Since my return to Springfield last year, the city has become vibrant with unique local businesses that appeal to young residents like me. Working at one of these downtown establishments allows me to engage with fellow young folks daily. One remarkable location I keep hearing about: the Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens. It fosters neighborhood autonomy and connections, filling a void for gathering spaces that are not bars for young people in Springfield. It not only serves this purpose but also adds beauty and contributes to cleaner air.
One recurring theme that consistently comes up in my conversations are citywide disparities that feel beyond our control, particularly in areas such as education, access to healthy food and health care. A recent study conducted by SIU School of Medicine revealed a stark reality: children living in the poorest ZIP codes on the east side of Springfield are 15 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma compared to their counterparts in wealthier areas of Sangamon County. I envision raising kids in Springfield, but it feels wrong when not all kids are breathing air of the same quality.
Some are not drinking clean water, either. In recent years algae has started to taint our water supply, lead pipes are scattered throughout the city and there is a neighborhood with brown water for another year until it can be fixed. I was given a free water filter by CWLP when the lead pipes were changed outside of my house.
However, the water filter I received does little to alleviate my concerns when the groundwater next to our drinking supply is contaminated. The coal ash pond, situated next to Lake Springfield, is a result of years of using outdated and now inactive power plants. Astonishingly, despite the known repercussions, we persist in burning coal at the Dallman 4 plant. It is crucial to acknowledge that there is no such thing as "clean" coal – the effects are felt by our community. Studies have consistently revealed, even recently, that the Dallman 4 unit has been a repeat offender in surpassing legal limits for arsenic and boron pollutants, which pose a particularly grave threat to the health of children with developing lungs.
The free water filter provided by the city is nice, but I worry about its effectiveness in five years due to the aftereffects of burning coal. The good thing about living in 2023 – there are solutions. When the federal Inflation Reduction Act passed last year, it included billions of dollars for utilities like CWLP to clean up coal ash ponds with the caveat that they plan for renewable energy. Our city also recently elected Mayor Misty Buscher, who while campaigning spoke solidly in support of achieving 30% solar power. CWLP head engineer Doug Brown has also spoken publicly about Springfield's need for solar.
CWLP ratepayers can opt to contribute to a small solar farm in Springfield. This entails an additional fee of $4.40 collected upon signing up for service. The solar farm generates enough electricity to power 30 houses. However, when we consider the total number of households in Springfield, which the 2020 census reports as 51,317, solar energy accounts for less than 1% of our overall energy supply.
There is a willingness by the people in our community to pay a little extra to support this transition. Young people are interested in renewable energy because it keeps us safe for the long term. Grant money from the Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) could be used to lower monthly utility bills.
Six years ago, our city received a five-year energy resource plan proposing a community solar project and 13 energy-efficiency programs, but they were not completed within the given time. The previous city council failed to invest in a new plan, but we still have an opportunity. Completing an Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) will grant us access to state and federal funds, resulting in less cleanup for future generations.
Proactive planning aligns with the values of my generation when choosing where to live. With a new city administration, we can reshape Springfield's energy future, utilizing state and federal grants to creatively transform vacant lots into renewable energy projects that lower energy bills. This approach will inspire and retain young residents, fostering community investment. Implementing an energy resource plan will unlock funds for clean air and water, ensuring a sustainable future. Planning for the future is a privilege, and it begins with our Springfield City Council.
Emma Shafer is a 24-year-old Springfield resident who serves on the grassroots leadership team of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. She has lived in New York City, Cape Town, South Africa, and eastern Kentucky. She operates out of a planning-to-stay ethos: considering generations to come in her daily decisions.