Locals seek funding for energy programs
Cities with energy conservation programs may soon get additional funding from the federal government. The House is considering an energy bill that would include an Energy Efficiency Block Grant (EEBG) program, modeled on the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.
The EEBG would fund local energy efficiency strategies, including “green” building projects, home weatherization and land use guidelines that promote energy efficiency, such as walkable communities. Cities with populations over 50,000 and counties with 200,000 residents or more would receive 70 percent of the EEBG money. The remaining 30 percent would go to states, which would then be required to pass on at least 70 percent of the money to local governments that do not meet the population requirements for direct grants.
In June, the Senate passed its version of an energy bill that includes the EEBG. If the House approves its version, the two bills will be reconciled and resubmitted to the House and Senate for approval, perhaps in the fall.
The Washington-based U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) has been lobbying for the program, and officials hope the EEBG will become law before the end of the year. Austin, Texas, Mayor Will Wynn, chair of the USCM Energy Committee, was part of Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer’s leadership team that helped devise the program and has testified before Congress to support it. Like the CDBG program, the EEBG is based on the concept that a government that is closest to the people can govern best, Wynn says. “So, in lieu of the big, hairy federal government trying to tell little communities what to do, why not give communities the financial opportunity to craft programs of their own?” he says.
Austin would apply for EEBG money to expand some of its energy conservation programs, including a municipal green building program that promotes the construction of energy-efficient buildings, weatherizing residents’ homes and a solar rebate program in which the city pays up to $4.50 per watt for solar panel installations on homes. “We have hundreds of folks who have taken us up on that,” Wynn says.
Austin’s electric utility also pays for the installation of programmable thermostats in houses, which saves customers money and gives the utility the authority to turn off air conditioners for up to 10 minutes an hour during peak operation times. Because Austin owns its own electric utility, the city has been able to implement several conservation programs. “But many, many cities and local communities do not have that sort of policy opportunity,” Wynn says.
Those cities, including Fayetteville, Ark., with a population of 70,000, would especially benefit from the EEBG program. Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody, says his city could receive up to $450,000 under the proposed EEBG formula. “One of the things we need to do is upgrade our old buildings and get more efficient heating and cooling equipment,” Coody says.
The city also plans to implement an education campaign on energy conservation for residents and replace conventional fleet vehicles with alternative-fueled vehicles (all of the city’s diesel-powered vehicles and equipment currently use biodiesel). “That $450,000 could be used up many times over,” Coody says.
USCM officials say they are confident that Congress eventually will approve the EEBG program, though there is some opposition to other parts of the energy bill. Coody says it is important for everyone to do what they can to fight climate change. “So far the federal government is a no show, so it really is up to the cities to do not just what we can, but try to get the federal government to do what they can,” he says.