An aerial view of the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison.
The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Credit: Alan Wolf / Creative Commons

Wisconsin has ambitious climate plans, but the Republican-controlled legislature has refused to pass funding to carry them out.

That’s why Wisconsin city and state leaders are especially glad for a nearly $5 billion federal initiative meant to help states and municipalities advance climate action plans.

The Climate Pollution Reduction Grant program, created by the Inflation Reduction Act, has already provided a $3 million planning grant to Wisconsin's Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, as well as smaller grants to the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and four tribal governments within the state’s borders.

“This is a really awesome kickstart to emissions reductions in the state,” said Maria Redmond, director of the Wisconsin Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy.

“The challenge in Wisconsin is we haven’t been able to get a lot of resources [for climate programs] because the legislature hasn’t allocated them. The last three budget cycles, the governor proposed significant funding for climate action, including for this office. None of that has been approved. Through this grant, we can get a lot more done.”

The program this year awarded $250 million in non-competitive grants to states, tribes and major metropolitan areas for climate action planning. The entities that received the planning grants can then apply for implementation grants totaling $4.3 billion to carry out their climate action plans.

The implementation grant application deadline is April 1, 2024. In a guidance document released in September, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it anticipates awarding 30 to 115 such grants ranging between $2 million and $500 million.

Redmond said the state has “already been doing a lot of work on decarbonization,” including in keeping with Gov. Tony Evers’ 2020 action plan, and “this gives us the resources to really ramp up this work locally,” including by “identifying pathways to reduce emissions, renewable deployment, optimizing energy efficiency, innovating in transportation, and improving our building stock,” and also potentially looking at agriculture, forestry and carbon sequestration.

Wisconsin lawmakers have pushed legislation that limits municipalities’ ability to pursue climate goals, like a ban on local zero-emissions mandates and a bill that would prevent local governments from operating pay electric vehicle charging stations. They’ve also thus far declined to pass a bill enabling community solar, and rebuffed advocates’ requests for legal clarity on third-party-owned solar.

Justin Backal Balik is the state program director for Evergreen Action, which was among organizations offering the administration input on designing the federal program. He said the grants are “tailor-made for a state like Wisconsin at this particular moment in time, when you have the leadership of Gov. Evers that has articulated a clean energy plan to achieve 100% decarbonization in the electricity sector, and also looking at the industrial sector and clean transportation goals.”

“One of the reasons Evergreen advocated for the [Climate Pollution Reduction Grant] was that it is specifically designed to focus on sectoral transformations and unmet funding needs — Wisconsin has a lot,” Backal Balik continued. “The policy vision is there, and particularly with the capacity Wisconsin has with the $3 million planning grant, there are a number of directions they could go in. This is a generational opportunity that’s not going to come around again, an opportunity to meet a good chunk of the unmet funding needs that have popped up as a result of the Republican intransigence in the legislature.”

Planning process

Redmond said the $3 million planning grant has allowed her office to hire a full-time community engagement facilitator and another full-time staffer, basically doubling the staff. The planning grant is also used for carrying out analysis, modeling, community outreach and status reports over a four-year period.

Environmental justice is a focus of the funding, and a key metric in the scoring system for implementation grants. Redmond said this dovetails with Wisconsin’s focus on equity and inclusion.

“Understanding lived experience is one of the things we’re most excited about” augmenting with the planning grant dollars, she said. “This gives us the ability to go out to communities instead of having them come to us. It’s also about supporting organizations working in communities, making sure we are not expecting them to volunteer their time.”

That could include honorariums for people to attend community meetings.

“We’re asking people to step away from their lives, maybe in the evening when they need child care, or to step away from their jobs,” she said.

Redmond said the state is also planning to work with Illinois and Minnesota to “make sure we are in alignment with state plans, and not working against each other” — especially since Wisconsin metropolitan areas overlap with those states.

Allison Carlson, executive director of the Wisconsin Local Government Climate Coalition, said staff capacity is a common need for local governments on the climate front, and she’s glad the planning grants can be used to hire staff.

“A lot of local governments have one person dedicated to climate action, probably being shared with other departments like recycling; they have a lot of other things on their plate,” she said. “We need to be making sure we’re building capacity in local governments and in communities to sustain efforts over time.”

Backal Balik noted the planning grants are meant to help governments make sense of all the incentives and opportunities on the table.

“EPA is really encouraging states and other jurisdictions to use the CPRG process to step back and look at their federal funding deployment strategy as a whole,” he said. “You have Solar for All here, and direct pay here, so many different pieces. The planning process is asking states to think about how all these funding streams can be accessed together. The parts are pretty consequential in their own right, but you have the opportunity to really scale up the impact of what all the federal investments can achieve.”

Local action and collaboration

States or metro areas that received planning grants can serve as coordinating entities to collaborate with other government bodies to seek grants. Redmond said her office is eager to work with Wisconsin municipalities and agencies on meeting their climate goals, and will hold nine regional meetings for that purpose.

The Wisconsin Local Government Climate Coalition is also focused on helping municipalities participate in the CPRG program.

“Many member communities have their own climate action or clean energy plans in place. They’ve done data analysis, engaging with their communities to understand what the needs are — a lot of them are already making strides,” she said. “One of the big barriers is: where are the dollars to actually do these things? The competitive CPRG grants and other IRA funds are allowing communities to put their plans into action.”

She added that “a lot of the climate action plans were already in place or in process, not necessarily prompted by the CPRG process.”

“But what the CPRG process does is create opportunity to align the needs of local communities with the state and other stakeholders, so we can leverage even more IRA dollars and become more organized together.”

