Most people got accustomed to (and then very tired of) saying “unprecedented times” over the last few years with the Covid-19 pandemic, but the occasion is not quite over for our industry. Right now, we are in an unprecedented time of federal funding for clean energy and infrastructure, and as a young professional I’m already sure I’ll be talking about this point in my career for a long time!
A lot of my work is offering communities support (through written resources, webinars, working groups, etc.) to reach their building decarbonization goals. In a normal year, our conversations would revolve more around the question of “how are we going pay for this?”, but this year the conversation is much more about “how are we going to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation funding?”.
For municipalities, staff bandwidth is a common barrier. Many towns and cities don’t have the capacity to track all of the different competitive and formula grants, write the sometimes-extensive applications, and stay on top of reporting for the grant after they have won it. For towns that don’t have an energy or sustainability manager (most small towns), energy responsibilities often fall to facilities managers, town administrators, planners, etc. and bandwidth gets strained constantly.
Federal agencies administering these funds are aware of this problem, and the approaches they’re taking to make the money more accessible fall into three categories: 1) reducing administrative burden where possible, 2) promoting or requiring collaboration, and 3) allowing grantees to use the money to build capacity. For example, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) program introduced a voucher option this year, which can only be used for equipment rebates or technical assistance but also has fewer application and reporting components than the regular grant. That grant program, along with others, have also built in requirements that municipalities and states coordinate their efforts and learn what the others are planning. Finally, grant funding can be spent on capacity building efforts, like hiring an energy manager, paying consultants, getting technical assistance, etc.
This year, NEEP began a Community Federal Funding working group to get towns, regional planning commissions, nonprofits and others together to talk through new grant programs, applications, and partnerships. We had a kick-off meeting in April and discussed critical first steps that anyone applying for federal funding must go through, and then covered a lot of details and questions about grants with upcoming deadlines (like the EECBG, Climate Pollution Reduction Grant, and Energy Improvement in Rural and Remote Areas programs). Our second meeting will be in late May and will feature the EECBG program northeast coordinator from DOE talking about how to leverage relatively small formula allocations, teaming arrangements, and more.
I also got the chance to connect with many community representatives at our Decarbonizing Campuses and Communities event with PowerOptions, and made connections with more people working on these topics. Having in-person events like this one has been a wonderful way to get diverse groups of people in the room and see people make new connections that advance their work.
In Rhode Island, our team has launched a new RI Community Energy Network this year, a space for municipal staff, volunteers, and school district staff to get together and brainstorm about clean energy actions at the local level. We’re also partnering with many state agencies and nonprofits to tie in the most thorough, up-to-date information about state programs and federal funding. We connected with a statewide CEO roundtable that has developed an initiative to provide Rhode Island governments, schools, nonprofits, etc. with assistance writing grant applications for federal funding. They’re also helping bring teams together to increase the strength of proposals, providing much-needed hands-on assistance to communities. We’re excited to collaborate with them this year in support Rhode Island municipalities in getting federal funding for energy efficiency and decarbonization.
The most rewarding part of this work so far has been hearing feedback from local government staff who find our webinars and resources helpful in preparing for this funding. Overall, I think the challenging question of “how are we going to take advantage of all of this money” is a great one to have to answer.