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Navigating energy programs: Ideas for a more user-friendly system

Published January 11, 2023

Have you, friends, or family ever felt stressed about paying an energy bill, replacing a broken water heater, or trying to keep a drafty home warm? Energy programs exist to help with all these issues. You may be able to receive direct bill assistance, free repairs, or rebates. However, looking for help with energy issues can feel daunting. First, you need to know about a program: how do you know if anything even exists? Then you need to determine if you are eligible (are there income limits?), then there is paperwork, collecting documents, followed by potential submission, waiting, and approval or potential confusion and questions. Additionally, there may be multiple, individual program applications to consider. Whether it is getting help paying your bills or accessing utility rebates, there are ways to make the existing systems more user-friendly. 

A variety of discussions have been held about this topic, known as energy program navigation, over the years. We’d like to share highlights from a set of workshops in late 2022 that sought to identify how to make it easier to navigate and access energy programs.   

Background

In fall 2021, the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment (IonE) and Urban Research and Outreach Center (UROC), hosted an Energy and Equity in the Twin Cities Workshop series. As part of this workshop, participants identified project ideas and then submitted proposals for grants of $10,000 to fund work on a project. 

The concept of an Energy Navigator was one of several projects funded by this effort. The purpose of the Energy Navigator project was to conduct a landscape assessment of navigator programs to inform how a new energy navigator pilot program might be designed and/or how existing navigator efforts could be funded. This project sought to identify methods in which service programs of various types are navigated and to identify characteristics that would improve existing energy programs.    

A committee met periodically to scope out the work and provide guidance throughout the project. Elise Harrington, a professor at the U of M’s Humphrey School, and  Carmen Carruthers, CUB Outreach Director, co-led the project. Natayla Arevalo from the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy helped design and facilitate the community workshops described below. U of M students and CUB staff also assisted with the workshops. 

Activities

The project involved several key steps during 2022:

  • U of M student research on navigation models, including navigating energy programs and other programs such as health systems (Spring 2022).
  • U of M student interviews of energy and other program providers regarding program navigation (Summer 2022)
  • Two community workshops to discuss the navigator concept and identify needs and preferred design (Winter 2022)

Summary of Key Findings

Building on learnings from the U of M student research, the two workshops held in late 2022 discussed energy needs and how to improve navigating energy programs. The workshops were attended by community members and community and non-profit organizations interested in energy-related issues. The goal was to be able to share these insights with organizations and individuals (e.g., program implementers, funders, and administrators) who could influence or initiate improvements to energy program navigation.  

Key energy needs identified by workshop participants centered around:

  • Accessibility 
  • Affordability 
  • Physical challenges: old buildings
  • Policy or programmatic challenges: inconsistency, timing (e.g., aging homes, disasters, extreme weather, variable costs)
  • Key actors: utilities, landlords
  • Knowledge: local and indigenous knowledge of energy benefits, and the understanding of different “energy engagers” or those within a household that address energy issues 

In the first workshop, participants discussed questions: Who should be involved in improving energy navigation? Where should it be housed? What would it look like? 

Key concepts discussed supporting a navigator vision included:

  • Energy decisions are supported by a “guided process” that breaks down the “you want help, go find it on your own” pattern. The burden should not be on an individual to find resources. 
  • Rethinking both the routes to access services and the way energy is treated (within capitalism and a racially inequitable system). Could there be a new lens for looking at energy, centered on social and ecological needs? 
  • Energy access and navigation were linked to ideas of community service hubs (e.g., cultural centers, resilience hubs) and community-based resources. 
  • Routes for accountability (accountability facilitator) between providers and residents. 

One-Stop Shop Concept

The second workshop explored the concepts identified above in greater detail and included example websites and navigator visions. Overall, as a baseline energy navigation service, workshop attendees supported a one-stop shop platform. This platform could be housed by a statewide office with county-level specifics that provides tailored information based on a participant’s specific circumstances (i.e. local level factors, including which utility provides the service). The one-stop shop platform envisioned could be accessed through options like a website, phone number, or mobile application.  For example, one can imagine a website where a consumer enters in basic demographic information and is shown a list of programs for which they are eligible with direct links to enroll in programs of interest. Ideally, there could be a universal application in which information is submitted once and transferred to the appropriate programs for enrollment or where a package of offers is presented to the consumer for acceptance. It might also include links to local organizations.

Neighborhood-Based Resource Center Concept

In addition to a one-stop shop, workshop participants also expressed interest in having a local resource to engage with for additional assistance. For example, a neighborhood-based (defined in various ways depending on population and geography) center could help residents implement program options. It might help with bill assistance or energy efficiency program applications, be a resource for technical questions or funding options, and be able to help residents implement efficiency improvements over time. Overall, there was a positive response to this type of model, but participants put an emphasis on simplicity in designing and communicating such a service.

Participants identified community ambassadors promoting energy services and programs as an important role, with an emphasis on relationship building. Participants suggested door-to-door outreach on utility issues. Good communication practices and handoffs among roles will be critical, with an appreciation for the emphasis on building and maintaining relationships. There was also support for paid positions in this approach. If well designed, such services could serve as an “entry point” into programs.  

Next Steps

The next steps include sharing information from this work with a variety of parties. Workshop participants felt that future discussions should include more people already working in the area of energy programs, including government agencies, organizations implementing energy programs, and those working on energy policy in Minnesota. There was an emphasis on building a big tent for this issue, including for-profit and nonprofit organizations, since a diverse set of organizations will have something to gain from interactive capacity building in this space. Other avenues for engagement might include reaching out to houses of worship and organizing community-based efforts. There was support for continuing this engagement and conversation on this idea. 

CUB will be working with partners to share these ideas and continue to promote efforts to make our energy programs more accessible and useful to Minnesota consumers.

Author: Carmen Carruthers

One Response to "Navigating energy programs: Ideas for a more user-friendly system"

  1. Bruce A Harten Posted on January 13, 2023 at 8:36 am

    THE PRIMARY JOB SHOULD BE TO GUARENTEE THAT EVERY EMPLOYEE WORKING FOR GAS COMPANYS AT RESIDENTIAL SITES IS A ” LICENCED MINNESOTA PLUMBER FITTER OR HVAC with GAS RATING on the LICENCE issued by THE MINNESOTA DEPT OF LABOR AND INDUSTRY ! Minnesotas utilities have gotten into the habit of sending ” UNLICENCED TECH’s ” to work on ” EXPLOSIVE GAS FIRED FURNACES ” ……aaaand THAT IS WRONG FROM THE START…..and equivelent to sending Trump to the Whitehouse again !

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