As Illinois Coal Jobs Disappear, Some Are Looking to the Sun
While Illinois phases out coal, clean energy jobs hold promise—both for displaced coal workers, and those harmed by the fossil fuel economy.
Matt Reuscher was laid off a decade ago from Peabody Energy’s Gateway coal mine in Southern Illinois, in the midst of a drought that made the water needed to wash the coal too scarce and caused production to drop, as he remembers it.
Reuscher’s grandfather and two uncles had been miners, and his father — a machinist — did much work with the mines. Like many young men in Southern Illinois, it was a natural career choice for Reuscher. Still in his early 20s when he was laid off, Reuscher “spent that summer doing odds and ends, not really finding much of anything I enjoyed doing as much as being underground.”
By fall of 2012, he started working installing solar panels for StraightUp Solar, one of very few solar companies operating in the heart of Illinois coal country. He heard about the job through a family friend and figured he’d give it a try since he had a construction background. He immediately loved the work, and he’s become an evangelist for the clean energy shift happening nationwide, if more slowly in Southern Illinois. With colleagues, he fundraised to install solar panels in tiny villages on the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua, and he became a solar electrician and worked on StraightUp Solar installations powering the wastewater treatment center and civic center in Carbondale, Illinois — a town named for coal.
Solar installation pays considerably less than coal mining, Reuscher acknowledges, but he feels it’s a safer and healthier way to support his family — including two young sons who love the outdoors as much as he does.
“You work with people who are really conscious about the environment. That rubs off on me and then rubs off on them,” Reuscher notes, referring to his sons.
Illinois has more than a dozen coal mines and more than a dozen coal-fired power plants that are required to close or reach zero carbon emissions by 2030 (for privately-owned plants) or 2045 (for the state’s two publicly-owned plants), though most will close much sooner due to market forces. Reaching zero carbon emissions would entail complete carbon capture and sequestration, which has not been achieved at commercial scale anywhere in the United States.
Coal mines also frequently lay off workers, as the industry is in financial duress, though Illinois coal is bolstered by a healthy export market. A “just transition” — which refers to providing jobs and opportunities for workers and communities impacted by the decline of fossil fuels — has been an increasing priority of environmental movements nation-wide, and was a major focus of Illinois’ 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA). The idea is that people long burdened by fossil fuel pollution and dependent on fossil fuel economies should benefit from the growth of clean energy. Reuscher’s story is a perfect example.
But in Illinois, as nationally, his transition is a rarity. Solar and other clean energy jobs have more often proven not to be an attractive or accessible option for former coal workers. And advocates and civic leaders have prioritized a broader and also difficult goal: striving to provide clean energy opportunities for not only displaced fossil fuel workers, but for those who have been harmed by fossil fuels or left out of the economic opportunities fossil fuels provided.
A hard sell
CEJA builds on provisions in a state law that was implemented in 2017, the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), that created workforce training hubs and small business accelerators focused on solar and energy efficiency jobs. CEJA expanded those programs and created new just transition components, including scholarships available for the children of fossil fuel workers, and mandates that the state help support municipalities that lose a substantial portion of their tax base when power plants close.
Advocates cheered CEJA’s passage as an historic and nation-leading example of embedding equity in the clean energy shift, and people have already been trained and employed in the state’s burgeoning solar industry.
But the trainings and clean energy jobs have thus far not proven popular with workers from coal power plants and mines. Elevate, the organization that ran the job training and equity components of FEJA, could not point to any specific former coal worker who has gone through the programs, and this reporter’s many interviews with solar developers, former coal miners, community leaders and elected officials over the past few years have revealed only a few coal workers entering or considering the clean energy economy.
“They’re different types of jobs — at a coal plant you’re going to one location, nine to five, every day. With solar you’re moving around, it’s a different type of work, it’s learning a new skill,” said Delmar Gillus Jr., chief operating officer of Elevate. “If someone has been working in a coal plant or coal mine for 25 years and they’re used to going to the same location with their friends, being an expert in their field, stopping that and engaging in something new would be daunting.”
William Higgs is community resource coordinator for Elevate and hosts a radio show about clean energy in Carbondale in the far south of the state.
“It is historically coal country — coal is not just a fuel source, it’s part of the regional identity,” said Higgs. “Whenever you’re trying to shift the conversation away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, there’s this knee-jerk reaction to want to cling to coal. That puts up a cultural barrier.”
Thus far, workers from closed coal plants in Illinois have often retired, been transferred to another power plant or continued working at coal plants that have transitioned to natural gas. But more workers will be laid off as more coal plants close, and CEJA also mandates natural gas plants close or cut all carbon emissions by 2045. (The law’s just transition components also cover the state’s financially distressed nuclear plants.)
Mining, meanwhile, is often the best-paying job available in rural, economically struggling central and southern parts of Illinois. But the highly automated “long-wall” method used in most Illinois mines requires relatively few employees. Unlike in decades past, there are no unionized mines in Illinois. The industry relies heavily on contractors without job security or good benefits, and the work is tiring and dangerous. Hence, people in those regions seemingly might embrace new opportunities. While most solar developers are not unionized, they often work with IBEW union electricians on installations. And CEJA mandates prevailing wage be paid, and often union workers are hired, for larger utility-scale solar installations developed by power companies.
