The Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership has a conduit for community input on how to meet City energy goals known as the Energy Vision Advisory Committee (EVAC). Members of the EVAC have succeeded in launching a serious movement to shift energy efficiency program implementation towards an innovative community engagement rather than relying upon the marketing approach which utilities are familiar with.
Energy utilities have become accustomed to using marketing-based recruitment and retention strategies that often have passive method of soliciting participation into their home energy saving programs (as described in this blogpost). However the marketing approach has not been very effective in situations where people's main barriers to significant energy saving gains are social in nature as opposed to purely financial (as described in this blogpost).
The traditional marketing approach frequently has a one-size-fits-all characteristic that gives every resident the same energy messages in the same manner as if it would yield equal results. One-size-fits-all programs are by their own definition not adjustable enough to work around specific social and power-dynamic barriers which many people face in their living situations. As a result, a number of loosely defined neighborhoods that are under-represented in utility efficiency program participation get deemed as “hard-to-reach” communities. But we have to remember that it is unfair to refer to a community as "hard to reach" unless we make it clear that they are only hard to reach according to conventional approaches.
For this purpose, the Clean Energy Partnership used its first annual report to map out participation data on Xcel Energy’s and CenterPoint Energy’s energy efficiency programs all the way down the the census tract level. Using this data, the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership then devised a geographic list of neighborhoods in North and South Minneapolis deemed as high priority for a Community Engagement Pilot Project based on having the high densities of people of color, populations with limited English proficiency, lower to moderate incomes, and rental housing.
While EVAC and the Partnership came up with a list of priority neighborhoods though out the City, they understandably could not come to a fair conclusion on which specific area the pilot project should take place. As a result, the Partnership released an RFP for a community-based organizations to do a pilot project in an area where it has already has "deep, established relationships with residents and/or multifamily building owners" on livability issues.
It is not cut and dry as to what defines the boundaries of a community because the social & geographic boundaries which define a “community” frequently do not align very well. A pilot project could do market segmentation to address shared building & ownership characteristics, but it might not fall within a neat geographic area and vice versa. That is why we ultimately need community engagement programs to be on a city-wide scale in partnership with city government rather than limited to a neighborhood. In addition, there is some way the Minneapolis Clean Energy partnership could use economies of scale to reduce the costs of program implementation.
An example of how Clean Energy Partnerships are crucial to overcoming a specific social barrier
Home ownership status is one key social barrier worthy of special mention because most of the available programs for significant energy improvements have not been directly accessible to renters and multifamily residents. The common social barrier in rental housing the split incentive dilemma where tenants are responsible for the paying energy bills while only the landlord who is not responsible for the bill is authorized to make energy efficiency improvements.
It is unfair to point to this program access barrier to make as indication that utilities are opposed in principle to community engagement to help renters or to addressing problematic landlords. It is more likely a lack of confidence that they could do it well. Representatives from utilities on the Partnership's planning team have told the Energy Vision Advisory Committee that using a combination of policy and community engagement to address the social barriers which renters face are not something which their bureaucracies are accustomed to handling.
That only justifies the whole purpose of having a Clean Energy Partnership in the first place. Making energy efficiency improvements accessible to low-income renters and multifamily unit residents (who often need them the most) is a challenge that can much more easily be solved if a utility is working in partnership with local government. Through partnerships with local governments, utilities can adapt their program offerings to meet unique local contexts and have the means to more keenly invest in relationships with community stakeholders and organizations. These are also reasons why the Minneapolis Clean Energy Partnership is in an institutionally strong position to set a historical precedent for community engagement on saving energy. The importance of developing a community engagement as opposed to only relying upon the traditional marketing approach is a prime reason why we should encourage more cities and towns to follow the path of Minneapolis and form local governments partnerships with energy utilities.