Finding True North: How Community Navigator Programs Can Forward Distributional Justice

State, local, and Tribal governments still face major capacity issues when it comes to accessing federal funding opportunities – even with the sheer amount of programs started since the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) were passed. Communities need more technical assistance if implementation of those bills is going to reach its full potential, but federal agencies charged with distributing funding can’t offer the amount needed to get resources to where they need to go quickly, effectively, and equitably. 

Community navigator programs offer a potential solution. Navigators are local and regional experts with a deep understanding of the climate and clean energy challenges and opportunities in their area. These navigators can be trained in federal funding requirements, clean energy technologies, permitting processes, and more – allowing them to share that knowledge with their communities and boost capacity. 

Federal agencies like the Department of Energy (DOE) should invest in standing up these programs by collecting feedback on specific capacity needs from regional partners and attaching them to existing technical assistance funding. These programs can look different, but agencies should consider specific goals and desired outcomes, identify appropriate regional and local partners, and explore additional flexible funding opportunities to get them off the ground. 

Community navigator programs can provide much-needed capacity combined with deep place-based knowledge to create local champions with expertise in accessing federal funding – relieving agencies of technical assistance burdens and smoothing grant-writing processes for local and state partners. Agencies should quickly take advantage of these programs to implement funding more effectively. 

Challenge

BIL/IRA implementation is well under way, with countless programs being stood up at record speed by federal agencies. Of course, the sheer size of the packages means that there is still quite a bit of funding on the table at DOE that risks not being distributed effectively or equitably in the allotted time frame. While the agency is making huge strides to roll out its resources—which include state-level block grants, loan guarantee programs, and tax rebates—it has limited capacity to fully understand the unique needs of individual cities and communities and to support each location effectively in accessing funding opportunities and implementing related programs. 

Subnational actors own the burden of distributing and applying for funding. States, cities, and communities want to support distribution, but they are not equally prepared to access federal funding quickly. They lack what officials call absorptive capacity, the ability to apply for, distribute, and implement funding packages. Agencies don’t have comprehensive knowledge of barriers to implementation across the hundreds of thousands of communities and can’t provide individualized technical assistance that is needed. 

Two recent research projects identified several keys ways that cities, state governments, and technical assistance organizations need support from federal agencies:

While this research focuses on several BIL/IRA agencies, the Department of Energy in particular distributed hundreds of billions of dollars to communities over the past few years. DOE faces an additional challenge: up until 2020, the agency was mainly focused on conducting basic science research. With the advent of BIL, IRA, and the CHIPS and Science Act, it had to adjust quickly to conduct more deployment and loan guarantee activities. 

In order to meet community needs, DOE needs help – and at its core, this problem is one of talent and capacity. Since the passage of BIL, DOE has increased its hiring and bolstered its offices through the Clean Energy Corps

Yet even if DOE could hire faster and more effectively, the sheer scope of the problem outweighs any number of federal employees. Candidates need not only certain skills but also knowledge specific to each community. To fully meet the needs of the localities and individuals it aims to reach, DOE would need to develop thorough community competency for the entire country. With over 29,000 defined communities in the United States – with about half being classified as ‘low capacity’ – it’s simply impossible to hire enough people or identify and overcome the barriers each one faces in the short amount of time allotted to implementation of BIL/IRA. Government needs outside support in order to distribute funds quickly and equitably.

Opportunity

DOE, the rest of the federal government, and the national labs are keen to provide significant technical assistance for their programs. DOE’s Office of State and Community Energy Programs has put considerable time and energy into expanding its community support efforts, including the recently stood up Office of Community Engagement and the Community Energy Fellows program. 

National labs have been engaging communities for a long time – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducts trainings and information sessions, answers questions, and connects communities with regional and federal resources. Colorado and Alaska, for example, were well-positioned to take advantage of federal funding when BIL/IRA were released as a result of federal training opportunities from the NREL, DOE, and other institutions, as well as local and regional coordinated approaches to preparing. Their absorptive capacity has helped them successfully access opportunities – but only because communities, cities, and Tribal governments in those regions have spent the last decade preparing for clean energy opportunities. 

While this type of long-term technical assistance and training is necessary, there are resources available right now that are at risk of not being used if states, cities, and communities can’t develop capacity quickly. As DOE continues to flex its deployment and demonstration muscles, the agency needs to invest in community engagement and regional capacity to ensure long-term success across the country. 

