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University of Arizona to Improve Access to Clean Energy Tech

The University of Arizona's West EJ Center will put a $10 million federal grant toward rebates and tax credits to make energy-efficient appliances and solar panels affordable for community groups and other institutions.

(TNS) — A new environmental justice center based at the University of Arizona will try to parlay a $10 million, five-year federal grant into helping low-income communities access billions of federal dollars for solar panels, home insulation, roof coating and other clean-energy projects.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act, approved last year, will be funneling these billions into Arizona through a wide array of programs over the next few years, the White House has said.

They will represent by far the single biggest federal investment in programs and efforts to improve peoples' access to various kinds of clean energy programs and projects. Billions of additional federal dollars will be offered for more conventional environmental justice programs, such as air monitoring and indoor air quality assistance.

The federal help will include rebates and tax credits for people to buy energy-efficient appliances and to install solar panels and communitywide solar systems to expand the reach of solar energy. The act will also finance broader programs that will offer grants and loans to help entire low-income communities obtain more clean energy projects.

The new UA program, known most simply as the West EJ Center, will try to help community groups and other institutions most effectively obtain such funding.

The center will also provide help with day-to-day technical issues involving the environment, such as monitoring equipment for people to test air and water quality in their neighborhoods.

It will also try to help low-income residents become more effective players in local and regional environmental issues. It will train them in skills ranging from writing public comment letters to understanding climate science and public health. The center will hold workshops to train local activists how to more effectively engage with public agencies and other residents of their communities.

"The idea is that we are sort of a one-stop shop, offering soup to nuts, where people can help get whatever help they need to navigate the bureaucracy," said Nathan Lothrop, the center's associate director.

Paloma Beamer, the center's director, added, "We will have air pollution sensors people can borrow and use, and mapping tools for environmental justice work.

"If they want to measure x, y and z in the air we'll support them," said Beamer, a UA public health professor. "We have a statistical consultant for them to talk to, to tell them how many samples they will need to collect."

Today, "All these programs with taxpayer dollars are so inaccessible for people who need them," Beamer said.

At the same time, Beamer, who has worked in environmental justice issues at UA for 15 years, called the availability of this much federal money at once "a miracle" and an "exciting opportunity."

Among low-income groups and other community activists in Tucson, the prospect of getting help from the new center in securing federal funds for clean and green energy projects drew the most immediate and strongest positive reaction. Several held a news conference here recently to discuss the benefits they foresee receiving from the federal programs and the help they hope to get from the new center.

When the West EJ Center formally begins operations in August or September, it will serve low-income areas and communities of color in Tucson, across Arizona and in three other Western states including California.

It will also serve similar groups in Guam, the Marshall Islands and other U.S. trust territories in the Pacific Islands. These areas are all served by the Environmental Protection Agency's Pacific Southwest regional office, based in San Francisco.


In Tucson, local activists and other community groups welcome the commitment to help people access federal funds as a potential "game-changer."

Not only is it hard for low-income residents to afford solar panels costing $10,000 and up, before existing tax credits are taken into account, it's hard to figure out how to cut through the red tape that often blocks access to such funds, they say.

"There is a great need for low-income communities to access renewable energy technologies. They have no money to buy solar systems up front, or credit history to get a loan," said Ann Marie Wolf, president of the Tucson-based Sonoran Environmental Research Institute, which has helped small numbers of low-income residents obtain solar energy for their homes. The group is likely to become one of many partner agencies that will work directly with the new center by obtaining subcontracts under the new federal grant.

"We have a solar empowerment program doing that. (But) we have limited funds to assist people per year. We have a large portion of the low-income population who could partake of these programs if funds are available, particularly in central and southern metro Tucson," Wolf said.

Laura Dent, a Tucsonan who directs a coalition of activist groups known collectively as Activate 48, said the coalition may use federal funds to work with schools and community gardens to put up solar arrays "so we can show people what solar is like without having to put panels on a roof of a house that isn't their own."

