A recent report highlighting the expansion of the clean-energy workforce in Illinois reflects a broader trend toward a Midwestern power system that is more networked, more decentralized, and more dependent on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.

Nearly 120,000 Illinoisans were working in clean energy in 2016, representing a 4.8 percent increase over the prior year, according to a study released last week.

The analysis – which is based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data and a survey of thousands – was conducted by Clean Energy Trust (CET), a Chicago-based cleantech accelerator, and Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a national group of business leaders that advocates for economic and environmental policies.

Recent legislation and private investments suggest that the clean energy workforce in Illinois will continue to grow.

Many hope last December’s passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act will spark a boom in renewables, efficiency and smart grid activity in the state. The act requires that at least 4,300 megawatts of new solar and wind power be built in Illinois by 2030. It also provides $750 million for programs that provide training for new energy jobs and for utility-bill subsidies for low-income customers, seniors and disabled veterans.

“Illinois is definitely a regional leader,” says Parson. “We expect with the passage of the Future Energy Jobs Act that there will be even more growth in the industry. That policy fixes the broken [renewable energy standard] and also is encouraging utilities to do more energy efficiency.”

Earlier this year, utility ComEd doled out $30 million to area business associations to “develop training programs related to solar and energy efficiency as a part of the FEJA’s goal to prepare a workforce ready for the future energy industry.” The utility opened a brand-new training facility last year in southwest Chicago, made possible by the state’s 2011 smart grid law.

Illinois is also gearing up for the launch of NextGrid, an 18-month consumer-focused study of critical issues facing the state’s electric utility industry in the coming decade and beyond. The Illinois Commerce Commission, a regulatory body, is managing the process, and, in August, it was announced that the Power and Energy System Area of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will be the lead facilitator. A launch event is scheduled for September 28.

Efficiency driving most jobs

Smart grid or “advanced grid” jobs make up only a sliver of the Illinois clean economy, the survey found – a mere 1,430 jobs or 1.2 percent of the state’s clean-energy jobs. That figure is up 2.1 percent over the previous year. Over 70 percent of Illinois advanced grid jobs are in energy storage, while the rest are categorized as “smart grid” jobs.

The vast majority – 78.4 percent – of Illinois clean-energy jobs are in the energy efficiency sector. “Traditional HVAC” jobs leads this category and Illinois clean-energy jobs overall, with 36,058 jobs. E2 described the category in an email to Midwest Energy News:

“Jobs in traditional HVAC include technicians that install energy star appliances and count any portion of their work toward advanced efficiency technologies. We find this category helpful because it gives us a sense of how the industry is changing and how more HVAC workers are doing work in energy efficiency.”

Overall, clean-energy jobs remain a small fraction of the total workforce in Illinois, making up just 1.83 percent of the state’s 6,539,021 total workers. Still, Illinois clean-energy industries employ six times more people than all the computer programmers and web developers in the state, according to the analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Illinois Clean-energy jobs are also growing six times faster than overall jobs in the state between 2015 and 2016.

“To us that really shows that investing in clean energy and passing policies that set energy efficiency and renewable energy [goals] are really solid economic growth plans for states,” says Gail Parson, director of member and state engagement at Environmental Entrepreneurs.

‘Growth engine’ for the Midwest?

Illinois wasn’t the only Midwestern state to show clean-energy jobs growth between 2015 and 2016. Indeed, the entire region saw its clean-energy employment grow 5.4 percent, with each state showing growth of some kind.

Ohio was second behind Illinois in total clean-energy jobs, employing just over 100,000 people, according to the study. Indiana showed the strongest growth with an 8.1 percent increase between 2015 and 2016. Energy efficiency jobs dominated the region, making up 73 percent of the 599,775 workers employed in the Midwest’s clean-energy economy. Advanced grid jobs made up the smallest category, covering just 4,184 jobs or .7 percent of the regional clean-energy economy. That figure is a 2.89 percent increase over the previous year.

“The Midwest has witnessed declining manufacturing employment over the years and this report highlights the important role of clean energy jobs in filling the gap for the region’s workforce,” said Erik G. Birkerts, CEO of Clean Energy Trust, in a press release. “We’re optimistic that this growth engine can continue unabated as the Midwest continues to prove it is a fertile region for clean energy innovation, enabling businesses to launch, grow and create jobs.”

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.