Illinois' clean energy jobs grew by 5% in 2021: Here's where the work is
Jobs in clean energy -- such as installing solar panel arrays, recycling lithium-ion battery modules and planning electric vehicle charging infrastructure -- grew by more than 5,000 in Illinois last year, according to a recent report.
With the advanced transportation and solar energy sectors driving the upward trend, employment in clean energy grew by nearly 5% statewide in 2021 from 2020 numbers, employing more than 120,000 Illinoisans and leading the Midwest region in clean energy jobs.
Environmental advocates say the results indicate Illinois is building a "strong foundation" of workers to support the state's transition to a clean energy economy.
"The big take-away here is clean energy jobs are an important part of Illinois and the Midwest economy, and they're growing," said Micaela Preskill, the Midwest Advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs, a climate policy advocacy group. "The clean energy economy is poised for growth like we've never seen before, and that's thanks to state policies like the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and federal policies like the Inflation Reduction Act."
Before a downturn in energy employment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, clean energy jobs grew in the Midwest every year since the report was first released in 2016. The study is co-released by Environmental Entrepreneurs and Evergreen Climate Innovations, which invests in climate technology businesses.
More than half the jobs created in 2021 can be attributed to the advanced transportation sector, which grew by 28% and added 2,973 positions. Most of the sector's growth was in the sale and manufacturing of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.
Despite taking the lead in growth, the transportation sector represents a small fraction of Illinois' total clean energy jobs. The great majority fall under energy efficiency.
Green Home Experts, which sells energy-efficiency supplies like LED bulbs and faucet aerators to electric and gas utilities, employs about 30 workers. The small business grew by 50% in 2021.
Owner Maria Onesto Moran said the business's growth is largely thanks to the Future Energy Jobs Act, which Illinois passed in 2016. The sweeping energy legislation requires the state's two biggest electric utilities, ComEd and Ameren Illinois, to expand their energy-efficiency programs and reduce electricity waste.
Onesto Moran added that the growth in clean energy businesses like hers enables a workforce development opportunity: The majority of the fulfillment associates who pack orders at Green Home are adults with special needs.
"I'm really enthusiastic about being part of a new green economy in which we can create jobs that support a healthier future for our planet," she said. "Hopefully, another benefit to the product distribution that we do is that it makes these products more accessible and mainstream to commercial and residential customers to be a catalyst for real consumer change moving forward."
Small businesses like Onesto Moran's account for the majority of clean energy companies in Illinois: 71% of the state's clean energy businesses employed fewer than 20 people in 2021, according to the Environmental Entrepreneurs employment report.
Another driver of clean energy jobs in Illinois is solar employment, which grew by 10.2% in 2021 to a total of 6,087 workers.
Libertyville resident Dave Wilms, who works as a senior project developer for solar company SunPeak, helps connect the Madison, Wisconsin-based business to municipalities and schools in the Chicago region to build solar arrays.
SunPeak works with the state's largest carpenters union, the Mid-America Carpenters Regional Council, to train and hire solar panel installers for its larger projects.
Wilms said growth in solar installation jobs has consistently advanced since he started with SunPeak in 2015.
"I think that that's only going to increase, which is fabulous," he said. "With the new (Inflation Reduction Act) legislation, we're not only going to be producing and manufacturing solar racking and panels here in the United States, but tax breaks are increased to help more people install solar."
Despite a "huge amount of promise for growth" in clean energy, Preskill, of the Environmental Entrepreneurs, said businesses, municipalities and state agencies have work to do to stay on track.
One critical area is continued workforce training, she said, pointing to a finding from the employment report that 87% of clean energy employers reported some difficulty hiring workers.
"We also need to expand our regional transmission. Simply put, wind and solar projects will not be built if we don't have the transmission there to integrate them," Preskill said. "That's going to also take utility, regional grid operators, and federal and state government coordination to make that happen."
She added that despite the clean energy policy that has already been passed in the state through the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, state policies that address energy-efficient building standards as well as car emissions standards "need to be next for Illinois."
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.