"I think the hard part for renewable energy, both with installations and investments in general, is there are huge cross-sections of communities that aren't seeing their benefits directly. You're different if you have panels on your home or see community-scale solar in your neighborhood. But if you don't have proximity or awareness, why would you fight for that?" asked Dent.

Claudio Rodriguez, policy and community organizing director for Tucson's Community Food Bank, would like solar panels installed on his family's 1,200-square-foot home in South Tucson to help pare down electric bills that reach $200 a month in the summer. But he said he can't afford their cost, even with existing tax credits that reduce the tab by several thousand dollars.

The food bank helps low-income residents overcome barriers to obtaining existing benefits, such as City of Tucson water harvesting rebates, and works with school districts and farmers markets to help them get affordable food.

He said he hopes the new UA center can help people tap into a broader range of programs. The food bank serves low-income people in five Southern Arizona counties.

"We are definitely going to be at the table to represent folks we work with on the south side, or at least connect with folks on the ground," Rodriguez said. "We don't want the money to go into just one department or one part of the city — we want it to spread out and create the environmental justice we all need.

"We need more trees. We need more solar."


Some of the new federal programs include:

Arizona will receive a total of $4.1 billion of federal investment in "large scale clean power generation and storage" from the Inflation Reduction Act, the White House said in a recent statement, providing no further explanation.

The act offers rebates for installing energy-efficient electric appliances, including heat pumps, water heaters, clothes dryers, stoves and ovens. Rebates will be available for households to make repairs and improvements in single-family homes and apartments to increase energy efficiency.

Tax credits will be offered to cover 30 percent of the costs of community solar projects. The projects would be owned by local businesses that would sign up families to save on their electric bills.

A $14 billion National Clean Investment Fund will provide grants to two to three national, nonprofit financing entities, to work with the private sector to finance what's hoped to be tens of thousands of new "clean technology projects" nationally.

A $7 billion, EPA-financed Solar for All program will award up to 60 grants to deploy residential solar energy projects nationally. The grants will be awarded to states, territories, tribal governments, municipalities and eligible nonprofit groups, and will provide both financing and technical assistance.

A $6 billion, EPA-financed, Clean Communities Investment Accelerator program will provide grants to up to seven major nonprofit organizations. The grants will allow them to provide funding and technical assistance to public, quasi-public, not-for-profit, and nonprofit community lenders. The purpose is to insure that communities have adequate resources to finance clean technology projects.

The EPA is offering a total of $3 billion in environmental justice grants over a decade. The grants will "empower community efforts to confront and overcome persistent pollution challenges in underserved communities that have often led to worse health and economic outcomes over decades," EPA said.

Programs will include "community-led" air pollution monitoring, prevention and remediation, mitigation of climate and health risks from extreme heat and wildfires, climate adaptation and reducing indoor air pollution, EPA said.


While approval of the Inflation Reduction Act and its various clean energy programs has been applauded by environmental groups nationally, the act was opposed by virtually all if not all congressional Republicans.

They viewed many of these programs as wasteful and unnecessary, and some say human-caused climate change either doesn't exist or doesn't justify massive federal investment on the scale provided by the act.

During the recent congressional debates over extending the federal debt ceiling, many congressional Republicans sought to use the need for that extension to rescind last year's approval of the act's programs or eliminate or cut financing for them.

Those efforts didn't succeed, as the debt ceiling was extended without any major changes to the act.


At this point, the West EJ Center's officials say they don't know exactly which programs they'll help seek money from or even which programs they will be legally able to work with under the terms of the grant awarded in June. The center is still hiring its three other full-time staffers and various subcontractors, director Beamer said.

"Nobody knows how much money or different programs are being rolled out with different agencies" at this time, Beamer said. One of the staff's continuing tasks will be to identify funding opportunities and keep a list, she said.

"The good news is that everyone is really excited we will have these opportunities to support communities," she said. "I believe it can be community organizations, schools, even like churches, that can apply for these grant funds."

2023 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.