U of M Receives Grant to Help Underserved Communities Access Funding for Energy and Environmental Improvement

Humphrey School's STEP faculty will co-lead the $10 million project funded by the EPA
April 14, 2023
A pollinator insect perched on the branch of a flowering shrub
A pollinator insect perched on the branch of a shrub. Photo: University of Minnesota Extension

The University of Minnesota will lead a multi-state effort to help rural, tribal, and underserved communities access federal funding for energy and environmental improvement efforts. 

The University’s selection as an Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center (TCTAC) was announced Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The $10 million grant, which will be administered at the University, will be spread across six states and establish “one-stop shops” for grant assistance. 

“We know that so many communities across the nation have the solutions to the environmental challenges they face. Unfortunately, many have lacked access or faced barriers when it comes to the crucial federal resources needed to deliver these solutions,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “Today we’re taking another step to break down these barriers.”

The project will be led by Associate Professors Bonnie Keeler and Gabe Chan of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, in collaboration with University of Minnesota Extension Associate Dean Stephen Jeanetta.

The University and partners will help communities navigate federal grant application systems, provide guidance on community engagement, and help communities in securing funds to address legacy pollution and invest in clean energy technologies. The University will oversee efforts in Minnesota and five other states.  

Funding equity and hands-on help

Keeler said the center’s role is to ensure that the billions of dollars the federal government has committed for infrastructure and energy improvements are shared equitably.   

"This influx of funding has the potential to transform communities throughout the Great Lakes through clean energy, community resilience, and improved environmental quality,” Keeler said. “However, many communities lack the technical expertise needed to successfully apply for complicated federal grants. We see an opportunity to leverage the resources of land grant universities throughout the region to make sure remote, rural, and underserved communities take full advantage of these once-in-a-generation investments."

The formation of technical assistance centers is in direct response to feedback from communities and environmental justice leaders who have long called for technical assistance and capacity-building support to access critical federal resources.

“Extension brings important ‘boots on the ground’ experience to this work, and the timing could not be more critical," said Jeanetta. "Whether we’re talking about rural areas and their distinctive climate adaptation needs or the communities dealing with decades of neglect, there is a lot of work to be done.”   

“As we build a clean energy economy, we must make sure communities who have been burdened most by pollution and climate change benefit from the transition,” said U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota. “Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately hurt by harmful emissions and polluting factories in their communities. Now, after passing historic legislation to build a clean energy economy, lower energy costs, and boost economic growth, we need to make sure those same neighborhoods have access to these transformational investments.”   

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District, championed increases in EPA funding that made these centers possible when she served as vice chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment. 

“The University of Minnesota is well positioned to serve as one of these centers, to help connect environmental justice advocates to the resources they need to build stronger and healthier communities,” McCollum said. 

Participants across the six-state region are: 

  • Michigan State University, Purdue University in Indiana, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Ohio State University 
  • The Midwest Tribal Energy Resources Association
  • The Great Plains Institute
  • Community Engineering Corps
  • Environmental Protection Network

This is one of 17 technical assistance centers the EPA is establishing  across the country.