How this up-and-coming leader is improving energy equity in Illinois

By Illinois Environmental Council

Meet Lavannya Pulluveetil Barrera

IEC: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. How did you come to work on policy issues related to clean energy access?
Lavannya Pulluveetil - EDF
Lavannya: I’m a recent grad with a degree in in Environmental and Sustainability Sciences as well as International Agriculture and Rural Development. I had the opportunity to work on a variety of community-driven initiatives in New York and internationally as an undergrad, and they all showed me the value of connecting people to resources available through local and federal governments. I became involved in policy issues related to energy access because I am hopeful about the work the Environmental Defense Fund is undertaking in Illinois. I was motivated largely by the focus on equity in relation to energy access, and I hoped that my previous work would lend itself to moving the needle forward on some of these initiatives.

Future Energy Jobs Act: Jobs and Development
IEC: The Future Energy Jobs Act includes provisions to grow renewable energy. Specifically, where will solar panels be installed? What was this land used for before the panels were planned there?

Lavannya: Ideally, solar development in Illinois will fit into a larger vision of a just transition for the communities that are most impacted by the aging coal industry. For instance, some communities in Chicago are calling for using old coal plant sites for solar projects, and developers are getting behind this idea locally. Additionally when considering open spaces across the state and brownfield site redevelopment, there is a lot of potential when it comes to transforming the landscape and local economies of communities.

IEC: What do the jobs at FEJA look like after the initial installation of solar or wind power? Are there jobs that transition to up-keep and modernization?

Lavannya: That’s a question a lot of people have right now. The great thing is that many of the training programs stemming from FEJA, as well as others in the state, include heavy background in energy efficiency work. Energy efficiency as an industry is growing, and these solar jobs definitely provide an opportunity to move into this space.

IEC: After jobs are created and the bill is carried out more fully, what is the next step for supporting sustainable energy in Illinois?

Lavannya: There is still a lot of work to be done. FEJA was a monumental win for Illinois, but this bill is not the end all for the state. Now groups are turning their attention toward expanding electric vehicle infrastructure, electrifying the transportation sector, and supporting microgrid development, among other exciting areas. FEJA pushed the conversation around sustainable energy forward in a powerful way. As we look toward the future, success will rest on creating similar widespread support and momentum around other clean, smart energy conversations.

IEC: To what extent would this help in rehabilitation for released prisoners?

Lavannya: Reducing recidivism requires a holistic approach and the organizations that dedicate themselves to this crucial work have great success in supporting returning citizens in their communities. For instance, SAFER Foundation (one of the organizations funded through the Solar Training Pipeline program) is using FEJA funds to provide training and support services to returning citizens. I have no doubt that these programs will be a resource to the returning citizens that SAFER serves, but I think it is important to recognize that these programs are one piece of the complicated puzzle people face post-incarceration.

IEC: What is the Solar for All program and how does it work?

Lavannya: The Illinois Solar for All program was created to increase access to the solar economy for economically disadvantaged communities and areas designated as environmental justice communities. It will provide access to solar with no upfront costs, as well as a cash-positive experience for customers. Solar for All includes four subprograms, which each target different types of customers or solar projects and offer financial incentives for developers. There are explicit guidelines around community engagement and partnership when developing community solar projects, as well as some job training requirements written into the plan. When the program is ready for roll-out, there will be many different pieces to figure out – leaders from the communities that stand to benefit the most will hopefully be at the forefront of shaping the resulting program.

Energy efficiency means using less energy in your day-to-day life while still being able to do everything you need to. – Lavannya Pulluveetil Barrera 

IEC: What role will community solar play in Illinois’ clean energy economy?

Lavannya: There is a lot of attention on Illinois after the passage of FEJA. Many solar companies are interested in the state, and they are reaching out about resources and partners in developing community solar projects. It’s encouraging that solar companies are not just thinking about partnership, but also bringing up discussions around the job training programs and how to best work in environmental justice communities. It seems to be a shift in the industry – and a welcome one at that.

Energy Efficiency and BIT Building
IEC: What is energy efficiency and what does it provide?

Lavannya: Energy efficiency means using less energy in your day-to-day life while still being able to do everything you need to. There are a lot of benefits to energy efficiency, but unfortunately I think this message hasn’t reached many communities – meaning there’s a big opportunity to continue outreach and education. Energy efficiency leads to comfortable homes and workplaces, monthly savings, and many health benefits (as a result of less reliance on fossil fuel electricity putting pollution in the air), especially when combined with additional weatherization and retrofit measures.

IEC: What is BIT Building and how can it be a resource to Illinois communities?

Lavannya: The BIT Building Program provides building owners and operators access to tools and resources that can improve building performance while reducing costs. As buildings go through the process, BIT takes the guesswork and confusion out of committing to sustainable operations by providing step-by-step best practices and advice from industry experts. Communities across the state can take advantage of the resources and support BIT offers, while simultaneously building their capacity to go above and beyond in their sustainability journeys.

IEC: How is BIT different than other certifications, like LEED?

Lavannya: LEED requires building operators to have access to a lot of resources and, in this way, is unattainable for many properties. BIT is a low-cost alternative meant to reach a greater mix of buildings, which will be guided by the check points built into the program.

IEC: Where is BIT being used today?

Lavannya: A few Chicago Housing Authority buildings are enrolled in the program, and most recently the Chicago Urban League facility enrolled through our Adopt-A-Building partnership with Illinois Green Alliance. To reach areas of Chicago and the state that have been historically overlooked by the green building movement, we are hoping to attract more non-profits and non-commercial buildings through this partnership.

This post originally appeared on the Illinois Environmental Council website.

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