Sometimes overseeing an EERE financial assistance award means taking part in technological innovation, and sometimes it means helping the recipient navigate a complex landscape of people, technology, and regulations
An important project working to transform the market for hydrogen fuel cells in the telecommunications industry involved the installation of backup power systems at 189 different sites—which traditionally would have required 189 separate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews! This massive effort could have stalled the project.
NEPA requires that all Federal agencies consider the potential environmental impacts of their proposed actions before making decisions. This is called a NEPA review. The appropriate level of NEPA review depends on whether the proposed action may have a significant impact on the quality of the human environment. If DOE determines that a proposed action may have a significant impact on the quality of the human environment, it must prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS): a comprehensive document that could take over a year to prepare. When DOE is not certain whether a proposed action may have a significant impact on the environment, it has the option of preparing a concise document – an environmental assessment (EA) – to determine whether an EIS is necessary or whether DOE can issue a finding of no significant impact and terminate NEPA review. Even an EA takes months to prepare.
EERE was determined not to prepare lengthy or duplicative NEPA documents for installing power systems that likely would not have a significant impact on the environment. To this end, the EERE project officer worked with the NEPA team and the recipient to evaluate the first 20 sites in detail and determined that they would not have a significant environmental impacts and fit within categories (categorical exclusions or “CX”) that DOE has already determined seldom have significant impacts on the environment. Thus, EERE made a CX determination for the 20 sites and excluded them from further NEPA review. The team then performed a comparison of the remaining sites and found that the environmental impacts would be similar. As such DOE made CX determinations for all remaining sites. DOE fulfilled its NEPA obligations for all 189 sites within weeks, not months.
This streamlined NEPA strategy reduced the burden to all parties while still complying with the law and safeguarding the environment. The recipient didn’t skip a beat, and kept the project rolling, which means more funds spent in the US economy and more jobs created. This strategy has been deemed so successful it has since been used for other projects.