Alachua County's EMPOWER program to receive federal technical assistance in transitioning to clean energy
The U.S. Department of Energy has selected 22 communities to be a part of its Communities Local Energy Action Program, and the Alachua County EMPOWER program was one of those selected.
The pilot program, known as LEAP, was put in place “to facilitate sustained community-wide economic and environmental benefits.” It will offer supportive services for clean energy transitions, according to the department’s website.
“It is part of President Biden's emphasis to spend at least 40% of the renewable dollars in disadvantaged communities,” said John Nix, the energy conservation specialist at Alachua County Public Schools.
Nix, who also serves on the NAACP Environmental Climate Justice Committee, said Alachua EMPOWER is meant to help low-income, energy-burdened communities.
“EMPOWER stands for the energy modernization for people, opportunity, work, equity and renewables,” he said.
The justice committee will have representatives from the energy department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which will help the organization come up with a path for renewable energy, Nix said. It will do so by identifying what the community’s needs are and how to address them. Nix said he believes this is key in the path to reducing the economic burden of energy.
“This grant is not a financial grant,” Nix said. “It’s a technical assistance grant, we are able to put a plan together financed by sources from the outside and sources from our community to make sure that we move into our goal of renewable 100% energy by 2045.”
Marianne Schmink, who also serves on the justice committee and is a Community Weatherization Coalition representative, said there are five main goals and steps to the program.
Energy efficiency and weatherization of homes in our communities to bring energy and water use down and save people on their utility bills, Schmink said. The second is to electrify as many homes as possible. This is to make the transition away from fossil fuel burning and help address climate issues.
“We want to explore the possibility of solar arrays on and in low-income — historically African American communities. These are communities that need to have that energy efficiency upgrade first to be able to participate in solar upgrades,” Schmink said. “We would like to see some experimentation with solar on homes, community centers and schools in those neighborhoods.”
“We would then want to explore linking them together in a micro-grid for climate resilience in those communities,” she said. “The last part is youth internships to incorporate more people into the energy efficiency economy.”
While doing all of this, the county wanted to ensure that equity is considered in the transition to clean energy in the community.
Nkwanda Jah, chair of the Alachua County NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, said this is an opportunity for that community to be included because they've been priced out.
This project will move the county toward 100% clean energy, Jah said. However, from the discussions she’s had, there remain many tasks and hurdles to get there. The biggest one is the weatherization of homes — making certain that they are not losing heat out of their homes in the winter and vice versa in the summer.
The plan is to increase utility reliability, Nix said. These projects should do those things and make these communities more resilient and decrease the percentage of income these marginalized communities have to pay towards their utilities. The data show they are paying almost 15 to 25% of their income on utilities.
“The technical assistance, we hope, will last around 12 to 18 months,” Nix said. “Within the next year, residents should start to see physical things be available for people to take advantage of.”
Jah said this is going to be a community-backed project that will include multiple groups, Like the county, Gainesville Regional Utilities, school board, and the weatherization coalition.
“We're going to use this grant to find out what it is that we really can do. Who needs to be involved? How do we make it so that people can afford to get their homes, to get their appliances switched over from gas to electric — we've got to do that. We can't continue to depend upon gas, because that's not clean,” Jah said.