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Leveraging Federal Energy Investments for Underserved Communities

The Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) together have made historic investments in America’s clean energy future and help fast-track the country towards achieving climate goals. The IIJA, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, makes critical infrastructure investments to scale and accelerate the deployment of clean energy solutions in the transportation, power, and industrial sectors. The IRA provides incentives to close the cost-gap and support faster deployment of clean energy solutions.

As these policies are implemented, it’s important to consider ways to ensure these federal dollars benefit all Americans, particularly because of how past disparities have negatively impacted certain communities. For example, households of color pay two to three times more for energy than the national average, low-income Americans and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to harmful air pollutants associated with power production, and access to clean energy sources for communities of color lags behind the national average.

The Bipartisan Policy Center and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE) wrote an explainer about the challenges and opportunities to ensure that the benefits of clean energy investments flow equitably to historically disadvantaged Americans, and lawmakers took notice. During a January 2023 House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) asked to submit the report into the record and asked witnesses, “Can you discuss how clean energy investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act will help build a more equitable economy?”

The ongoing challenges of equitable implementation of clean energy policy and infrastructure investment was the focus of an all-day discussion at AABE’s Energy Policy Summit held in December 2022. Panelists from non-profit organizations, the private sector, and government agencies spoke about the once-in-a-generation opportunity the IIJA and IRA provide for Black Americans and other communities of color and the tangible ways the public and private sector can enable the realization of benefits. Here are four key takeaways from the summit:

Readying historically underserved communities for the influx of funding. As public laws and multi-year investments, the IIJA and IRA will require many steps to implement before delivering impactful services or benefits to communities. Panelists discussed how this procedural time ought to be utilized to build proper anticipation and prepare communities to capitalize on the flow of funds and investments. Private sector actors, advocacy groups, and non-profit organizations can help create proper anticipation by informing communities about incoming opportunities. Panelists encouraged federal agencies to ready communities by increasing transparency and communication about program implementation timelines and funding opportunities, forming and expanding new and existing technical assistance programs, standing up public participation offices, and strengthening coordination with local governmental and non-governmental actors. Both public and private actors can also ensure that communities of color or historically disadvantaged communities are aware of the various tools provided by the federal government, like the Climate and Economic Justice tool and community benefits plan, to ensure impactful investments are coming to their neighborhood.

Enabling equitable economic opportunity and participation for communities, workers and businesses of color. As investments from the IIJA and IRA flow, ensuring equitable access to economic participation of Black and other historically underserved communities is an important consideration. Panelists discussed the need for public-private partnerships to ensure small businesses, workers of color, and minority owned businesses reap economic and employment gains created by these investments. Echoing themes from BPC and AABE’s past webinar on this topic, speakers called for sustainability of action and a continued commitment to workforce diversity from the private sector. Speakers throughout the summit pointed to an ongoing investment gap in workers of color and the need for increased participation of minority businesses in federal government projects.

Implementing programs to address direct need and build wealth in communities of color. Panelists at the summit spoke about the need to create opportunities that build wealth for communities who have experienced injustices in the past. the work of righting past wrongs cannot be separated from tangible wealth creation for their community. Many speakers at the summit stressed the need to view IIJA and IRA as investment tools to address the direct needs of communities. And to that effect, speakers talked about the need for smarter federal program implementation and execution that continually engages communities, addresses past wrong in tangible ways, empowers communities with solutions that address direct needs, and brings lasting economic opportunities and quality jobs.

Maintaining momentum and broadening bipartisan advocacy. Speakers throughout the summit highlighted the need to guide the federal government with continued advocacy and input as different agencies implement the IIJA and IRA. Leaders at the summit spoke about the need to use formal and informal modalities to reinforce policy priorities and complementary goals like the Justice40 Initiative. This, they pointed out, is necessary to build proper expectation and accountability that ensures investments are flowing equitably to Black communities and other historically underinvested communities. The summit wrapped up with a call for bipartisanship and collaboration across the aisle from long-time friends and colleagues, now-retired Reps. Bobby Lee Rush and G. K. Butterfield.

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