Champaign County Environmental Town Hall

Ananya Sen, Department of Microbiology

Dependence on coal has led to long term problems: air pollution, rising carbon dioxide levels, and global warming. Although nuclear energy was meant to offset these problems, disposing nuclear waste has become a bigger issue. It is therefore imperative to consider sustainable and environmentally-friendly sources of energy.

To this end, the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) was passed in 2016 to encourage clean energy measures. The Act was the culmination of a collaborative effort among consumer advocates, environmental groups, and energy companies.

The budget for the energy projects will be from an existing 2% charge on electricity bills. FEJA also takes advantage of net metering, a process that allows consumers to send surplus solar energy, during the summer, back to power grids in exchange for credits. These credits can then be used to offset the cost of energy during other parts of the year.

The resulting legislation will also cause an expansion in wind and solar energy industries with the aim of making them 25% of Illinois’ energy source by 2025. Furthermore, FEJA aims to make renewable energy accessible to low income communities and provide job training in clean energy industries.

On September 14th, 2018, the UIUC Science Policy Group and the Union of Concerned Scientists hosted a town hall to discuss the impacts of FEJA. Invited panelists included Illinois State Senator Scott Bennett, Scott Tess, Reverend Cindy Shepherd, and Tim Montague.

(From left to right): Sen. Scott Bennett, Robby Goldman (SPG moderator), Tim Montague, Rev. Cindy Shepherd, and Scott Tess

What are the benefits of expanding solar development?

Sen. Scott Bennett, representing Illinois’ 52nd district, said that solar panels are more popular than wind turbines. Resistance to wind turbines is due to their size and the resulting noise. Therefore, expanding solar development will allow people to purchase solar panels easily.

Tim Montague, from Continental Electric Construction Company, added that current nuclear facilities will close in 10 years, rendering the land useless. However, the same land can be used to install a solar farm.

What are the renewable energy accomplishments leading up to FEJA and since FEJA?

According to Scott Tess, Urbana’s environmental sustainability manager, Urbana was focused on getting the market primed for solar installation before FEJA was passed. After FEJA, the market for solar array installation has expanded, and Scott said that some of the legislation’s financial incentives can be used to install solar arrays on closed landfills.

How does FEJA benefit lower income communities?

Rev. Cindy Shepherd, Central Illinois Outreach Director for Faith in Place, said that FEJA provides training resources for low income communities leading to job creation. Furthermore, FEJA has special incentives aimed at making solar energy accessible to such communities.

Solar panels have finite lifetimes and will eventually need to be replaced, which is an expensive process. Is that a good trade off?

Coal delivers cheap energy at the cost of global warming, which is a bad trade off. According to Scott Tess, solar panels have a lifetime of 25 years and produce clean energy. Furthermore, the end products of coal and nuclear energy are useless, whereas the solar industry is working on ways to recycle solar panels.

Cindy added that it is easy to despair over the climate threats we face. However, it is important to move forward and take measures to reduce our dependence on coal. Therefore, the environmental movement should aim at pointing out the dangers of coal and the advantages of clean energy.

Cindy Shepherd addresses a question from the audience regarding trade-offs in solar energy expansion.

Champaign County Environmental Town Hall

Join us in the Beckman Auditorium on September 14th from 3:00-4:15pm to learn how the Future Energy Jobs Act, passed in December 2016, will promote development of renewable energy and clean jobs. Panelists come from the Illinois Senate, Faith in Place, Urbana’s Environmental Sustainability Division, and Continental Electric Construction Company. Audience members will have an opportunity to ask questions toward the end of the town hall.

RSVP for this free public event here:

Advocating for Science on Capitol Hill

(Robby Goldman–Advocacy Committee Chair, Science Policy Group at UIUC)

I visited Washington, D.C. several times in the past few months to meet with the offices of my members of Congress. I first visited in September 2017 as a participant of the American Geosciences Institute’s (AGI) Geoscience Congressional Visits Days (Geo-CVD). I then returned in March for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop. Finally, I participated in the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Voices for Science workshop in April. From these trips, I have gained valuable experience interacting with Congressional staff (as well as my Congressman), and came away with a better understanding of my representatives’ priorities and how certain science-based policies fit within their goals.

The objective of each of my trips was to encourage my Senators and Congressman to support increases in science funding commensurate with inflation. Federal support is necessary for sustaining critical, cutting-edge research projects, which are often multi-year endeavors. My own research team, the Volcano Geophysics Lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), has been improving methods for predicting when and where volcanic eruptions will occur, a topic of recent national interest thanks to the vigorous eruptive activity of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. Our research team’s efforts are guided by years of work conducted by our advisor, Dr. Trish Gregg, and her colleagues, and federal funding is necessary for sustaining many of the scientific discoveries that our team has and will continue to make over the coming years.

