Helping Minnesota Households Save on Energy & Utility Bills
An Exclusive Conversation with Longtime Leading Advocate/State Director John Harvanko
Writing and Reporting by Jake Brown
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series featuring Minnesota. Read Part 1 here.
Community outreach is a constant and effective method toward breaking down the common barriers of reluctance from LIHEAP-eligible families, including the working poor who may be hesitating out of pride or in too many cases, families who don’t apply simply because of a lack of awareness of the available assistance. Director Harvanko has long sought to ensure his state’s CAAs maintain constant contact and coordination with a diverse array of partners to maximize awareness about the program and relevant application seasons and deadlines statewide, including tapping the invaluable inner-connectivity of the state’s major utilities and non-profit environmental communities, charities, etc.
State law prevents Minnesota’s utilities from shutting off power during the winter’s coldest months. Director Harvanko confirmed that “Minnesota has a Cold Weather Rule (CWR) that is in effect from October 15 through April 15. The CWR protects households with connected utilities, but does not cover households with delivered fuels.” The CWR, however, is only a short-term reprieve that many families experience before opening their springtime utility bill, just to learn that they’re as close to shut-off as before. To avoid this common scenario, the Director has spearheaded a dynamic partnership with the state’s largest utilities to initiate and maintain direct contact with vulnerable customers early enough to avoid this risk, in part thanks to LIHEAP: “The Minnesota Energy Assistance Program and local service providers work closely with staff at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) who oversee the CWR. PUC staff assist households and local energy assistance staff who are working with households to get CWR protection or to advocate with their energy provider.”
A popular solar-energy program that has been embraced by both business and residential communities is gaining momentum in Minnesota, which has often been a national leader in progressive, long-term policies designed to save households money on their utility bills and help be more energy efficient in the same time. In conjunction with the solar programs, LIHEAP lands right in the middle of funding through CAAs to help low-income homes through weatherization to keep up with the savings. Agreeing that “energy conservation is a vital component of the State of Minnesota’s portfolio of service provided to our citizens,” the Director champions the proactive private-sector cooperation toward advancing the reach and difference of weatherization and solar given the “limited funding for both LIHEAP and WAP,” which “does not allow Minnesota to fully address the need.”
One population around the state where solar has been a vibrant and shining resource to helping save on energy has been the leading role Minnesota’s Tribal Nations’ have taken, with Minnesota’s GreenStep Cities, a program sponsored under the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Among the stand-out successes, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe was highlighted for establishing the first community solar garden in an Indian Nation in the country, noting that “the electricity will be designated to recipients of Minnesota’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Leech Lake Tribal College graduates will install the solar panels.”
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe embraced their potential to grow the 200 Kilowatt Solar Gardens state-wide, and the North-Central Minnesota nonprofit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance’s Director Jason Edens explained that the $500,000 construction of the garden was a worthwhile investment because “solar is a much more fiscally responsible method of delivering energy assistance rather than (the current practice) of paying a low income household’s energy costs…We think LIHEAP is at a perfect inflection point to start to integrate clean energy.”
Representing 6.2% of households served by energy assistance in Minnesota in FF2016, Director Harvanko coordinates with the five tribal governments that administer their respective EAP programs to ensure that every one of the Native American families needing LIHEAP assistance are served. Harvanko noted the progress and the measurable difference the program made in FY2016 alone: “EAP served over 8,000 households with Native American members. These households had average incomes of approximately $17,000 and annual heating bills of nearly $1,200.”