What is Technical Assistance?
Government technical assistance (TA) programs provide advice, resources, and training to help businesses and landowners solve the internal technical challenges necessary to meet a corporate or management objective, such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. Climate-related technical assistance programs may explicitly seek to enable organizations and landowners to reduce their emissions footprint directly, or may achieve GHG reductions as a co-benefit by helping them reduce energy use, adopt more efficient technologies, or improve their management practices. Climate-related technical assistance programs are often positioned as a component of broader climate or energy goals – as in the case of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Weatherization Assistance Program Technical Assistance Center– to achieve more ambitious emissions reductions or enable compliance of entities covered by a regulatory program. Other climate-related technical assistance programs are tied to voluntary incentives focused on other environmental objectives such as soil health or improved water quality, as in the case of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs.
How does Technical Assistance work?
Often, businesses, landowners, or state and local governments do not have the technical expertise or management bandwidth to reduce emissions or comply with government standards. Technical assistance works by increasing the entity’s capacity to meet those internally-determined – or externally-mandated (as by regulation) – climate and energy objectives. Rather than intervening for a one-time fix, government technical assistance programs often provide resources that enable continuous improvement – whether by connecting practitioners with technical tools, software, and best practices; increasing staff capacity in local or state governments; or providing on-site workforce training for energy managers. Government technical assistance programs may be administered directly by a federal agency such as DOE or USDA, a state or local government agency, or by a government-funded institution such as a local conservation district, a state land-grant university, or a university extension office.
Tailored technical assistance is particularly well-suited for the industrial manufacturing and commercial sectors where a single facility may feature complex processes, product-specific machinery, and a large GHG footprint (e.g. chemical, cement, glass, and steel manufacturing). In such cases, ongoing and safe operations often takes precedence over any environmental goals, so outside technical assistance can be particularly impactful for reducing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, and thus improving overall operational economics. Technical assistance is also critical in the agriculture and forestry sectors, where landowners often lack the human resources, infrastructure or expertise to change their land management practices to reduce GHG emissions or accelerate carbon sequestration while maintaining similar yields. In all cases, technical assistance provides a tailored approach to identifying and realizing the most cost-effective emissions reduction opportunities.
Since technical assistance programs are typically voluntary, they are most effective when they deliver a range of benefits at minimal or no cost to the participants. Climate-related technical assistance programs often promise benefits beyond GHG reduction, including cost savings, technology improvements, workforce development, and increased productivity or competitiveness. For instance, DOE’s Industrial Assessment Centers leverage engineering students to provide evaluations of efficiency opportunities at industrial facilities. This allows the government to provide these services at low or no cost while simultaneously training a new generation of engineers to enter the workforce with an eye to implementing energy and emissions reduction strategies.
Key Technical Assistance Design Considerations
Should the technical assistance program aim to reduce or remove emissions explicitly, or instead focus on related metrics like soil health, energy use, or vehicle miles traveled? What are the implications of this choice for climate outcomes, participation levels, and policy durability?
What are the key performance indicators for the technical assistance program? How will the government entity track progress and get information from participants in a transparent and reliable manner?
Does technical assistance increase the ability of participating entities to comply with other climate policies, such as an existing regional cap-and-trade program, Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act regulations, or government procurement standard? Does it accelerate GHG reductions under those other programs (creating a complementary effect)?
What federal agency or other entity should administer the technical assistance program? Does relevant institutional knowledge exist, or should new institutions be created? Should the program leverage federal staff and resources, or simply serve as convener or compiler of existing resources?
What secondary goals (job creation, competitiveness, cost savings, etc.) can the technical assistance program achieve? Can these objectives incentivize adoption of climate-beneficial practices?
U.S. experience with Technical Assistance to reduce GHG emissions
There are several existing and former technical assistance programs at DOE, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USDA, and other federal agencies that explicitly target – or result in – emissions reductions. We summarize four notable examples here.
DOE’s Better Buildings Initiative partners with hundreds of commercial and residential organizations to improve building energy and water efficiency. DOE estimates these technical assistance efforts have reduced more than 80 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The initiative helps organizations to:
- Set and achieve goals to increase energy efficiency, integrate advanced and clean energy technologies, and reduce life-cycle emissions;
- Cut energy costs over the lifetime of the building;
- Increase technical know-how by sharing best practices, tools, and case studies in its Better Buildings Solution Center; and
- Train workers to increase energy efficiency and use through In-Plant Trainings.
DOE’s Industrial Assessment Centers (IACs) provide small and medium-sized manufacturers with no-cost assessments of their facilities to identify opportunities to improve productivity and reduce energy use and waste. IACs conduct their evaluations using university faculty and upper-class or graduate engineering students, thereby achieving the secondary benefit of training young engineers to identify and pursue energy savings. IACs follow-up with plant managers within six to nine months after delivering their assessments to determine which recommendations have been implemented, and also provide additional recommendations for energy savings projects through the IAC Database.
EPA’s voluntary partnership programs have engaged more than 13,000 companies and organizations to address environmental issues ranging from air quality to waste management to product labeling. One subset of these partnerships focuses on Energy Efficiency and Global Climate Change and includes EnergyStar, the successful energy efficiency appliance program jointly run by DOE and EPA; the Coalbed Methane Outreach Program and Landfill Methane Outreach Program, which works cooperatively with coal mine and landfill operators to reduce methane emissions; and the High GWP Partnership Programs to reduce super-pollutants (i.e., pollutants with high global warming potentials that cause significant air quality impacts). By joining one of these partnership programs, companies have the opportunity to draw not only from EPA resources and expertise, but also from those of peer organizations in the program.
USDA’s conservation technical assistance program partners with state conservation agencies, local conservation districts and millions of private landowners to help them voluntarily conserve, maintain and improve natural resources. Most technical assistance leads to the development of a conservation plan, which allows the landowner to determine opportunities to improve practices to support ecosystem and watershed health. While climate change mitigation is not an explicit focus of the program, many of the conservation practices for which USDA provides technical assistance also have benefits for carbon sequestration or emissions reduction. USDA spending for conservation technical assistance totaled $772 million in 2019.
- DOE energy efficiency and renewable energy technical assistance programs: https://www.energy.gov/eere/services/technical-assistance
- For more on DOE’s Industrial Assessment Centers: https://www.energy.gov/eere/amo/industrial-assessment-centers-iacs
- For more on DOE’s Better Buildings Initiative: https://betterbuildingssolutioncenter.energy.gov/
- For more on EPA’s partnership programs: https://archive.epa.gov/partners/web/html/index-4.html
- For more on USDA’s Conservation Technical Assistance program: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/technical/cta/