Members of UIUC’s Volcano Geophysics Lab at the 2017 IAVCEI volcanology conference

Strong and consistent federal science funding is also critical for supporting thousands of young scientists, like myself, across the country through research grants and fellowships. My team’s volcanology research, for example, is funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). In fact, three years of my graduate study will be supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Moreover, as a top (R1) research institution, the University of Illinois has been awarded the most NSF funding of any university for the last six years, which supports thousands of student and faculty scientists.

Given the importance of federal science funding, I was shocked and dismayed in early 2017 when President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposed cuts for numerous science agencies, including NASA (3%) and NSF (11%). Several other Earth science agencies received cuts, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA—16%), the United States Geological Survey (USGS—15%), the Department of Energy (DOE—9%), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA—31%). It was these proposed cuts, and my fear that scientific enterprise was no longer a national priority, that motivated me to visit Washington, D.C.—for the first time—and communicate my concerns to my representatives.

My first visit to the Capitol Building

While in D.C., I learned about the federal budget process, Congressional Committees’ roles in legislating science policies, federal agencies’ roles in enacting those policies, and tips for conducting successful meetings with members of Congress and their staff. I also networked with other politically-engaged scientists and exchanged ideas on promoting science advocacy. Most importantly, I had multiple meetings with the offices of my Illinois representatives: Senator Dick Durbin, Senator Tammy Duckworth, and Representative Rodney Davis (IL 13th District).

The main goal of the meetings was to encourage my members of Congress to support strong and sustained federal science funding, particularly in the geosciences. I conducted these meetings with several other students, usually from the same state or geographic region, and a government-relations liaison. Most meetings were with Congressional staff, who, although less recognized than members of Congress, have a deeper understanding of the very policies that their bosses debate and vote on.

UIUC and Northwestern University students with Mark Copeland (center; Legislative Assistant to Senator Duckworth); 2018 AAAS CASE workshop

Some staffers, like Lauren Aycock, are themselves scientists! I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren—a Congressional Science Fellow for Senator Durbin—twice in D.C. and once at my university campus. We discussed federal science funding, Lauren’s experience as a Congressional Science Fellow, and the importance of sharing stories of our scientific research with both policymakers and the public.

Outside of Senator Durbin’s office after meeting with L.A. Maggie Angel (left) and Congressional Science Fellow Lauren Aycock (right); 2018 AGU Voices for Science workshop

I also had the pleasure of discussing Hawaii’s volcano policy with James Chang, the Science and Technology Legislative Assistant (L.A.) to Senator Brian Schatz. Meeting with James gave me a better appreciation for the role that my research, and that of countless other volcanologists, plays in keeping Hawaii’s residents and tourists safe from volcanic hazards.

Inside of Senator Schatz’s office after meeting with L.A. James Chang; 2018 AGU Voices for Science workshop

While almost all my Congressional meetings have been with staff, I had the distinct privilege of meeting my Congressman, Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL 13th District), in March. Joined by three other UIUC students, we discussed the importance of increasing research and development funding for driving innovation in both our country and Congressional district.

UIUC students with Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL 13th District); 2018 AAAS CASE workshop

From my meetings, I was heartened to learn that science funding is a bipartisan priority. In fact, just two days after my March visit, all my members of Congress passed a spending bill that increased funding for most science agencies for Fiscal Year 2018! Of the six I listed previously—NASA, NSF, NOAA, USGS, DOE, and EPA—none received cuts to their total budgets, and all but the EPA received increases. I feel proud to have played a small, yet valuable, part in defending federal science funding for this calendar year, especially considering that my Illinois colleagues and I had to brave a snowstorm—on the first day of spring—to make some of those meetings possible!

Illinois cohort braving the snow outside the Hart Senate Office Building; 2018 AAAS CASE workshop

We are part of an ever-growing community of scientists who are vocally expressing their support for pro-science policies. Regardless of your familiarity with science advocacy, you too can make an impact! AGU’s science policy website is a great resource (, and I strongly encourage attendees of AGU’s Fall Meeting to schedule meetings with their members of Congress! Together, we can use our voices and expertise to benefit science, scientists and the public here in the United States of America.

Enjoying a view of the Capitol, and the long-awaited arrival of spring, in between meetings; 2018 AGU Voices for Science workshop