Recapping Our Third #PowerUp Conversation—Better Health and Clean Energy

By Gamze Bilsen, Ready for 100 Chicago Volunteer

In September and October, we’ll be hosting a series of four #PowerUp community conversations, bringing together our community partners and residents from across the city to discuss priorities for Chicago’s energy transition. For information and to register for the upcoming conversations, click here.

For our third session of the Power Up series, we talked about the health impacts of our current energy sources, and how shifting to renewable energy will have a significant impact on communities most affected. As the 16th most polluted city in the US, Chicago’s largest causes of air pollution are vehicles and power plants, and their effects are worse on the South and West sides. Examples of high pollutant sites are the McKinley Park MAT Asphalt contract—asphalt contains carcinogenic products—Little Village’s Hilco demolition, and General Iron’s relocation to the Southeast side. Shifting to renewable energy will decrease pollution’s hazardous health effects such as premature death, lung cancer, asthma attacks, and developmental and reproductive issues. There are currently acts in place or proposed to ease this shift. First is FEJA, whose target is to achieve 25% renewable energy by 2025 through programs to increase the adoption of renewable energy. Another one is CEJA, which expands solar funding and coordinates job training. On top of these wonderful steps to reach 100% clean energy, the city needs to improve its efforts, first by demanding transparency and accountability from ComEd. Many are also calling for municipalization of ComEd, which would allow energy users themselves to decide on energy distribution. Through these efforts and more, we can achieve 100% renewable energy, and have clean air and more equity while solving the climate crisis.

To continue our conversation, we were first joined by Lavannya Pulluveetil Berrera from Vote Solar. The organization’s goal is to make solar power more affordable and accessible through technical support, effective policy expertise, and campaigns across the nation, such as community outreach and engagement. They want to make the solar energy program more affordable, equitable, and scalable through policies. Lavannya’s emphasis on renewable energy’s tight relationship with equitability was supported by the fact of 68% of African Americans living within 30 miles of a coal plant, and 40% of People of Color breathing in polluted air. Currently, 25 million Americans have asthma, with Black and Hispanic communities over-represented. Covid’s emergence has amplified the preexisting exposures’ detrimental effects in respiratory health. Her solution was making solar power widespread, which will reduce pollution through replacing fossil fuel infrastructure, and starting the shift to solar in communities with peak coal plants. Her other solution was making battery storage and microgrids widespread in communities with the highest medically vulnerable population who need energy 100% of the time, yet experience the highest number of power outages. Thus, the shift to renewable energy, specifically solar power, can right historical injustices on communities impacted by concentrated pollution. 

We were then joined by Roberto Clack from Warehouse Workers for Justice. The organization’s goal is to connect the labor movement with environmental justice. His main point was that those who suppress workers also suppress the community—for example, through not paying their fair share of building costs of warehouses. Warehouse Workers for Justice actively gathers together and holds companies accountable, especially Amazon, whose whole business is based on transportation. Major corporations also depend heavily on the logistics and warehousing industry, which has grown exponentially, with the US now employing 200K warehouse workers. Their organization thus is active in demanding cleaner and sustainable operations, such as electrifying short hauling, which means trucks going to and from the train yard to the warehouse. Compared to long haul truck travel, which is harder to electrify, corporations can achieve decarbonization easily for short hauling, as long as they listen to worker input.

Our last speaker was Edith Tovar from Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). Little Village has the 2nd youngest neighborhood in Chicago and a dense population, and also houses the 3rd largest industrial corridor, leading to them having the 2nd worst air quality in Illinois. Thus, LVEJO’s goal is to accomplish environmental justice through securing community autonomy. The community had spent years working with the city to build what they wanted to see at the Hilco site that had been badly demolished, causing increased dust harm. Yet, against community sentiment, the past coal plant is now being rebuilt as a warehouse. This construction has increased harmful pollutants due to constant diesel vehicle transportation, addition to current labor discriminations and workers’ employed polluting industries which further endangers their health. To support LVEJO’s just transition from coal instead of to diesel campaign, text LVEJO to 6-9866. 

A past success story however can be motivating: despite years of effort, the Little Village community created a local community garden with their persistence. Similar to how the city hasn’t responded to their calls to listen to their demands regarding reconstruction; it took decades to build the community garden, yet again underlining the need for the city to listen to its residents. Another issue LVEJO is active in is making sure young people are part of the conversation. They have established a database by counting how many trucks pass through a local intersection: identifying toxic industrial corridors established by hundreds of diesel trucks passing through various intersections. The city of Chicago has unfortunately not done its due diligence in yet more issues. For example, the community set up 4 monitors to measure air quality when their request has been continuously disregarded by the city. As evident by LVEJO’s past community successes, the organization exemplifies a  path to justice, safety and wellness heavily involving community input.

During our last segment, groups brainstormed ideas related to how we can have tangible actions for better health established through renewable energy. One theme was the desire for the city of Chicago to be true to their words. This includes listening to community issues and conducting air assessments in problem areas and involving community members in the decision making processes. Another was the need for altered tax policies for corporations: for example, Illinois could have better environmental standards for food companies such as Conagra and Unilever located in Illinois. Other tangible requests to reduce pollution included improving the housing stock for better solar energy fit, electrifying transportation, increasing funding for planning and public health departments, increasing health and air quality data collection, and prioritizing all projects in communities who have been most impacted.