Amid the rapidly growing landscape of infrastructure development and modernization across the nation, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) aim at tackling aging infrastructure across industry sectors. Within the power and energy sector, the main goals include increasing resilience against cyberattacks and extreme weather events while accommodating the increasing penetration of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs).
These federal investments have an added goal of ensuring that 40% of overall realized benefits go to federally recognized Disadvantaged Communities (DACs) through the Justice 40 initiative. DACs in this context refer to communities that have been historically marginalized or disproportionately affected by environmental pollution, social inequities, and economic challenges.
In the realm of IIJA funding applications, the community benefits plan (CBP) is a representation of an entity’s responsible stewardship of federal funds—showing their commitment to driving positive change by advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.
CBPs require a documented proposal from project conception through implementation and steady state operations. To meet and exceed these laid out requirements for grant applications, an innovative and interdisciplinary approach is needed that addresses specific community needs.
The approach required to complete a CBP might differ almost entirely from one grant application to another—demonstrating that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to CBPs and that this work should not be taken lightly.
Direct plans showcasing program success metrics and active community input are not only sought after by the government entities when reviewing applications but are also best practice for successful community engagement.
Each program requires an individual solution that is tailored to meet the unique needs of communities affected, while illustrating the problem solved and holding the applicant to Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound (SMART) metrics from which the program’s effectiveness will be evaluated.
SMART metrics are not only critical to the inception and development of a CBP—they’re important to accountability and sustainability of the project. These metrics are also used to measure overall program success throughout its lifetime. Building the habits of defining, tracking, and quantifying these metrics is important; these will continue to be metrics that showcase program success.
When crafting a unique, effective, and appropriate CBP, it’s critical to align project benefits to address the burdens faced by impacted communities. The social, environmental, and economic challenges faced by federally recognized DACs are complex and require tailored solutions. To do this, it’s necessary to have a nuanced understanding of the community and the burdens they face.
A DAC is federally defined by 36 burden indicators broken down into four categories:
When identifying and confirming federally recognized DACs within a service territory, using federal mapping tools such as the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool can be an effective place to start. This tool provides a census tract level breakdown of DACs nationwide and the burden indicators experienced by each community. Communities can also be identified through person-to-person connection, local advocacy groups, community anchor institutions, and others. Ideally, project conception goes hand in hand with addressing community needs.
Direct communication with community leaders and groups is essential in building not only a successful CBP but also a successful grant application. Utilities should consider what partnerships they already hold or where there’s potential for partnership with community stakeholders. This can help to identify communities faced with federally recognized and documented environmental or socioeconomic burdens—and develop a more intimate understanding of what unique burdens are present and impacting local communities. No one knows a community and its problems better than its own members.
CBPs ask for examples of utility involvement in external organizations and how these partnerships align with project goals. These relationships take time to develop—and proactivity is critical. Demonstrate that community relationships align with explicit project goals and are not just accessories or afterthoughts to a proposed project when crafting a CBP.
The ways in which a federal grant application connects utility goals and community benefits can be diverse in nature. Whether it’s providing broadband to a historically disconnected area or engaging local residents in a workforce development program, possibilities for alignment of utility and community are numerous.
It’s important to identify any potential risks to communities that could be caused by the proposed program—and determine solutions and mitigation plans to ensure that burdens faced by communities won’t be exacerbated or created.
Assembling a CBP on a compressed timeline using disparate information can be a daunting task and a barrier to creating a strong application for the IIJA and IRA funding programs. For prospective federal applicants, ample time and preparation is essential to the development of a CBP. A well-executed CBP reaps benefits beyond funding approval by engaging all project partners early and setting clear expectations for subsequent project planning steps. Project partners for these programs can include community groups, local government, schools, religious groups, or any organizations that have deep roots and trust within the community. Utilities can also leverage an effective CBP and deep stakeholder relationships to align best practices across their organizations and more effectively plan for other programs—whether federally funded or not.
A strong CBP addresses the burdens faced by DACs with not only intent but also specific and measurable action items. Applicants are encouraged to be creative in the ways that they generate those project components to differentiate their submissions. Using a framework like the SMART model can facilitate the generation process and prevent gaps in the final deliverable.
Additionally, using the SMART model is critical to tracking overall program success throughout program deployment and execution. It’s important that utilities not underestimate the degree of effort required during this process; unrealistic goals can harm credibility when they are left unmet after implementation.
Similarly, communities must be identified accurately and engaged actively to increase chances of approval and maintain credibility through the implementation stage. A variety of mapping tools are available for identifying disadvantaged communities, but further analysis is required to align that data with the CBP.
Once communities are identified, their needs must not be prescribed without consistent and transparent communication with their local entities.
Utilities cannot afford to be reactive with respect to community benefits planning in order to capitalize on the multitude of funding opportunities administered by federal agencies. It’s time to engage all project partners, solidify relationships with community partners, and begin addressing unknowns.