 

“I was not going to go shopping for a headache,” Davis continued. “I was going to go shopping for the very most collegial, effective, enjoyable people to be a part of the founding board.” 

Blacks in Green’s Green Energy Justice Cooperative team is pictured at the Chicago Urban League Summit in May, 2023. From left: Wasiu Adesope, Nuri Madina, David Yocca, Naomi Davis, Mark Burger and Dennis Walker. Credit: Blacks in Green

Renters, condominium owners, and homeowners unable to install solar will be co-owners of the solar co-op and accompanying profit sharing, and will have a voice in management. The co-op will also provide workforce training and capacity development, and present residents with a hands-on opportunity to help create an equitable clean energy transition that protects the environment in their own communities.  

“This will ensure that the projects are completed and thereby demonstrate the power of solar sovereignty for ownership and wealth building by Blacks in distressed Black communities,” said Rev. Tony Pierce, GEJC board member and CEO of Sun Bright Energy, in a news release. 

The co-op’s success in the Illinois Shines competition brings it one step closer to delivering the benefits of the burgeoning clean energy transition in Illinois to underserved and marginalized communities, which have suffered the double whammy of disinvestment and disproportionate detrimental impact of the effects of climate change.  

“Given that many environmental justice communities like mine, in the far Southeast Side of Chicago, bear the brunt of climate change, this is a great opportunity to begin to undo and heal our communities from that harm,” said Olga Bautista, GEJC board member and co-executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, in a news release. 

GEJC is also supported by partners at Cooperative Energy Futures, a Minnesota-based member-owned clean energy cooperative that has developed similar models of equitable community ownership of solar projects. 

“We’re really excited to be supporting GEJC in bringing community-owned solar to GEJC’s local communities in Illinois,” said Cooperative Energy Futures General Manager Timothy DenHerder-Thomas in a news release. “Through our co-op in Minnesota, we’ve seen the power of this model in uniting communities around a clean energy future that works for renters and low-income households and makes sure local residents own and get the benefits too.” 

The three GEJC community solar projects selected by the Illinois Power Agency will be presented to the Illinois Commerce Commission, the Illinois public utility regulatory body, in January 2024 for final approval for renewable energy credit contracts. 

While this award represents a substantial win, it only represents one piece of ongoing work for Blacks in Green, whose mission Davis sums up as the establishment of a “walk to work, walk to shop, walk to learn, walk to play village, where African Americans own the businesses, own the land, and live the conservation lifestyle.”  

“We are determined to expand our clean energy businesses.” Davis said. “That means we’re working to get funding so that we can work closely with our neighbors to educate, engage, train, mobilize, finance, and otherwise support ourselves in the design and implementation of local living economies in energy, horticulture, housing, tourism, and waste. 

“We are here to, for example, decarbonize all of the buildings in our Sustainable Square Mile of West Woodlawn. And that’s no small feat to decarbonize the walkable village at scale,” Davis continued, saying that residents need to undertake weatherization measures and other costs before taking full advantage of clean energy technology

Blacks in Green’s mission also includes work on a virtual power plant and clean energy microgrid, affordable energy legislation, and geothermal power.

“So, we’re on the ground taking all of the access points to, along the way to creating a triumph for ourselves in the tradition of our great migration ancestors,” Davis said. 

And while she recognizes the importance and even necessity of philanthropy, Davis has no intention of relying solely on donors. 

“We are looking to be our own emergency management system. At the end of the day when the ‘you know what’ hits the fan, we want our communities, our walkable villages to be ready not only because they have greater health and wealth, but because they have been in the process of creating an oasis of resilience against the harms of the climate crisis” Davis said. “That’s what we’re here to do.”

Community solar projects seen as key step toward energy justice in Illinois is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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