The federal Economic Development Administration has awarded the Wyoming Energy Authority $595,000 to establish a Wyoming Energy Regional Economic Coordination Office. The office will help local governments assess their potential needs and determine their own priorities for how to adapt to a rapidly changing energy landscape, according to the Wyoming Energy Authority.
The state will match about 17% of the $595,000 grant, which was awarded earlier this month.
The grant won’t, however, directly fund additional staff to write grant applications or comply with reporting requirements.
“This is one-time funding from the EDA,” WEA Program Director Anja Bendel said. “So we are not hiring any full-time staff.”
Wyoming lacks the personnel and expertise needed at both the state and local levels to take advantage of the massive influx of federal funds earmarked for “coal communities,” according to the WEA. Congress and the Biden administration have made available some $45 billion in competitive federal grants to help sustain or “revitalize” coal-driven economies across the nation as cleaner forms of energy supplant planet-warming fossil fuels.
Without building more grant-writing and compliance capacity at WEA and elsewhere, “it is very likely that the state will end up leaving money on the table because we don’t have the manpower” to compete for federal dollars, WEA Executive Director Glen Murrell told WyoFile in September.
Gov. Mark Gordon may consider advocating for more grant-writing capacity in his upcoming budget recommendations, spokesperson Michael Pearlman said. The state’s budget office is analyzing what state and local governments need to compete for and comply with federal grant opportunities, he said.
Energy coordination office
The new Wyoming Energy Regional Economic Coordination Office will boost WEA’s efforts to accomplish the state’s “energy transformation” priorities: Partnering and coordinating with existing and emerging industry leaders, developing a Wyoming-centric hydrogen energy hub, partnering with education institutions to sustain an energy labor force and ensuring a fair, inclusive and sustainable energy transformation, according to the agency.
Those priorities represent the charge of the Wyoming Energy Authority — just one of several state agencies scrambling to take advantage of myriad federal initiatives and billions in federal dollars made available via the American Rescue Plan Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. The Wyoming Business Council is managing other aspects of the federal programs, such as funding opportunities for broadband and community infrastructure.
The grant establishing a coordination office at WEA is essentially an acknowledgement from the feds that “coal communities” like Wyoming are not fully equipped to compete for federal dollars.
“This grant will enhance the economic development planning capacity of Wyoming by researching opportunities in the energy industry, developing road maps and strategies for new energy initiatives, and supporting industry coordination,” according to an EDA press release.
The eastern and western portions of Wyoming rank eighth and ninth on a list of 25 priority coal communities across the nation, based on per-capita coal-related jobs, according to the Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization.
Despite its status as a “coal community,” however, Wyoming didn’t make the list of 60 finalists competing for federal grants under the IWG and Build Back Better Regional Challenge programs during the first round of applications in 2021. After sharp criticism from Wyoming officials, the IWG formed a “rapid response” team to mend relationships with Wyoming community leaders.
Brian Anderson, the IWG’s executive director, assured that the federal agency will work closely with Wyoming officials to “make sure that those communities have the right attention to find the right fit” in competing for myriad federal grant opportunities.
So far, the IWG is making good on its promise, according to Gordon’s spokesperson Pearlman. “Our office has certainly not had any recent issues moving forward,” he said.
The City of Rawlins — historically a “coal community,” and more recently home to a wind-energy boom — is scrambling to secure about $20 million, the estimated cost to repair and upgrade a municipal water system that serves both Rawlins and the neighboring town of Sinclair. A catastrophic failure in the system led to a boil advisory in March and water restrictions this summer.
The city has managed to secure about $4.6 million so far, and will apply for two separate federal grants of $1 million each later this month. In order to qualify, though, the city must demonstrate that at least 51% of the community is in the low- or moderate-income bracket.
“Although we did not qualify in 2020, we think there is a chance that our community will qualify […] with layoffs and changes to the energy industry,” the city stated in an Oct. 4 letter to residents.
The letter implored residents to complete a survey regarding household income, and city officials sent staff and volunteers to knock on doors hoping to get enough data to determine the city’s eligibility.
“The requirement of this survey is a large challenge for the city,” Rawlins’s grants administrator Andrea Hammond said. “It is taking a massive amount of manpower to go door-to-door to 450 locations.”