Energy and Commerce Committee Poised to Act on Its Parts of an Infrastructure Package

Left to Right: Mayor Brian Wahler,
Piscataway Township (NJ);
Representative Frank Pallone (NJ- District 6), Chair, House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Amid mixed signals on the fate of an agreement between the White House and Congress on an infrastructure plan the Energy and Commerce Committee (the Committee) is continuing its work on developing a large-scale, long-term infrastructure plan.  Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler testified on behalf of the Conference and offered the views of the nation’s mayors on several provisions set forth in the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America Act or LIFT America Act (HR 2741).

While Congressional leaders and the President continue to struggle to find an agreement on infrastructure, even though the parties agree on the need for more infrastructure investment, Committee Chair Frank Pallone is forging forward with five new Titles in HR 2741, proposing many billions of dollars in federal grants, loans, credit guarantees and other incentives to state and local government and the business community in rebuilding America’s infrastructure. The Committee is drafting new policies that are certain to influence the contours of any future debate on energy, broadband, grid modernization, drinking water, and brownfields.

Appearing as the only elected official at the May 22 hearing, Wahler’s testimony focused on Title III of the pending legislation, the clean energy infrastructure section of the bill, which provides new funding for weatherization grants, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG), and the energy supply and low-income household solar installations.

House Democrats who developed the initial outlines of the legislation called for funding levels that would make a real difference for cities. For example, the Weatherization Assistance Program would provide $1.75 billion over 5 years to retrofit government and other buildings, a policy that directly addresses reducing more than 30 percent of carbon and GHG emissions.

The energy block grant program, known as EECBG, would be renewed and expanded beyond the one-time funding provided in 2009 and is certain to deliver not only direct carbon emission reductions by providing needed capital investments, but it would instill new confidence in local  governments to cut energy costs and emissions through expanded local action.

The Energy Block Grant program would renew at $3.5 billion annually for FYs 2020-2024 ($17.5 billion over 5 years). Under this program, grants to cities and counties are disbursed through a population-based formula, with special consideration for rural and small communities. It also provides for competitive grants to promote alternative fuels and other activities. The funding eligibilities are broad, allowing local governments to choose projects/programs that advance local priorities while helping define and underpin long-term clean energy plans at the local level.

The Energy Supply provisions in the bill would provide $2.25 billion in loans (and some grants) for Clean Distributed Energy projects. This provision promotes energy diversity and resilience because it envisions the growth of micro grids and distributed energy generating capacity that is tied to the transmission grid but can also act independent of the grid – known as “islanding”. This provision shows that Congress sees a new energy future transitioning to renewable clean energy and dramatic carbon emission reductions.

Wahler was questioned on why cities need grants. He responded by pointing out that most local projects can be pursued if the first 10-15 percent of the capital investment is in-hand.  For many cities, the energy block grant program, he argued, provides the initial capital, allowing cities to leverage additional investment because the grant removes or mitigates the biggest impediment – capital availability. Wahler stated that the grant approach in this program encourages local governments to decide what investment best fits its needs. The grant money can be used for feasibility and planning studies, as well as for technology purchase and construction.

The actions of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in moving the LIFT Act are important because these proposals will be combined with those from other committees to provide the basis for an eventual House infrastructure package. The fully Energy and Commerce Committee will act on the LIFT legislation as a next step prior to any House Floor action.