“People deserve to come home and rest in places where their lungs are not taxed and where their children and elders get to breathe clean air and recoup from the work they’re doing every day.” -Odetta MacLeish-White, Director of Georgia Initiatives at the Center for Community Progress
In Fall 2022, NCSEA went to Atlanta for the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance’s (SEEA) Southeast Energy Summit to talk with experts about the distribution of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funds and the complexities associated with ensuring those funds are equitably disbursed to those who need them most. Episode 79 of the Squeaky Clean Energy podcast features the live-recorded conversation with Joe Gehrdes, Director of Community Relations for Huntsville Utilities, and Odetta MacLeish-White, Director of Georgia Initiatives at the Center for Community Progress. With host Matt Abele, they discussed the importance of equitably engaging with historically disadvantaged communities and how to effectively address the energy burden in the southern US and beyond.
About the Speakers
Joe Gehrdes joined Huntsville Utilities in 2011 as its first Governmental Affairs Manager. In Gehrdes’ current role, he oversees community and media relations, governmental and regulatory affairs, and residential energy services. Before the utility, Gehrdes was the Governmental Affairs Liaison at the Huntsville Madison County Builders Association for 10 years.
Odetta MacLeish-White brings thought partnership and strategies for vacant, abandoned, and deteriorating properties in Georgia through her current role with the Georgia Initiatives at the Center for Community Progress. Previously, she was the Managing Director for the TransFormation Alliance, where she helped residents in impacted communities to shape better health, climate and economic outcomes and improve housing, transit, and job access.
The Challenge: Equitable Distribution of Funding
Congress passed the IRA in August 2022, unlocking significant amounts of funding for federal, state, and local clean energy initiatives. Amidst this unprecedented investment, advocates like Gherdes and Macleish-White stress that it is vital for disadvantaged communities to have access to those funds.
In consideration of equitable distribution, MacLeish-White explained that the public expects transparency for how states use money as they gain greater awareness of racial and environmental injustices. Gehrdes added that distributing federal funds can also involve a third party, like a bank, to accept and track funds. Therefore, it can take some time for the money to reach and help local customers and residents. Another challenge with the system is that funds often come in the form of tax incentives, which exclude certain entities and individuals. As an example, Huntsville Utilities does not pay taxes, prompting the utility to advocate for direct pay incentives to help their customers benefit.
“If you are not actively changing how a system works, all your great intent will be dissipated and you will get the same result you were trying to avoid at the other end of it,” explained MacLeish-White.
Opportunities for the Funding to Increase Equity
Despite these challenges, IRA funding also creates many opportunities to spur a clean energy transition. People with an entrepreneurial spirit now have access to money to increase budgets for innovative clean energy projects. MacLeish-White shared that a land bank in Georgia received ARPA funding from available city and county level funds after having a lack of stable funding.
Utility projects stand to benefit from new funding as well. Gehrdes elaborated on the priorities of Huntsville Utilities, like its Project Share program that offers energy efficiency upgrades for people facing high energy burdens. He went on to explain how IRA funding could allow customers to receive more efficient heating and cooling systems. Gehrdes said that Huntsville Utilities wants to deploy additional energy efficiency technologies, such as smart metering, for renter-occupied properties. He highlighted how partnerships with organizations such as The Salvation Army are key to funding projects that help customers with bill security.
Improving Quality of Life While Reducing Energy Costs
Host Matt Abele pointed out the need to focus on the health and safety of homes on top of lowering monthly energy bills through energy efficiency projects.
Gehrdes shared an example of how the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is confronting this issue. Specifically, its program Home Uplift is an energy-audit-based home improvement program aimed at increasing quality of life through energy efficiency upgrades. It is a dollar-for-dollar match between TVA and a funding source to provide customers with free energy upgrades to their home.
An equitable future also means affording people the ability to live a life full of joy and rest, explained MacLeish-White. When she worked at the TransFormation Alliance, she saw how busy and tired many people were and that they did not have the capacity to discuss community issues around equity and energy efficiency. This is an especially important consideration given that many people who may need the IRA funds the most are unable to participate in the conversations designed to determine how they’re distributed.
"People deserve to come home and rest in places where their lungs are not taxed and where their children and elders get to breathe clean air and recoup from the work they’re doing every day.” - Odetta MacLeish-White
“When you see political action in these justice movements,” MacLeish-White continued, “The additional energy given by these families amidst the complexity of their daily life makes them heroes.”
The speakers noted some potential ways to increase quality of life as it relates to reducing the energy burden. Gehrdes noted the importance of regulation to address systemic problems. Establishing requirements around energy efficiency has the potential to prevent residents from having to worry about basic needs in instances where they may be unable to attend city council meetings and advocate for their needs themselves. MacLeish-White went on to underline the importance of direct income payments to help reduce inequalities and give relief to families. She noted that these payments can improve quality of life in ways like increasing families’ abilities to pay for educational opportunities and extracurriculars for kids.
NCSEA is thankful for Joe Gehrdes and Odetta MacLeish-White’s work to engage communities and uplift their voices. We are also thrilled about the opportunities the IRA is creating and will continue to work towards an equitable energy transition. Learn more by listening to the episode and subscribing to the Squeaky Clean Energy podcast.