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Treasury official briefs Episcopal bishops, then sits down with Presbyterian News Service

Ronald Newman, the department’s senior advisor on implementing the Inflation Reduction Act, comes to Louisville to talk up ways congregations can save on their energy bills and care for the Earth

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

About five years ago, Solar Holler, a West Virginia company, installed solar panels on the roof of Spencer Presbyterian Church in Spencer. (Photo by Spencer Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — Fresh off addressing the 81st General Convention of The Episcopal Church on Saturday and leading a workshop after his address, Ronald Newman took an hour to discuss with Presbyterian News Service why he’d journeyed from Washington, D.C., to Louisville: among his tasks is disseminating ways of helping places of worship, other nonprofits, individuals and businesses to invest in clean energy and save on their energy bills by tapping into the hundreds of billions of dollars allocated under the Inflation Reduction Act, also known as IRA.

Newman is the Senior Advisor at the U.S. Department of Treasury for Inflation Reduction Act Implementation. In addition to contributing to efforts to issue key tax-related guidance and working with the Internal Revenue Service to put in place processes and resources for tax credit claimants, he participates in stakeholder engagement and outreach to educate the public about key benefits under the landmark legislation passed two years ago that expanded renewable energy and addresses air pollution, improves access to clean water and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Newman came to Louisville equipped with information about how churches and other organizations can tap into IRA funds and tax credits, including this IRS publication for tax-exempt organizations; this one explaining clean energy tax credits available to tax-exempt organizations, among others; and this one, which outlines clean energy tax incentives for individuals.

Newman noted that many congregations planning or considering projects to help them care for Creation and reduce their energy bills have questions about project planning, project management and opportunities for finding assistance on financing. Many also have questions about tax preparation and tax filing, since “many of these entities don’t have an obligation to file with the IRS,” Newman said. “To access benefits, they have to enter a world that has been foreign. There is a need for resources, materials and tools.”

Churches “have been real leaders on some of these issues,” in part because of the responsibility many congregations feel to care for Creation. Newman mentioned a Houston church he knows that upgraded its solar panels three years ago ahead of the IRA. Now “they want to take the next step of installing battery storage, which creates a stronger degree of independence and resilience,” Newman said. The next time Houston neighborhoods experience a blackout, “they might have three days of power stored in their batteries,” he said.

If and when that happens, “they can say to [their neighbors], ‘If we end up in a situation of a blackout and you need somewhere to go, you don’t have to wait for a day-and-a-half [for power to be restored],” Newman said. “You can come here.’”

A number of companies “are ready, willing and able to help nonprofits and especially faith-based organizations take this journey,” Newman said. His own work with nonprofits has been focused on churches, community centers and health care clinics. “They have a direct benefit and symbolic importance. I call them ‘anchor institutions,’” he said. “If you see they have installed solar [panels], you might think, might there be a reason to have solar in my home?”

Ronald Newman

In his work with nonprofits, Newman hits on messages including this one: this pool of resources made available by the IRA “is effectively uncapped.”

“It’s not a grant program where there has been an appropriation. There’s no cohorts of winners and losers,” he said. Instead, the test is this: meet the criteria and follow the process, and you will qualify.

In addition to direct pay programs also known as elective pay, many churches have a vehicle or fleet of vehicles they want to replace with electric vehicles. The IRA includes electric vehicle credits churches can use, “whether you make the transition immediately or at the end of the vehicle’s life,” Newman said. “You’ll want to know how much you can save if you decide to go electric.”

The Inflation Reduction Act includes credits for EV charging stations as well. Many churches opt to install them in places that are accessible to the public, Newman noted. They can be a resource for church staff, members “or anyone who is passing through the neighborhood,” he said. If those EV chargers are powered by the church’s solar panels, “you are powering those [chargers] for free. The revenue that comes in is essentially money that can be channeled to mission-oriented programs,” Newman said. “Churches aren’t saving money to throw it into an account.” In this example, “you’re generating funds that will allow you to pursue initiatives of the church.”

At a minimum, IRA programs will last 10 years. A few are set to expire in 2032, but Congress may well re-authorize programs before they sunset.

“Part of the way these policy initiatives work is, the more people who leverage these tax credits, the larger the constituency you have that’s supportive of these frameworks,” he said. If, say, 40% of nonprofit institutions have made some of the transitions Newman is talking about by 2032, “you have created a constituency that will explain how important and valuable this framework is, and perhaps it gets extended.”

One of the challenges Newman finds with the work he does is that “people tend to be in different places along the knowledge spectrum.” When he speaks to a large group such as the Episcopal bishops, “you could see that 20% of them had never heard this before.” But after providing some examples of how the money can impact the work that churches and other nonprofits are doing, “they were excited about it.”

“Others are at the other end. They have done projects, or they have projects in the planning stages,” he said. “Some of the people in the room knew 80% of what I presented, so they were eager to ask me that next question.”

Newman said he senses part of churches’ drive to invest in renewable energy is twofold. “Protecting God’s Creation is a generally applicable piece of the moral imperative,” he said. “Separately is serving portions of the population that have been unduly impacted” because, for example, the people aren’t in position to do the transition on their own. “I’ve definitely heard that dynamic,” he said, and the IRA includes provisions for energy communities bonus credits in areas where the local economy was driven by coal or the production of fossil fuels, and “in many places, economies have been hollowed out. We wanted to see if there were levers we could pull,” he said. “They have a leg up in some ways to leverage those benefits.”

Polling last year showed less than half of Americans “really understood what the IRA might mean for them,” he said. “You can do a lot of talking in Washington, D.C., and never reach these people. As an office focused on the IRA, we resolved to get out and meet people where they are … If you can find opportunities like the Episcopal national convention, you can reach a lot of people.”

One brainstorm Newman’s team came up with is to put together a collection of case studies so that “we can paint a picture of an institution or a person that feels similar to you,” he said. “They have taken this energy efficiency journey, and they will highlight ways it has paid off for them.”

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo “are very focused on this part of the mandate, especially the cost savings,” Newman said. “When they take trips, they weave a piece of this into their itinerary,” such as visiting new battery manufacturing plants or joining a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a church.

“You have to paint a diverse picture if you want to ensure our diverse population sees the variety of ways the IRA affects them,” Newman said. “It is literally something for everyone.”

Learn more about the Inflation Reduction Act here.

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