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Will Illinois Become a Clean Tech Economy Case Study?

Haven Allen, Co-founder and CEO, mHUB 

Erik Birkerts, CEO, Evergreen Climate Innovations 

Karen Kerr, General Partner, Exposition Ventures

Cost-curves are down, industries need to decarbonize, and the collective urgency around climate has grown. The landscape in Illinois is different from the first clean tech boom, then bust, and points to a clean tech future that addresses cleaner air, economic growth, and equity at all once. Reckoning with the past and highlighting Illinois’ forward momentum can contextualize why things such as grid modernization, electric vehicle infrastructure, and supply chain persification are central to Illinois’ bid for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

During the previous clean tech boom, venture capital poured into tech startups to launch companies that had very big, very promising ideas. Investors used to 3-5-year turnarounds for software technologies didn't have the patience to support the 8- 20-year cycles needed to bring clean, hard technology (“hard tech”) to market. Many of the buzzed about products and technologies developed in the mid-2000s, such as thin-film solar and biofuels, were not able to scale fast enough to compete with the lowering prices of natural gas and fossil fuels or take on unfair competition from oversees. But just as the original “dot com bust” gave way to the thriving technology sector we live in today, so too will this decade see the emergence of a stronger, sustainable clean tech sector. 

As we enter the next clean tech boom, the playing field is different. Demands for immediate, dramatic, and sustainable environmental improvements dominate legislative agendas and boardroom discussions. Innovation is exponentially resolving many of the underlying challenges and barriers to entry previously seen in clean tech, and the cost of innovation is coming down. Renewable technologies have rapidly progressed down the cost curve so their levelized costs of energy (LCOE) are competitive with fossil fuels. Investors are approaching opportunities with stronger quantitative and qualitative investment strategies, ensuring more capital is available along development continuums. R&D cycles, in many cases, are getting shorter. Higher exit values are now possible, along with opportunities for investors to monetize early before full commercialization, thereby lessening the risks associated with long hold-times for investments. 

While governments around the world are serving as the rocket boosters to get clean tech projects into orbit, the private sector can pilot them to a profitable future; all while putting the effects of climate change on a path towards mitigation and eventually reversal. 

Illinois is positioned to be a national model for this type of clean technology economy. The 2025 Clean Tech Economy Coalition (CTEC) of 19 partnering organizations was founded in response to the EDA Build Back Better Regional Challenge and is preparing its Phase 2 proposal. Anchored by efforts to modernize the grid, seed innovation, and ready the workforce and supply chain to enable technologies like electric vehicles and hydrogen, the consortium identified clean tech as the state’s way forward to inclusive economic growth along with national and global influence. Here is why. 

  • Illinois is the first coal-producing state to commit to a carbon-free future by 2045
  • State government laid the foundation to achieve this goal by passing the Future Energy Jobs Act, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, and the Reimagining Electric Vehicles (REV) Act
  • Illinois’ vast and prestigious research infrastructure includes major universities, national labs, and innovation centers for entrepreneurs
  • Illinois has infrastructure to support the complete clean tech supply chain, from manufacturing facilities to trimodal logistics (coordinating supplies and getting products to market by truck, train, ship). While not an ocean port, Chicago has access to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River and five of six national rail lines, acting as a central node in the supply chain 
  • Currently only 25% of clean energy jobs are held by women, 8% by black workers, and 17% by Latinx. The emerging nature of clean tech presents good career opportunities with higher-than-average salaries 

Illinois' assets can be best utilized by focusing on three clean tech sectors:

  • Grid Modernization: for more efficient and reliable power transmission to meet the demands of an electric vehicle population and hydrogen economy
  • Manufacturing Capacity: to assist manufacturers in transitioning to sustainable practices and supply chain persification to address supply chain gaps
  • Electrification of Transportation: including batteries and energy storage for electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure 

With CTEC’s leadership, Illinois has an opportunity to own the full energy lifecycle from production to capture. By keeping manufacturing local, the state will experience what is known as the manufacturing multiplier effect: for every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $2.79 is added to the economy. Clean economy jobs have seen 14.4% growth since 2011. Having a localized lifecycle can help prevent severe supply-chain disruptions. Finally, with CTEC committed to inclusive growth strategies, clean tech job growth can benefit Illinois’ many perse communities. The opportunity is here. It’s up to the state’s private and public sector participants to seize it. 2025cleantech.com provides further information on CTEC’s partnering organizations and ways to get involved.