Why the traditional passive marketing approach to energy efficiency programs has been inadequately effective

Utilities like Xcel and Centerpoint frequently include lists of energy-saving steps and ratepayer-funded energy efficiency programs when they mail their bills to customers, often because they are required to do so by state law as in the case of Minnesota. In addition, utilities also stuff in information about a whole array of rebates, cash incentives or low-interest loans for energy-efficient products & home improvements. But the response rate & customer follow through has been too disappointingly low for the marketing dollars to translate into the equivalent energy savings. In reaction to modest response rates, the utility-funded energy efficiency marketing industry has doubled down offering slicker financing, refining their sales pitch, making their energy audits more convenient and increasing their rebates. Yet those doing the well-intentioned work under the usual methods still can’t seem get enough customers to be enthusiastic enough to manifest the energy savings on a scale we'd like to see. I myself have first hand experience doing energy efficiency doorknocking and getting less than 2% response rates when we simply left a flyer. For one thing, there is no substitute for direct personal contact. In order to exceed these historical modest levels of participation in energy efficiency programs among small businesses and residents, it will require some skilled community engagement and educational outreach from block leaders, energy service contractors, and community groups that goes far beyond the scope of where utility bureaucracies usually reach.

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Why Community Engagement is Crucial for Multi Family Energy Efficiency

 Xcel and Centerpoint have jointly created and launched a new joint multifamily energy efficiency program just this past October. As of Mid-February, 30 qualified buildings have inquired about the program which is about 1 % of Minneapolis’ 5-family plus residential units. At the February 16th EVAC meeting, a spokesperson for Centerpoint said they will only do an engaged promotion of the program once the current cue empties out. Judging by those words the program must be in a beginning test run phase at this point. The program may not have had an extensive or equitable of a reach thus far. But the mere availability of a multifamily energy efficiency program is a historically significant step because residents of Multifamily residential housing have historically been ignored or at least under-served by traditional energy efficiency programs.

 Here is the reason for the mismatch: The programs and rebates utilities have traditionally offered are designed primarily to help customers overcome up-front cost financial barriers to doing energy efficiency upgrades. However, the main barriers to doing energy efficiency upgrades in the multifamily residential sector are social in nature rather than purely financial. By this very definition, Xcel and Centerpoint will have to do engaged promotion of their multifamily energy efficiency program in a way which matched this reality. 

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The difference between Community Engagement and Marketing

Community engagement is a process where an organization (or coalition or organizations) acting for community benefit (such as saving energy in multiple buildings) works to build lasting relationships in order to apply a collective vision that benefits the community. Community engagement is a much more active method of implementing change than the more static method of standard marketing techniques. Marketing is when a company (or group of companies) communicates to a (perhaps targeted) consumer audience with the intent of inducing a behavior change on a short-term or permanent basis. Non-profits and governments often use marketing to deliver an ethos or social purpose message about what services their organization could offer to an applicable audience. 

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Xcel Energy "wins" Renewable Energy money for Garbage Burner in Red Wing


The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission quietly helped along Xcel Energy’s request to use ratepayer renewable energy fund dollars to retrofit a garbage processing facility to provide more trash to burn in Xcel’s Red Wing, MN, incinerator. The $2 million grant would provide just under one-third of the cost to retrofit the city’s waste processing facility, enabling it to send up to 20,000 tons of trash per year to the Xcel-owned 20-megawatt incinerator. In selecting this grant award, Xcel bumped aside several other projects that scored higher on the Renewable Development Fund objective scoring system.  

To place it in a larger perspective, this incident looks to be part of a broader network of shady deals between public officials and the garbage incineration industry such when Washington and Ramsey counties recently purchased a privately-owned garbage grinding facility in Newport, Minnesota. 

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Federal 30% Solar Tax Credit Extended

Community Solar Garden (CSG) developers in Minnesota spent much of 2015 in a state of foreboding tension. They were being sandwiched between Xcel’s slow pace in approving project applications and anticipation that the 30% federal solar tax break would expire in 2016. This combination led many developers to dread that their CSG project proposals might never be built. This worry that Xcel’s delays would cause CSG developers to miss their financial window of opportunity motivated Community Power to hold our Slow Walk event

Fortunately, 2016 is looking to be a lot brighter on both fronts. Xcel have been picking up the pace in approving CSG project proposals lately. But more importantly, the Federal budget passed by Congress and signed by President Obama extends the 30 percent solar tax credit through the end of 2019 then gradually decreasing it to 10 percent at the start of 2022. If congress had done nothing, the 30% federal tax credit would have been abruptly dropped to 10% at the beginning of 2017.  

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