Clean energy in rural America gets another big boost… | Canary Media

The Biden-Harris administration is bringing clean power to America’s less populated — and sometimes overlooked — regions.

On Tuesday, the Department of Energy announced $78 million for 19 clean energy projects in rural communities from Alaska to Alabama, for installing everything from solar and batteries to power lines and heat pumps.

The funding is part of the Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas (ERA) program, a $1 billion initiative created by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. This latest influx of funds to support rural communities, defined as having populations of fewer than 10,000, comes on the heels of the program’s biggest wave of funding so far: $366 million for 17 mostly larger-scale projects announced in February.

All told, the funding to date covers 20 states and 30 tribal nations, according to Regina Galer, the ERA program manager at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, a division of the Department of Energy (DOE). Last July, the office also awarded $6.7 million under the program to 67 winners of the Energizing Rural Communities Prize to develop clean energy partnerships and financing strategies.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm feted the funding for rural communities in a statement: ​“Through these transformative investments, rural and remote communities from coast to coast are able to map a clean energy future that revitalizes local economies and cuts the pollution that is fueling the climate crisis and driving environmental injustice.”

Rural communities, with their small populations and isolation from larger electrical systems, grapple with unique energy challenges. These include high electric bills, high fuel costs, and unreliable energy supplies — or lack of access to electricity altogether. At the same time, rural communities have untapped potential for generating clean energy.

The ERA funding is meant to help ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels in places that could most use the support; of the nation’s 318 persistently poor counties, 270 are rural.

“We are trying … to help rural communities transition to clean energy where there has been a lack of resources to do that in the past,” Galer said.

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The grants announced this week, of $500,000 to $5 million per project, are meant to bolster energy resilience and reliability while also boosting clean energy knowledge and capacity in these underserved areas. The program also aims to reduce how much rural and disadvantaged families spend on energy, a fraction of their income known as their ​“energy burden.” On average, low-income households have three times the energy burden of other households, which can lead to untenable decisions between paying for fuel or electricity and other necessities, such as meals and medicine.

The size and scope of the projects range widely, but here are a few that were awarded the highest amount of $5 million: The Adams Electric Cooperative–led project in Schuyler County, Illinois, will install a 1-megawatt wind turbine and a 1-megawatt solar array to provide clean electricity for about 7,500 families in an area affected by the closure of coal mines. The Monongahela Power Company–led project will rebuild 23 miles of distribution power lines to improve grid reliability for more than 3,000 disadvantaged customers in West Virginia. And a project co-led by Dallas County and the Alabama Board of Education will enable up to nine schools in the county serving thousands of K–12 students to undergo energy efficient retrofits — three of those schools will install rooftop solar — in order to create a healthier learning environment while also reducing energy costs and slashing carbon pollution.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was selected to install 2.1 megawatt-hours of battery storage to serve a microgrid on their Poteau campus. Located near ​“Tornado Alley” and prone to whipping winds and torrential rain, the area has seen an average of three power outages per year since 2018, according to Randy Sachs, director of public relations for the nation. In emergencies, the microgrid will provide backup power to a health clinic, child development center, and food distribution center.

“We are tremendously excited with the opportunity to provide consistent power for our tribal members in the Poteau area, especially with services such as healthcare,” Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton said in a statement. The Choctaw project will also include heat pumps and other energy efficiency upgrades expected to save $140,000 annually.

Selected applicants will now start negotiating awards with the DOE, Galer said. That process won’t necessarily change the amount of money awarded to each project, but it will clarify how details such as anticipated costs may have shifted since applicants submitted their plans. The DOE aims to finalize the awards by the end of the year.

With still about half of the program’s $1 billion left, Galer noted that she expects the agency will announce at least one more funding opportunity in 2024 to build out clean energy in rural America.

Alison F. Takemura
is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.