EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — Heavy industry has long polluted the air in East St. Louis, but by early next year for the first time in the city's history, a clean energy facility will also be humming along.
Ameren Illinois plans to build a $10.2 million solar field on 17 acres of land across from East St. Louis Senior High School. It will distribute enough energy to Ameren's local grid to power 500 homes, and is the first solar project owned and operated by Ameren in the past 25 years, the Belleville News-Democrat reports.
"This facility will bring local tax revenue to the area," said state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Swansea. "It will contribute to the state of Illinois' renewable energy goals and it will bring technology to the area that will enable East St. Louis to lead the way in showcasing green energy."
Belt and other officials were instrumental in making the deal possible through negotiations last summer on Illinois' new clean energy law, said Ameren Illinois President Richard Mark.
The law allowed utility companies to own and operate solar fields, a provision some opposed because they wanted to see smaller individual and community-owned projects dominate clean energy development.
East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III said the project represents "taking blight to bright." The lot, formerly home to shops, had been sitting empty for decades, he said.
"We're going to do all those things they said we could not do in the City of Champions. We are the City of Champions," Eastern said at a groundbreaking event. "Champions always, always, always find a way to get it done."
Ameren will use a diverse, local workforce to build the East St. Louis Solar Energy Center, Mark said. Ameren has so far hired 26% "diverse-owned" firms, Mark said.
Belt and his colleagues in the Legislature have committed to ensuring "people who look like the people of East St. Louis" will have union jobs at sites like Ameren's.
NAACP Illinois State President Teresa Haley said Ameren continues "to make a difference" with investment in communities that have been overlooked. But she called on the people of East St. Louis to make sure they see diverse workers on-site once construction is underway.
"There's nothing worse than driving by a site in our communities and we don't see people who look like us," Haley said. "We're going to be paying attention to what's happening and we're going to hold Ameren accountable as well. ... So, if you ride by an Ameren site and you don't see the diversity, make sure you let the NAACP know."
Students at the neighboring high school will look out the window and see possibility, Mayor Eastern said.
Ameren plans to build a demonstration area at the site where students from East St. Louis and the area will be able to learn about solar and renewable energy.
The project will require up to 50 construction job and is expected to be completed by late 2022 or early 2023, according to Ameren. The company will pay an estimated $50,000 in property taxes annually on the site.
Ameren purchased the property in 2015 from Truelight Baptist Church for $114,000, according to St. Clair County records.