Forum shines spotlight on energy innovation

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Wende Randall, director of the Kent County Essential Needs Taskforce, was part of the energy panel. Courtesy Howard Hughes 

West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum’s December meeting highlighted how Grand Rapids could reduce the need for emergency utility assistance to those facing shutoffs by means of systems-level, sustainable solutions.

The two-hour forum was held Dec. 9 at The Lit in Grand Rapids, 61 Sheldon Ave. SE. 

The event featured presentations from county and state agency representatives on barriers to consistent utility access and the landscape of emergency utility assistance programs. Experts in energy efficiency, technology innovation and public-private partnerships also gave brief talks on how new approaches could positively impact the need for emergency utility assistance in West Michigan.

After the presentations, attendees broke into table groups to discuss ideas for various “solution tracks,” including public policy, alternative funding, technology solutions (both supply and demand), collaboration and coordination, and education.

Presenters included the following: 

  • Wende Randall, director of the Kent County Essential Needs Taskforce (ENTF)

  • Susan Cervantes, of Kent County Community Action Agency and chair of ENTF’s energy efficiency committee 

  • James Geisen, district manager at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS)

  • Brad Banks, analyst with the Energy Waste Reduction section of the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC)

  • Brent Little, executive director of GreenHome Institute

  • John Kinch, executive director of Michigan Energy Options

  • Tim Skrotzki, market development lead for Elevate Energy

Randall and Cervantes kicked off the event with an overview of the work of ENTF’S energy efficiency committee and the process of receiving utility assistance services. This includes verification of need and eligibility and an evaluation of the success of subsidies based on the potential for client self-sufficiency following assistance.

Cervantes and Geisen then discussed the funding structure for the state’s energy assistance programs, which includes the Low Income Energy Assistance Fund (LIEAF) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), with funds being distributed through the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP) to nonprofit grantees that then administer services.

Both funds in recent years have been and continue to be subject to state budget cuts, creating ripple effects including more utilities shutoffs for those who cannot make payments — particularly in Kent County’s 49507 ZIP code. Research has shown shutoffs are a precursor to loss of housing for Asset Limited Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) individuals in Kent County, according to Geisen and Cervantes. ALICE is a term coined by United Way to recognize households with incomes just above the federal poverty level (FPL), meaning they often do not qualify for public assistance yet still struggle to afford basic household necessities.

The scope of need in Michigan is great, with 211 data showing utility assistance is the second most frequent request from callers to the helpline, Geisen and Cervantes said.

Eventual self-sufficiency is the end goal of Michigan’s utility assistance programs, they said, with the main steps in that vein being energy and financial education, short- and long-term case management, and home weatherization.

The latter service has a return on investment of $2.69 for every dollar spent and other benefits such as health and safety increases and carbon footprint reduction, according to Cervantes and Geisen.

Thankfully, they said, despite cuts to the LIEAF and LIHEAP budgets, there are other funding sources to pay for these programs, including State Emergency Relief, the Department of Energy, local agencies and more. Still, the need is greater than the funds currently available.

Enter the second group of presenters.

Banks said the MPSC’s Energy Waste Reduction section in which he works — which used to be called the Energy Optimization section — regulates publicly traded utilities’ energy efficiency programs to ensure they achieve measurable energy savings and offer cost-effective low-income programs.

Although energy co-ops and municipalities are not regulated by the MPSC, recently a “diverse stakeholder-driven collaborative” EWR Low Income Work Group emerged at the behest of sustainability advocates — and it includes public utilities, many co-ops and municipalities, and state agencies — to address energy efficiency programming as a solution to utility challenges and ultimate homelessness. 

The work group’s discussion around affordable renewable energy still is in its nascent stages, and Banks sought to solicit ideas from the attendees regarding future discussion topics for the workgroup.

Last on the docket of speakers were a trio of energy efficiency experts from the nonprofits GreenHome Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan Energy Options in East Lansing and Elevate Energy in Chicago.

Little, from GreenHome, said his organization is dedicated to green building education, which involves inspiring and educating clients on how to construct and renovate homes to be greener. A big part of its work concentrates on the affordable housing component and education on how reducing utility costs can benefit low-income populations. 

“We’re looking to address and boost resiliency,” Little said, noting the GreenHome Institute has proven that technology can reduce the energy burden and demand, leading to better health outcomes and fewer foreclosures.

Kinch, with Michigan Energy Options (MEO), emphasized rising energy prices have increased the energy burden, causing low-income Michigan families to spend about 15% of their income on energy. Through MEO’s low- to moderate-income assistance program, 15 participating utility companies have done home education visits and direct installs of energy efficiency items that have, on average, saved customers about $250 per year in energy costs.

He referenced an initiative called Michigan Energy Efficiency for All (MEEFA), which through research conducted by Optimal Energy, demonstrated that Michigan’s multifamily affordable housing sector has “significant potential” for even greater energy savings by 2035. The potential includes reducing annual electricity demand in affordable multifamily buildings by 32%; reducing gas demand by 15%; realizing $3 in benefits for every $1 invested in reducing energy waste; and achieving multiple nonenergy benefits, including improvements in residents’ health, comfort and costs, as well as reducing safety-related emergency calls and increasing property values — all of which would lower cost burdens for ALICE and FPL populations.

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