A key way that DOE can help meet the needs of states and cities that are implementing funding is by standing up community navigator programs. These programs take many forms, but broadly, they leverage the expertise of individuals or organizations within a state or community that can act as guides to the barriers and opportunities within that place. 

Community navigators themselves have several benefits. They can act as a catalytic resource by delivering quality technical assistance where federal agencies may not have capacity. In DOE’s case, this could help communities understand funding opportunities and requirements, identify appropriate funding opportunities, explore new clean energy technologies that might meet the needs of the community, and actually complete applications for funding quickly and accurately. They understand regional assets and available capital and have strong existing relationships. Further, community navigators can help build networks – connecting community-based organizations, start-ups, and subnational government agencies based on focus areas. 

The DOE and other agencies with BIL/IRA mandates should design programs to leverage these navigators in order to better support state and local organizations with implementation. Programs that leverage community navigators will increase the efficiency of federal technical assistance resources, stretching them further, and will help build capacity within subnational organizations to sustain climate and clean energy initiatives longer term.

These programs can target a range of issues. In the past, they have been used to support access to individual benefits, but expanding their scope could lead to broader results for communities. Training community organizations, and by extension individuals, on how to engage with federal funding and assess capital, development, and infrastructure improvement opportunities in their own regions can help federal agencies take a more holistic approach to implementation and supporting communities. Applying for funding takes work, and navigators can help – but they can also support the rollout of proposed programs once funding is awarded and ensure the projects are seen through their life cycles. For example, understanding broader federal guidance on funding opportunities like the Office of Management and Budget’s proposed revisions to the Uniform Grants Guidance can give navigators and communities additional tools for monitoring and evaluation and administrative capacity. 

Benefits of these programs aren’t limited to funding opportunities and program implementation – they can help smooth permitting processes as well. Navigators can act as ready-made champions for and experts on clean energy technologies and potential community concerns. In some communities, distrust of clean energy sources, companies, and government officials can slow permitting, especially for emerging technologies that are subject to misinformation or lack of wider recognition. Supporting community champions that understand the technologies, can advocate on their behalf, and can facilitate relationship building between developers and community members can reduce opposition to clean energy projects. 

Further, community navigator programs could help alleviate cost-recovery concerns from permitting teams. Permitting staff within agencies understand that communities need support, especially in the pre-application period, but in the interest of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars they are often reluctant to invest in applications that may not turn into projects. 

Overall, these programs have major potential for expanding the technical assistance resources of federal agencies and the capacity of state and local governments and community-based organizations. Federal agencies with a BIL/IRA mandate should design and stand up these programs alongside the rollout of funding opportunities.

Plan of Action

With the Biden Administration’s focus on community engagement and climate and energy justice, agencies have a window of opportunity in which to expand these programs. In order to effectively expand community navigator programs, offices should: 

Build community navigator programs into existing technical assistance budgets.

Offices at agencies and subcomponents with BIL/IRA funding like the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have expanded their technical assistance programs alongside introducing new initiatives from that same funding. Community navigator programs are primarily models for providing technical assistance – and can use programmatic funding. Offices should assess funding capabilities and explore flexible funding mechanisms like the ones below. 

Some existing programs are attached to large block grant funding, like DOE’s Community Energy Programs attached to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. This is a useful practice as the funding source has broad goals and is relatively large and regionally nonspecific.

Collect feedback from regional partners on specific challenges and capacity needs to appropriately tailor community navigator programs. 

Before setting up a program, offices should convene local and regional partners to assess major challenges in communities and better design a program. Feedback collection can take the form of journey mapping, listening sessions, convenings, or other structures. These meetings should rely on partners’ expertise and understanding of the opportunities specific to their communities.

For example, if there’s sufficient capacity for grant-writing but a lack of expertise in specific clean energy technologies that a region is interested in, that would inform the goals, curricula, and partners of a particular program. It also would help determine where the program should sit: if it’s targeted at developing clean energy expertise in order to overcome permitting hurdles, it might fit better at the BLM or be a good candidate for a partnership between a DOE office and BLM. 

Partner with other federal agencies to develop more holistic programs. 

The goals of these programs often speak to the mission of several agencies – for example, the goal of just and equitable technical assistance has already led to the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers program, a collaboration between EPA and DOE. By combining resources, agencies and offices can even further expand the capacity of a region and increase accessibility to more federal funding opportunities. 

A good example of offices collaborating on these programs is below, with the Arctic Energy Ambassadors, funded by the Office of State and Community Energy Programs (SCEP) and the Arctic Energy Office. 

