In the United States, while all eyes have been on the bipartisan infrastructure package and reconciliation bill, local leaders should not lose sight of the funding that already exists to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. While the promise of new federal programs to support a clean energy economy is encouraging, it can also be distracting for state and local leadership from opportunities available here and now. 

Currently, there is intentional work underway across the Biden Administration and federal agencies to ensure that programs truly prioritize climate change mitigation, resilience, sustainable economic development, and environmental justice. And there are more than 100 existing federal programs that can support an equitable transition to a clean energy economy.  

To better access such funding, local leaders need to keep three overarching strategies in mind: 1) understand what federal funding already exists; 2) emphasize equity and environmental justice in funding proposals and program design; and 3) look beyond the usual suspects. 

1. Understand What Federal Funding Already Exists 

Municipal and community staff should start the process by understanding what funding opportunities exist, but even that can be overwhelming. While some cities do employ grant specialists or contract consultants, they are not usually directly connected with or assigned to the sustainability and resilience offices. As a result, simply navigating current and upcoming opportunities — and their respective purposes and deadlines — is challenging for staff preparing proposals with limited bandwidth, all while keeping the lights on.   

To assist in this endeavor, RMI and WRI developed a new tool to make it easier for communities to explore the federal funding available and prioritize the most relevant opportunities. The tool will be updated regularly to reflect new or evolving federal programs and new legislation. 

Even if Congress is successful in passing new infrastructure and climate change mitigation funding, much of that funding is likely to be folded into existing programs so that it can be efficiently distributed. Understanding these programs now will help communities prepare for a potential tidal wave of additional funding from Congress later this year.    

2. Emphasize Equity and Environmental Justice in Funding Proposals and Program Design 

Existing federal funding programs are actively being reconfigured to bolster equity in communities. Accordingly, local leaders and staff should elevate equity and environmental justice in existing and planned projects. Inclusion of equity and environmental justice goals in local projects will increase competitiveness when seeking federal funding.

The Biden Administration is explicitly embedding climate change mitigation, environmental justice, and racial equity — which are also key priorities for many cities and counties — into funding programs across federal agencies.  

The Administration recently launched a government-wide Justice40 initiative that intends to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities. This initiative more deeply integrates equity into existing federal programs. Two examples are highlighted below: 

  • Most recently, in August 2021, the updated release of FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program includes guiding principles for promoting equity and prioritizing assistance that benefits disadvantaged communities.  
  • Earlier this year, the US Department of Transportation updated what is now the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program, previously known as the TIGER program under the Obama Administration and the BUILD program under the Trump Administration. Unlike past iterations of this program, RAISE grants intend to explicitly address climate change and racial equity, and “should directly support Climate Action Plans or apply environmental justice screening tools in the planning stage.” 

Ultimately, the focus of the Justice40 initiative and above-mentioned BRIC and RAISE programs reinforce the need for communities seeking federal funding to plan with equity in mind.  

3. Look Beyond the Usual Suspects 

To accelerate their efforts to decarbonize and build a resilient, sustainable economy, communities need to consider federal programs and opportunities offered by agencies not explicitly known for their climate and environmental focus. This means going beyond the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, and Department of Transportation and looking at agencies focused on health, emergency response and planning, workforce development, and economic development.  

Considering a broader array of federal programs often involves cross-departmental coordination locally as well. For instance, many communities are using American Rescue Plan Act funds to break down barriers between individual departments and advance public health, resilience and decarbonization.  

The City of Minneapolis leveraged this funding in the past year to supplement the City’s Green Cost Share program and provide additional funding for energy efficiency measures, indoor air quality improvements, and clean energy programs that reduce air pollution. This involved cross-departmental planning between the city’s Health Department and Office of Sustainability and clear communication connecting the dots between public health, air quality and energy.  

In another example, the City of Pittsburgh announced intentions to use approximately $36 million of its American Rescue Plan funding for efficiency, weatherization and electric vehicle investments. This too has involved cross-departmental coordination between the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh’s Fleet Operations, and its Office of Management and Budget. 

Federal grant opportunities like the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Build Back Better program similarly provide broad opportunities to advance decarbonization projects and further reinforce the Biden Administration’s interest in grant programs that foster cross-sectoral and multi-agency partnerships. This competitive grant program not only encourages collaboration across departments, but also puts forth regional “clusters” of interjurisdictional collaboration to achieve strong outcomes around resilience, economic development and infrastructure. Furthermore, the EDA strongly emphasizes projects and regional clusters related to decarbonization, including modernizing infrastructure and industrial efficiency and transitioning auto-sector economies to electric vehicle and battery manufacturing. 

For example, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Greater Boston is currently eyeing EDA’s Build Back Better funds for clean energy and weatherization workforce training. In fact, there is precedent for economic development and recovery agencies like the EDA and Appalachian Regional Commission funding clean energy jobs programs and energy storage roadmaps.

Seize the Day  

The need for accelerated climate action and resilience planning at the local, state and federal levels is only reinforced by the findings of the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

Fortunately, there is no need for local communities to wait for Congress to negotiate and pass new legislation. Existing funding programs not only exist but are also being reoriented to focus on climate action, environmental justice and a just transition to a clean energy economy.  

But understanding what current opportunities exist, strategies to embed equity and environmental justice in proposals and program design, and how to proactively stretch funding opportunities to advance decarbonization, is both timely and necessary.  

The time is ripe to take advantage of existing and evolving federal funding programs — regardless of new funding that may come to pass. 

To learn more about how communities can navigate federal funding for an equitable clean energy future, check out the Renewables Accelerator’s new Federal Funding Opportunities for Local Decarbonization tool.  

EDITOR'S NOTE, 9/29/21: This article has been updated to note that the inclusion of equity and environmental justice goals in local projects will increase competitiveness when seeking federal funding.