Reuscher hopes more miners and power plant workers will consider solar, especially as the industry grows.
“There are actually a lot of similarities between coal and solar, a lot of things I did transferred over,” he said. “You take pride in your work, you take care of each other, there’s good camaraderie in both. With solar there’s awareness growing of it being a stable construction trade, versus random people showing up and installing stuff on your roof.”
Living in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Twiggy Hamilton’s family was among the many “energy-burdened” — paying a disproportionate share of their income for electricity and gas. Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods, with majority Black and Latinx populations, for decades also suffered serious air pollution from two coal-fired power plants that closed in 2012, even as few local residents were employed in those plants.
“As a person growing up in a minority, low-income household, I felt the energy burden and those disparities, but I wasn’t able to put those into words,” said Hamilton, who spent her childhood in New York and then moved to Bronzeville with her family.
She was studying at City Colleges of Chicago when she took a renewable energy class with professor John Brophy that ignited her interest in clean energy. Brophy, the City Colleges’ director of sustainability and energy management, told her about a solar job training — a program created by FEJA — at Wilbur Wright College, one of the City Colleges. Hamilton enrolled and loved it. The course involved on-site, hands-on training in solar installation and electrical engineering, as well as policy and administrative skills. Hamilton joined hundreds of other trainees and advocates in a clean energy lobby day at the state capitol just before the pandemic hit, where they demanded passage of an earlier version of CEJA.
“I like to say we were a visual representation of what it means to invest in a diverse solar workforce,” Hamilton said of her fellow trainees. “This is a visual representation of how you can benefit the community and change people’s lives.”
Today, Hamilton works as a policy analyst for the Brooklyn-based solar company. She got an internship with the company through a New York state clean energy program, and was hired afterwards.
“I appreciated so much the knowledge I gained, and the experience I had in the (City Colleges) program,” she said. “It gave me the confidence and practical background to land in the role I have today.”
Brophy emphasized that clean energy shouldn’t be seen necessarily as a distinct sector, but as inherent to many fields. The City Colleges of Chicago offer training and education in the state’s booming cannabis industry and in transportation and logistics, for example, realms where energy efficiency and clean energy are increasingly central.
“These types of programs are the future, not just for funding purposes, but this is what the students want,” Brophy said.
The prospects for solar jobs and trainings dimmed during the pandemic, as contagion concerns stalled solar work and coincided with the expiration of state solar incentives. But CEJA renewed and increased the incentives, and rebooted the state’s solar industry.
“We’re happy to see how it’s all working out,” Brophy said. “Before CEJA passed, it was tight for a minute there. Not only was funding for our programs [in jeopardy], but we didn’t want to build a bridge to nowhere. Now we see all these moving parts come together in one direction again.”
Advocates said they’d like to see more trainings housed at community colleges in downstate Illinois, perhaps using the City Colleges as a model, since coal country residents have long depended on community colleges to provide vocational training and affordable education. John A. Logan College in Carterville has offered solar training, but most other community colleges in the heart of coal country so far have not, according to workforce development leaders and calls to colleges.
Solar installations, solar jobs
Solar advocates note that unlike manufacturing industries closed in decades past, the installation of solar panels can’t be off-shored or outsourced. Solar installation jobs are inherently local. But for these jobs to exist at all, there needs to be local demand for solar power. Thus far, solar installations funded by state incentives have been clustered in the Chicago area, Champaign-Urbana and the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, with relatively few in rural parts of Southern and Central Illinois.
But in Southern Illinois municipalities like Marion and Carbondale, there is increasing interest in solar power, local leaders say. That could be especially true when a program like Illinois Solar for All — created by FEJA and expanded by CEJA — provides significant savings on energy bills with little risk. Under Illinois Solar for All, a household, church, school or other non-profit institution can install solar at basically zero upfront cost and save on their utility bills; Elevate said single-family customers have seen an average annual savings of $911.
Saxon Metzger is a project developer for StraightUp Solar. He noted that Illinois coal country towns have “some of the highest rates of poverty, racial disparities, lack of services, food deserts. Utility bills are something some people can get in the mail and pay and throw away. For individuals really in poverty, those utility bills can mean the question of what other things they can do without.”
Solar panels that cut energy bills in half could be a lifeline for struggling families, grassroots groups or public entities.
“You can’t have a climate transition without economic justice, something we really hope to do with solar,” said Metzger.
Ideally solar development and solar jobs develop in tandem, allowing families and community organizations to save money badly needed for other things, while also creating new clean energy jobs — in coal country and places like Chicago that suffered from coal plant pollution.
“The ultimate goal is tackling climate change and energy burden through an equity lens, putting people who are the most impacted by climate change at the forefront of environmental solutions,” said Hamilton. “I’m looking forward to see the direction we go, in Illinois and around the country.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.