The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) may be best known for funding clean energy technology research and development, but the agency increasingly also provides technical assistance, or “TA”, to help communities achieve their clean energy goals. A year ago, DOE launched  the Communities Local Energy Action Pilot Program (Communities LEAP) to empower a key set of priority communities -- low-income and energy burdened communities with a historic reliance on fossil industries, or who are currently experiencing environmental injustice -- to custom-design their own pathways to a sustainable, resilient, equitable clean energy future.

DOE has chosen 24 communities across the U.S. to participate in the Communities LEAP program. Since March 2022, the agency has brought expertise from our national laboratories, led by the National Renewable Energy Lab, and other partner organizations to better understand and address local priorities in achieving the goal of a just energy transition in each of these communities. These projects vary depending on each community’s unique context and needs, integrating topics like energy efficiency and clean energy, transportation and mobility, economic and workforce development, energy resilience, manufacturing and industrial opportunities, and more.

Communities LEAP in Action: Smart Planning Leads to Smart Plans

Recently, several Communities LEAP partners participated in DOE’s Justice Week Panel on Meaningful Community Engagement and the Justice40 Initiative to discuss how communities can leverage federal programs to help them lead an equitable energy transition.  

The community of South Stockton, California is exposed to some of the highest rates of pollution in the state, due to its proximity to highways, the Port of Stockton, a railyard, and several industrial facilities. At the same time, climate impacts like wildfires and extreme heat days are exacerbating the poor air quality and creating other health and economic hazards. All of this is happening in the context of a major economic shift away from the oil industry and agriculture, both of which have created jobs and tax revenues in this community, and toward a more sustainable and resilient economic mix.

The Stockton Communities LEAP partnership will focus on leveraging existing state, regional, and municipal sustainability and hazard mitigation plans to inform a vulnerability assessment specific to this community. The program will also include a resilience planning workshop, bringing together multiple community-based organizations and other stakeholders representing South Stockton to begin developing and coordinating solutions to address the specific hazards and vulnerabilities. These efforts are aimed at empowering and preparing local organizations and individuals to pursue additional resources to implement resilience solutions, including developing a resilience hub at an existing community center to provide critical services to vulnerable populations during extreme heat and disaster events.

“We have come to realize how essential energy literacy and energy resilience will be to protecting our community in the coming decades,” said Matt Holmes, Environmental Justice Director at Little Manila Rising, which represents South Stockton communities. “We’re working on designing a clean air breathing center, cooling center, and a climate resilience center.”  

In Louisville, Kentucky, Communities LEAP is supporting the design of programs that will benefit its historically disadvantaged residents as the city works toward a goal of 100% clean energy by 2040. Louisville’s history of redlining, and its high concentration of chemical processing industries, have created significant environmental health hazards. The Communities LEAP partnership here is focused on creating pathways for Louisville to build clean energy infrastructure and invest in energy efficiency upgrades that will equitably distribute new economic opportunities, lower household energy burdens, and improve environmental quality. Specific projects will include an analysis of energy efficiency and cost saving measures for Louisville’s affordable housing sector; and local policy, program, workforce and financing strategies to implement those measures. The research and analysis DOE is bringing to the table through Communities LEAP will help the Louisville Metro Government, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders work together to simultaneously advance equity and clean energy objectives.

“There are parts of Louisville that have been historically disinvested in and that face an unfair burden of climate impacts and a lot of other impacts, like access to health and wealth and opportunity,” said Sumedha Rao, Sustainability Coordinator with Louisville Metro Government. “When the Communities LEAP opportunity came out, it made us think hard about how we can make the communities that are facing the worst impacts of climate change the central beneficiaries of our clean energy transition.”

Alachua County, in north-central Florida, is also working towards 100% renewable energy goals, and DOE’s Communities LEAP partnership here is focused on ensuring the benefits of that transition are shared by areas experiencing high energy burden and where energy services are the least resilient. As is often true, these are also the most racially and ethnically diverse parts of the county. Communities LEAP support in Alachua County will explore the benefits of energy efficiency upgrades, electrification, household and community solar, and resilience hubs, and it will include a workforce development study to analyze best practices from clean energy developments in similar communities.

“Along with 100 percent clean energy, we also want to make sure that the communities we’re working with are aware of green jobs that are available and how to get into those green jobs,” says NKwanda Jah, Chair of the Alachua County NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee.

For these three Communities LEAP partners and the 21 others in the program, clean energy transitions will be complex undertakings, requiring substantial coordination across multiple stakeholder groups, decision-makers, and funders. One year in, Communities LEAP is an example of how DOE is supporting community-driven, collaborative approaches to deploy clean energy solutions that create equitable and widespread benefits.

Expanding Technical Assistance and Energy Justice Investments Across Communities

Communities LEAP was designed as a pilot program, but it has convinced DOE to double down on our place-based, community-centered work. With significant clean energy investments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, DOE now has major additional resources to bring to our work supporting communities as they lead the nation’s energy transition. . This year, DOE also launched the Office of State and Community Energy Programs, which is administering nearly $16 billion in program funding and TA to help states, tribal governments, cities, counties, and community partners reduce energy costs and pollution. To learn more about DOE’s technical assistance offerings, visit the State, Local and Tribal Technical Assistance Gateway.