Roadmap for Success

There are several initial considerations for building out a program, including solidifying the program’s goals, ensuring available funding sources and mechanisms, and identifying regional and local partners to ensure it is sustainable and effective. Community navigator programs should: 

Identify a need and outline clear goals for the program. 

Offices should clearly understand the goals of a program. This should go without saying, but given the inconsistency in needs, capacity, and readiness across different communities, it’s key to develop a program that has defined what success looks like for the participants and region. For example, community navigator programs could specifically work to help a region navigate permitting processes; develop several projects of a singular clean energy technology; or understand how to apply for federal grants effectively. Just one of those goals could underpin an entire program. 

Ideally, community navigator programs would offer a more holistic approach – working with regional organizations or training participants who understand the challenges and opportunities within their region to identify and assess federal funding opportunities and work together to develop projects from start to finish. But agencies just setting up programs should start with a more directed approach and seek to understand what would be most helpful for an area. 

Source and secure available funding, including considerations for flexible mechanisms.

There are a number of available models using different funding and structural mechanisms. Part of the benefit of these programs is that they don’t rely solely on hiring new technical assistance staff, and offices can use programmatic funds more flexibly to work with partners. Rather than hiring staff to work directly for an agency, offices can work with local and regional organizations to administer programs, train other individuals and organizations, and augment local and community capacity. 

Further, offices should aim to work across the agency and identify opportunities to pool resources. The IRA provided a significant amount of funding for technical assistance across the agency – for example, the State Energy Program funding at SCEP, the Energy Improvements in Rural and Remote Areas funding at the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED), and the Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers program from a Department of Transportation/Department of Energy partnership could all be used to fund these programs or award funding to organizations that could administer programs. 

Community navigator programs could also be good candidates for entities like FESI, the DOE’s newly authorized Foundation for Energy Security and Innovation. Although FESI must be set up by DOE, once formally established it becomes a 501(c)(3) organization and can combine congressionally appropriated funding with philanthropic or private investments, making it a more flexible tool for collaborative projects. FESI is a good tool for the partnerships described above – it could hold funding from various sources and support partners overseeing programs while convening with their federal counterparts. 

Finally, DOE is also exploring the expanded use of Partnership Intermediary Agreements (PIAs), public-private partnership tools that are explicitly targeted at nontraditional partners. As the DOE continues to announce and distribute BIL/IRA funds, these agreements could be used to administer community navigator programs.

Build relationships and partner with appropriate local and regional stakeholders.

Funding shouldn’t be the only consideration. Agency offices need to ensure they identify appropriate local and regional partners, both for administration and funding. Partners should be their own form of community navigators – they should understand the region’s clean energy ecosystem and the unique needs of the communities within. In different places, the reach and existence of these partners may vary – not every locality will have a dedicated nonprofit or institution supporting clean energy development, environmental justice, or workforce, for example. In those cases, there could be regional or county-level partners that have broader scope and more capacity and would be more effective federal partners. Partner organizations should not only understand community needs but have a baseline level of experience in working with the federal government in order to effectively function as the link between the two entities. Finding the right balance of community understanding and experience with federal funding is key. 

This is not foolproof. NREL’s ‘Community to Clean Energy (C2C) Peer Learning Cohorts’ can help local champions share challenges and best practices across states and communities and are useful tools for enhancing local capacity. But this program faces similar challenges as other technical assistance programs: participants engage with federal institutions that provide training and technical expertise that may not directly speak to local experience. It may be more effective to train a local or regional organization with a deeper understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities of a place and greater immediate buy-in from the community. It’s challenging for NREL as well to identify the best candidates in communities across the country without that in-depth knowledge of a region. 

Additional federal technical assistance support is sorely needed if BIL/IRA funds are to be distributed equitably and quickly. Federal agencies are moving faster than ever before but don’t have the capacity to assess state and local needs. Developing models for state and local partners can help agencies get funding out the door and where it needs to go to support communities moving towards a clean energy transition.

Case Study: DOE’s Arctic Energy Ambassadors 

DOE’s Arctic Energy Office (AEO) has been training state level champions for years but recently introduced the Arctic Energy Ambassadors program, using community navigators to expand clean energy project development. 

The program, announced in late October 2023, will support regional champions of clean energy with training and resources to help expand their impact in their communities and across Alaska. The ambassadors’ ultimate goal is clean energy project development: helping local practitioners access federal resources, identify appropriate funding opportunities, and address their communities’ specific clean energy challenges. 

