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Inflation Reduction Act may help low-income Montanans get air conditioning


It is real hot in the American West right now. August was the hottest month on record in parts of Montana, and it's not letting up. Some areas are seeing 100-degree temperatures in September for the very first time. Climate forecasts project more heat waves in the future, so air conditioning is just going to become crucial in places where people have never needed it before. Here's Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton.

ALYSSA ALSOP: We have, like, 16 fans going.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Alyssa Alsop lives in a subsidized apartment complex just 17 miles from Glacier National Park. There's no air conditioning here. And she says it's been so hot inside, her 1-1/2-year-old daughter has been sick.

ALSOP: And then she started puking every night, probably a good three times a night. And I'm like, she's too hot. I would give her three, four cold baths, but how many times can I do that?

BOLTON: Alsop eventually took her daughter to the emergency room because she couldn't stop vomiting.

Cathy Whitlock, a Montana State University professor who wrote Montana's climate change assessment, says some are suffering more than others.

CATHY WHITLOCK: It affects the old and the very young, people far from services, people with health conditions, people who live in poverty that don't have access to cooling systems.

BOLTON: Whitlock says summers like these will only become more common in climate models.

WHITLOCK: So that covers large areas of Montana, and I think it's probably our No. 1 concern about climate change going forward.

BOLTON: Amy Cilimburg at the nonprofit Climate Smart Missoula is trying to help spur heat adaptation in Montana. Cooling centers don't really work in rural areas with dispersed populations, so more people will need home air conditioning.

AMY CILIMBURG: It's not just a comfort thing. It's actually essential to have the ability to cool your - the place that you sleep, right?

BOLTON: Cilimburg has been working on helping low-income people get AC for about a year, but...

CILIMBURG: How do we actually fund this?

BOLTON: The most climate-friendly option is heat pumps, which also provide air conditioning, but can cost thousands of dollars.

CILIMBURG: It's complicated. And it - you know, these new heat pumps cost money. So that's where the Inflation Reduction Act is just really exciting.

BOLTON: The Inflation Reduction Act President Biden signed last month earmarks $4.3 billion for rebates to help low- and middle-income homeowners swallow the upfront cost of installing a heat pump. Cilimburg's organization is preparing to help people navigate the new rebates and pick up additional costs. And a little AC makes a big difference. Alyssa Alsop in Columbia Falls was finally able to install a window air-conditioning unit, despite it being against her apartment complex rules.

ALSOP: I - we put that in yesterday, and it feels a lot better in here.

BOLTON: Yeah. How hot was it getting in here?

ALSOP: I would say more than probably a hundred degrees. You know, it was to the point where you couldn't sit in here.

BOLTON: Alsop says with the cool air blowing, her daughter slept through the night without puking for the first time in days. Whether the Inflation Act's incentives will lead landlords to outfit more apartments like Alsop's with air conditioning remains to be seen.

Diego Rivas with the nonprofit Northwest Energy Coalition says the federal government is still hashing out exactly what those incentives will look like.

DIEGO RIVAS: But hopefully, with the IRA, these investments become, you know, cost-neutral, so to speak.

BOLTON: How effective the legislation is in helping Montanans get air conditioning depends on how much this Republican state cooperates with the Biden White House, whether they can efficiently help people and landlords access the federal funding with minimum hassle.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont.


Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.