Kelly Hilyard is the sustainability coordinator for the city of Middleton, not far from Madison. She said the office has been stymied by legislative inaction around electric vehicles. They had applied for federal funding for electric vehicles under the Carbon Reduction Program, a program separate from CPRG under the U.S. Department of Transportation. But the county had to switch its proposal to seek funding for LED lights instead because of constraints placed on the program by the legislature.

Hilyard said the city “scrambled” to put together a proposal to transition their street lights to LEDs, which was necessary “low-hanging fruit,” but they still hope to seek federal funds for electric vehicles.

Since being part of a seven-city collaboration on an energy plan in 2020, Middleton has been “ticking things off” on a list of priorities like increased building efficiency and putting solar on city buildings. They are working on a battery storage project at the police station, where a planned microgrid had to be scaled back because of the pandemic.

Hilyard said the city has not been very focused on the CPRG thus far, but is looking for multiple sources of federal and other funding for its goals, and for the advance study and planning needed to bring goals to fruition.

“It’s chicken or the egg — what information do you need to get the grant to do the work, and how do you get the grant to get the information?” she said. “You have to work it from both ends constantly.”

A top priority is energy efficiency for the city’s affordable but often aging and inefficient housing units. A separate federal grant is helping the city take inventory of its housing stock.

“Once you stack all those incentives, decarbonizing entire neighborhoods becomes possible,” she said. “You can do major projects, and reduce the energy burden for people most affected by climate change and high energy bills.”

La Crosse environmental planner Lewis Kuhlman is hopeful that federal programs like the CPRG could help the city acquire more electric city buses or other electric vehicles, as well as creating an electric bike share program.

The city’s sustainability efforts have largely been through a partnership with the company Johnson Controls, which has provided the city with solar, energy efficiency and other energy investments, with a performance contract guaranteeing savings. The partnership helped the city access solar despite the state’s failure to clarify the legality of third-party-owned solar, which has made it more difficult for municipalities to finance solar energy.

“Huge grant opportunities like this are going to take collaboration, because communities the size of LaCrosse don’t really have the staff to implement or prepare for a grant like this,” Kuhlman said. “There are so many different types of projects that can get funding; we need to keep an eye on what we have in our plan — and how can that fit into what’s available for funding? And do state regulations allow it?”

The implementation grants are meant to help states and municipalities meet their climate goals; reduce hazardous air pollutants, especially in disadvantaged communities; complement other funding sources for greenhouse gas reductions; and create programs that are replicable and scalable. The agency is encouraging collaborative proposals that cross local and state lines. Points in the competitive grant scoring process are awarded based on criteria including the funding need, the extent of emissions reductions, benefits to low-income and disadvantaged communities, and community outreach.

Redmond noted that doing extensive engagement, figuring out what different stakeholders need and want, and meeting the application deadline all in six months will be a challenge.

“One of the things that keeps me awake at night is the timeline,” she said. “We need to have a thoughtful and meaningful process” in a tight time frame, “but we’ll make it happen.”

Taking the lead

Milwaukee’s Climate and Equity Plan calls for making the city carbon-neutral by 2050, and creating green jobs that drive racial and economic equity. The city proposes to do this through projects including clean energy, a green jobs accelerator, and transportation electrification.

Erick Shambarger, Milwaukee director of environmental sustainability, said they hope CPRG funding will help the city implement its long-standing ambitious climate goals. He said other municipalities in the metropolitan area that received the grant have taken inspiration from Milwaukee in crafting climate action plans of their own.

“It took several years for us to get our climate plan together, and we don’t have that kind of time relative to getting everything in place for these implementation grants,” Shambarger said. “We don’t want to start from scratch. We want to share lessons we’ve learned; we don’t want to reinvent the wheel on planning processes.”

He said a key focus of the planning grant is a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, which has never been done for the region as a whole. He said that the metro group still hasn’t decided where to focus their CPRG-related plans.

“It could be everything from a major transportation project to a focus on buildings,” he said. “It could go in a lot of different directions. We’ve been doing pilot projects, but this will really be important to take it to the next level.”

Marco Marquez is the Wisconsin state director for the organization Action for the Climate Emergency, which mobilizes youth. He said IRA programs could provide federal funding for multiple climate-related initiatives that young people are passionate about and that affect them directly — like electric school buses and energy efficiency and updated HVAC systems in aging school buildings. He said young people are especially frustrated by the inertia of the Wisconsin state legislature on such issues.

“It’s unfortunate that we see a lot of effort from elected officials trying to dictate how each municipality can run and what they’re able to seek in terms of funding,” he said.

The funding available under the IRA and the potential for entities to apply for it without going through the state legislature holds much promise, he added. While his organization has not been specifically focused on CPRG, he sees it as symbolic of larger trends and opportunities.

“This is an amazing opportunity for young people to rewrite and rethink how our society should operate,” Marquez said. “And climate is the justice issue.”

Four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and South Dakota — declined to participate in the CPRG program. Metropolitan areas in those states that received planning grants can still participate. In Iowa, the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas received planning grants and can apply directly for CPRG implementation funds.

Backal Balik said advocates hope the CPRG dollars can not only help work around inaction from the legislature in Wisconsin and other states, but actually change a state’s direction on climate as people see the benefits of the funding play out.

“As in Wisconsin, the program is purposely designed to achieve emissions reductions in states where they wouldn’t otherwise occur,” he said. “It’s not just moving money around, but incentivizing the next round of leadership. We had administrations willing to act but with constraints outside of their control. This is a moment in time where they can get a huge chunk of resources to move forward their climate vision.”

Kari has written for the Vxartnews since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.