The Arctic Energy Office is leading the program with help from several federal and subnational organizations. DOE’s Office of State and Community Engagement and Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy are also providing funding. 

On the ground, the Denali Commission will oversee distribution of funding, and the Alaska Municipal League will administer the program. The combination of comparative advantages is what will hopefully make this program successful. The Denali Commission, in addition to receiving congressionally appropriated funding, can receive funds from other nonfederal sources in service of its mission. This could help the Commission sustain the ambassadors over the longer term and use funds more flexibly. The Commission also has closer relationships with state-level and Tribal governments and can provide insight into regional clean energy needs. 

The Alaska Municipal League (AML) brings additional value as a partner; its role in supporting local governments across Alaska gives it a strong sense of community strengths and needs. AML will recruit, assess, and identify the 12 ambassadors and coordinate program logistics and travel for programming. Identifying the right candidates for the program requires in-depth knowledge of Alaskan communities, including more rural and remote ones. 

For its own part, the AEO will provide the content and technical expertise for the program. DOE continues to host an incredible wealth of subject matter knowledge on cutting-edge clean energy technologies, and its leadership in this area combined with the local understanding and administration by AML and Denali Commission will help the Arctic Energy Ambassadors succeed in the years to come. 

In all, strong local and regional partners, diverse funding sources and flexible mechanisms for delivering it, and clear goals for community navigator programs are key for successful administration. The Arctic Energy Ambassadors represents one model that other agencies can look to for success. 

Case study: SCEP’s Community Energy Fellows Program

DOE’s State and Community Energy Programs office has been working tirelessly to implement BIL and IRA, and last year as part of those efforts it introduced the Community Energy Fellows Program (CEFP). 

This program aims to support local and Tribal governments with their projects funded by the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants. CEFP matches midcareer energy professionals with host organizations to provide support and technical assistance on projects as well as learn more about how clean energy development happens. 

Because the program has a much broader scope than the Arctic Energy Fellows, it solicits and assesses host institutions as well as Fellows. This allows SCEP to more effectively match the two based on issue areas, expertise, and specific skillsets. This structure allows for multiple community navigators – the host institution understands the needs of its community and the Fellow brings expertise in federal programs and clean energy development. Both parties gain from the fellowship. 

In addition, SCEP has added another resource: Clean Energy Coaches, who provide another layer of expertise to the host institution and the Fellow. These coaches will help develop the Fellows’ skills as they work to support the host institution and community. 

Some of the awards are already being rolled out, with a second call for host institutions and Fellows out now. Communities in southern Maine participating in the program are optimistic about the support that navigators will provide – and their project leads have a keen sense of the challenges in their communities. 

As the program continues to grow, it can provide a great opportunity for other agencies and offices to learn from its success.

Dr. Olivia Lee, Grid Deployment Office (GDO),
Fighting for Resilient Communities

This series of interviews spotlights scientists working across the country to implement the U.S. Department of Energy’s massive efforts to transition the country to clean energy, and improve equity and address climate injustice along the way. The Federation’s clean energy workforce report discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with ramping up this dynamic, in-demand workforce. These interviews have been edited for length and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DOE.

From the rugged snowbanks of Alaska to the tropical seaside of Hawai’i, Dr. Olivia Lee Mei Ling has sought to improve the access to, and delivery of, energy. To understand her journey to the Department of Energy and her work today, our story begins in Alaska.

Women in Polar Science

After obtaining her PhD in Wildlife and Fisheries Science from Texas A&M University,  Dr. Lee headed north to accept a teaching position at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She spent ten years there, first in the Geophysical Department and later in the International Arctic Research Center. While there she developed future energy scenarios for Alaskans, working with federal, state, tribal and local governments, expert stakeholders and non-governmental organizations. Those conversations were sometimes difficult – bringing together a wide range of perspectives and personalities and asking them to align on a plan – but were vital to the state’s future.

“Building those relationships [between energy stakeholders], and helping those conversations continue to happen was a fantastic opportunity to delve into how policy and science can co-occur.”

While at the university she did a short stint with the National Science Foundation as an IPA [Intergovernmental Personnel Act, a temporary position in the federal government] supporting researchers doing work in the Arctic. There she was involved in interagency programs, with a lot of emphasis on developing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives across agencies. 

During this time Dr. Lee supported growing outreach for a group of scientists, Women in Polar Science. She identified a need for this group after submitting an article to a geophysical journal about the group’s work – which was rejected because it ‘wasn’t of interest to a wide enough audience.’

