How small rural towns can access Inflation Reduction Act funding
The Inflation Reduction Act provides funds for clean energy, transportation, electrification and more for rural communities, but small towns with few resources and staff may have trouble accessing those programs.
Rural towns and utilities could get funding for all kinds of projects through the federal Inflation Reduction Act — but experts say it will take dedicated community members stepping up to help make that happen.
The act, passed in August, has money for rural development and energy infrastructure, as well as electric vehicle infrastructure and incentives. There are incentives for homeowners to make energy efficient improvements to their houses. Communities with coal plants or natural gas plants can repurpose those into cleaner energy sources.
“People should figure out what part of the energy transformation they want to be a part of and then go advertise that, and tell people to bring their best proposals to their community,” said Jigar Shah, director of the Loan Programs Office at the U.S. Department of Energy.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Inflation Reduction Act includes the largest investment in rural electrification since 1936, but the opportunities are quite competitive, and it’s harder on towns with fewer resources to go after the funding. They might not have the staff and funding to provide the data analysis and expertise needed.
“There is some (federal) technical assistance available, but it's really not enough and at the level necessary to capture the most vulnerable and the most needy communities,” said Colin Wellenkamp, executive director of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.
While there is technical assistance, it takes community members who are willing to look into these programs. According to Shah, when a community takes advantage of an opportunity, it’s usually because someone dedicated themselves to making it happen.
“Honestly, what it requires is someone locally who just has a passion for their community and for this topic,” he said. “When that person identifies themselves and they want to go deep, then we have all the resources to let them go deep, and then they need to start a conversation in the community.”
That is what happened in Alma, Kansas. The local Wabaunsee School District upgraded their old diesel school buses to new electric vehicles using federal government funds provided by the EPA.
“Being a rural district, you don't have a great deal of funding in terms of going out and restoring your fleet,” said Clint Thompson, the school district’s transportation director.
“It was essentially a way for us to have the opportunity to take a couple units that were closer to the end of their days anyways and to get them donated and swapped out for two brand new units.”
Thompson saw the opportunity in an email thread and took a look at the application himself, then got permission from the school district to pursue the project.
“I really think it just takes someone stepping forward and putting their neck out there and testing the waters to see if it's an opportunity that's not only legit, but an opportunity that can be used within the community,” he said.
In the Inflation Reduction Act, there are also tax credits for electric vehicles that the school district can take advantage of now that it has electric school buses. That would be handled by a different department in the district, but Thompson said he is also paying attention to it.
“I'm definitely going to make sure we look into that,” he said.
NGOs and philanthropic assistance
The amount of information and programs available in the Inflation Reduction Act can be daunting, said Billy Davies, Missouri's conservation program coordinator with the Sierra Club.
“It is easy to get overwhelmed by the issues that we're trying to tackle a climate crisis, at a time when we're still recovering from a global pandemic,” he said. "And further, cities are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information included in the Inflation Reduction Act and the resources behind it.”
There are organizations that are providing resources to help towns and utilities understand what’s available. Climate Mayors partnered with C40 to create a guide for climate action opportunities. The mayor of Columbia, Missouri, also partnered with Climate Cabinet Education to launch a guide for how public power utilities can use the funding.
Kate Wright, the executive director of Climate Mayors, said the organization wanted to put out a guide to help mayors understand the breadth of roles their cities can play.
“To the extent that the (federal) administration can continue to work with groups like ours and other city-serving organizations to either fund or help support templates, tools, resources that can help the mayors and community leaders be more visible champions for this and provide more information, I think that's going to be very effective,” she said.
Wright also said that collaboration is going to be critical. Towns can work with their state’s department of energy and department of transportation.
“I think being able to work together and in partnership can create additional capacity that might not be there in a smaller under-resourced city.”
Often towns will need approval from these kinds of agencies anyway to give their applications a boost, said Wellenkamp of MRCTI. He recommends towns create a task force that includes members of the community to work over the next few years to consider not only Inflation Reduction Act opportunities, but opportunities from other acts.
“It can have the community more engaged and involved from the start,” he said, “and it can also assist your city in gaining partnerships and project endorsements, which are key.”
However, towns are running out of time to take advantage of these funds. Deadlines are already looming.
“If (utilities) are not acting on it right now, something is very wrong. And if their communities are upset and concerned by this, they should be,” said the Sierra Club’s Davies, ”and they should be reaching out to their electric providers and their public officials to demand accountability.”
Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.