As the cleanup efforts following Hurricane Ian commence, the United States is once again faced with an all-too-familiar situation. Warming global temperatures have led to a sharp increase in the number of billion-dollar disasters in the United States — including stronger hurricanes, more pronounced heatwaves and wildfires, and severe winter storms. In these disasters, local residents (particularly low-income and BIPOC communities) are left stranded without access to electricity, often with tragic consequences.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
While record-breaking storm surges and 100 mph winds battered the Florida coastline and knocked out power for 90 percent of Charlotte County, Babcock Ranch residents weathered the storm with energy supplied from local solar panels, battery storage, and buried power lines. Babcock Ranch also prepared its community for flooding by leveraging native plant species to control stormwater runoff — these same plants also provide energy-saving cooling throughout the year.
Fortunately for other US communities, the resiliency created in Babcock Ranch is possible across the country. Communities looking to build resilience in the face of worsening climate disasters will soon have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to better prepare themselves for future catastrophes by leveraging funding and incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). And because the need for investment in local energy infrastructure is particularly acute in disadvantaged communities that suffer the most during extreme weather, many of the new incentives and programs provided by the IRA and IIJA will be designed to particularly benefit these groups in line with the Justice40 Initiative.
The time is now for local governments, community-based organizations, and utilities to leverage new federal funding and rapidly scale local energy infrastructure — including nature-based solutions — that advance local resilience, equity, and sustainability goals.
Accelerating Uptake of Rooftop Solar, Heat Pumps, and EVs
Local communities can leverage established and emerging programs to accelerate residential and commercial adoption of critical distributed energy resources (DERs). For example, “Solarize Campaigns” are already being used to enable rooftop solar adoption, and these can be tailored to support solar+storage systems as well as prioritize lower-income communities. Local governments can also adopt SolarAPP+ to streamline solar and storage permitting processes.
Additionally, DERs such as heat pumps and EVs can enhance local resilience. Heat pumps can provide heating or cooling more efficiently than older systems — such as resistance heat — thereby reducing demands on the local grid or microgrids and providing a critical complement to backup power systems. RMI has partnered with 16 local governments and community-based organizations to scale residential heat pump adoption by leveraging IRA incentives and doing community outreach via local partners and contractor engagement. New, similar programs targeting EV adoption could accelerate individual or fleet adoption of vehicles like the Ford F-150 Lightning, which can provide backup power for up to 10 days.
There are several potential sources of funding and incentives for these types of initiatives.
- Rooftop solar and battery campaigns can leverage the newly revitalized Investment Tax Credit, or ITC, which can now cover 30 percent of solar+storage or stand-alone storage project costs.
- Heat pump campaigns and programs will be able to leverage the High Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program, which can cover 50 to 100 percent of the cost of heat pumps for low- and moderate-income households. For other income brackets, the Residential Energy Efficiency Tax Credit will cover up to 30 percent of heat pumps and heat pump water heater costs.
- For EVs, residents, businesses and local governments will be able to take advantage of the IRA’s new clean vehicle tax credits. Importantly, these programs now provide incentives for used EVs, which can support adoption by lower-income households. And the new commercial clean vehicle incentives allow for “direct pay,” which will let local governments also benefit from federal tax incentives.
Implementing Community DER Projects to Further Bolster Neighborhoods
Some communities may wish to focus on larger projects that can support entire neighborhoods, such as Resiliency Hubs — renewably powered community hubs that act as emergency shelters. The City of Baltimore is deploying 17 such hubs, 7 of which will soon have solar power and battery storage. Communities could further build on this concept by developing local microgrids that can “island” from the grid during blackouts or, as Ann Arbor is considering, operate fully independently from the grid year-round.
In other cases, communities may choose to support the development of larger-scale renewable energy projects. For example, the City of Houston has partnered closely with local community groups to convert an old landfill into a 52 MW solar facility that will directly benefit local residents, and RMI is launching a project to accelerate community “brightfields.” Moreover, community-scale renewable installations can be strategically deployed so as to maximize local value streams and advance community-wide sustainability and equity goals.
Many of these projects will automatically benefit from the renewed ITC provided by the IRA, as well as additional incentives for projects designed to benefit low-income communities. Additionally, the IIJA created several programs to support local projects that build resilience in communities, including the “Program Upgrading Our Electric Grid and Ensuring Reliability and Resiliency” and the “Preventing Outages and Enhancing the Resilience of the Electric Grid Grants.” For more information on potential sources of grant funding, see RMI’s Federal Funding Opportunities for Local Decarbonization (FFOLD) database.
Reducing Energy Needs by Leveraging Urban Nature
Urban forests and nature are not always considered energy and resilience resources, but they should be. For starters, these natural systems can provide critical stormwater management to mitigate costly flood damage that can devastate communities. One of Babcock Ranch’s secrets in successfully weathering Hurricane Ian was its locally adapted native species. The community’s native plants, bioswales, and lakes, along with careful urban planning, helped to reduce runoff and channel it to help protect houses from flooding.
Additionally, these native species are themselves a form of local energy resources in that they can provide important energy savings. For example, one of the fundamental drivers of energy use in many cities around the globe is cooling. Urban forests and parks can be 12°F cooler than treeless neighborhoods, and a street lined with trees can be over 5°F cooler than one without. Urban canopies are therefore a critical — and cost-effective — strategy for addressing the urban heat island effect, especially as heat waves become more widespread, frequent, and dangerous. Nature-based cooling is also particularly beneficial for lower-income groups who may not be able to afford air conditioning and often rely more heavily on active transportation (walking and biking) or mass transit that requires waiting outside.
New funding resources can help communities replicate these types of projects. For example, while the IRA sets aside $1.5 billion for the Urban and Community Forestry Program, local groups could also leverage the IIJA’s “Environmental and Climate Justice Block Grants” or the “Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program” to fully capitalize on the potential of natural systems to enhance resilience and sustainability.
Next Steps for Communities
Communities across the globe are wrestling with what often seem to be competing priorities of economic growth, sustainable operations, resilience, and supporting disadvantaged groups. While local energy infrastructure often cannot meet communities’ total annual energy needs, local projects are uniquely positioned to enhance resilience while also advancing progress on these other goals. In particular, energy investments can be designed to create jobs and training programs; reduce reliance on fossil fuels; and (if properly coordinated with community-based organizations) provide safety and enhanced comfort to disadvantaged groups. Moreover, local stakeholders have a range of compelling opportunities, from programs that accelerate residential adoption of clean technologies, to large-scale projects to power whole neighborhoods, to nature-based solutions.
While the path ahead may still seem daunting, local community leaders do not need to go it alone. A significant network of support is emerging to enable collaboration within and across communities, such as the Local Infrastructure Hub, the City Renewables Accelerator’s FFOLD tool, and RMI’s community-focused programming.
Extreme weather is only going to become more common and frequent. But with the right planning, federal incentives, and support, communities can find compelling ways to adapt and thrive.
Featured Community Solar+ image courtesy of RMI.
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