Dr. Lee said it was “appalling to think that the science community is not interested or doesn’t believe there is enough value in sharing what we’ve learned about the women who face adversity doing research in polar environments. And so I co-founded the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee’s (IARPC) community of interest on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.” The group has grown and since taken off, bringing more scientists together to work on DEI within arctic research.

Dr. Lee’s work in Polar Science led to more social ties within Alaska’s Tribal communities, and a deeper understanding of their unique needs. These experiences showed the value of skills beyond traditional scientific training. Empathy quickly became her guiding principle; as an oil-rich state, it became clear that any energy plan in Alaska needed to address community needs first.  “In some areas, like in Alaska, diesel will have to continue to be a part of the energy mix until they’re able to support something more reliable year-round than renewables can offer right now. We need to push clean energy, but not at the cost of livelihoods and safety of communities.” says Dr. Lee. To non-scientists, this statement might be surprising – isn’t the goal to eliminate all fossil fuels? No, the goal is to support a just transition in every region.

Moving States, Territories and Tribes to Clean Energy As Quickly As Possible at DOE

When the Department of Energy began ramping up hiring through the Clean Energy Corps, Dr. Lee was immediately interested. When she interviewed with the Grid Deployment Office, the office recognized her knowledge and skills were unique and vital to their work, and in particular, her combination of scientific expertise and knowledge of the needs associated with Tribal communities.

“We work with a lot of tribes, and it’s a skill set that not everyone has – to take the time to self-educate on the history of colonization, to respectfully interact with tribes, understand that they are self-governing entities and continue to face a lot of challenges in developing their economies.

At GDO, Dr. Lee supports grid resilience projects. Her team thinks critically about what specific infrastructure investments could help communities be more resilient to impacts from climate change – and what resources or guidance communities need to implement those ideas. “We’re not just reacting to disasters as they happen, but thinking about 10 years, 20 years down the road, where do we need to be? How do we sustain energy access and what partnerships we can help build now to make sure that this is an ongoing process?

She continues: “It’s really exciting to know that you are a part of modernizing the grid in a way that will have tangible benefits in the near term – and in the long term as well, if we’re able to help states and tribes plan how [IRA funds] can shape their sustainability moving forward.”

There are lots of unknowns: what kind of infrastructure exists today, and what kind of  investment is required to hasten transition? What resources specific to that location are available now, and how can productive programs be amplified? The work involves measuring and modeling to ensure waste and harm are minimized, while maximizing positive environmental and economic opportunities across the lifecycle of any energy plan.

“In my particular program, we’re supporting projects that develop good resilience. And there’s a very strong emphasis on going beyond theoretical into implementation. Like: what specific infrastructure investments and projects are going to be done to make the electrical grid more resilient to impacts from climate change?”

Unsurprisingly, this work is more than spreadsheets of numbers. To deploy an energy upgrade so much more must be considered: a region’s history, its present day health, and how the region may evolve based on the impacts of climate change prediction models. How can the department meet communities where they are and at the same time prepare them for a changing environment?

Unexpected Opportunities to Build Grid Resilience

Dr. Lee shares one example of how her team did just that. One of the Alaskan tribes they work with requested funding for a project that seemed outside the bounds of grid resilience. They didn’t ask for wiring, poles or grounding, but for snow removal equipment for their wind facility. 

During a recent snowstorm, the community couldn’t access their wind facilities because they lacked updated snow removal equipment. Without ready access to those facilities, if anything had gone wrong, the grid would have had problems as well. “It’s so important to have energy in Alaska winters – it’s life or death. You can’t just say ‘I’ll put on an extra blanket.’ Responding to a request for something as simple as snow removal equipment is an actual, valid, small step that we can take to support grid resilience.” 

Dr. Lee’s ability to think creatively and understand the needs of remote communities are the skills that make her an exceptional team member. Without that level of understanding, that tribe may not have gotten support for equipment that at first glance, isn’t immediately related to grid resilience.

Advice for Those Seeking Roles in Government Clean Energy Work

Dr. Lee’s achievements underscore the importance of a strong federal workforce. She offered advice for those entering government for the first time: “Find mentors who can help you navigate how the government works, and be open to new opportunities and trying new things.” She adds that being open to learning and finding mentors in different offices and different career stages brings the most opportunities compared to a so-called “straight career path.”

She says another benefit is that the people working clean energy technology in the government are some of the most optimistic people. Her work at GDO – helping modernize and fortify the grid – is vital to the resilience and livelihood of communities across the country.