Conversation

Empowering Minnesota’s energy consumers

Outreach and support from Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Helping with energy

 

In November of 2020, Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director at the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota (CUB), sat down virtually for a conversation with Marie Donahue, Sustainability Storyteller with CERTs.

Carruthers shares how CUB uses advocacy and outreach to advance affordable and reliable utility service and clean energy for households and small businesses across Minnesota. The discussion digs deeper into how Carruthers and her team have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they are connecting consumers struggling to pay their utility bills with support and resources.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

Both the audio and write-up have been edited for length and clarity.

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The more consumers are educated, the better choices they can make for their households. They have a role in influencing what energy should look like in the future.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: Welcome, Carmen! Thanks so much for joining us today, we’re looking forward to talking more and learning about your work in clean energy. So, by way of introduction, could you share with us what the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota (CUB) works on, what the focus of your role as Outreach Director is, and how you came to this work? 

Carmen Carruthers: Sure, thanks very much for having me be part of this. We're excited to talk with you today and to share some of the stories we've been hearing, as well.

The Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota is a nonprofit consumer advocate for Minnesota's utility customers. We were formed in 2016, so we are just over four years old—still relatively new in the nonprofit world. Our mission is to advocate for affordable and clean energy and consumer protections in utility services. We're there to be the voice for residential and small business consumers across the state. Our organization has two primary roles as a consumer advocate. 

The first one is focused on being a voice for regular people in the energy policy and regulation arena. There are a lot of changes happening in the energy industry and all these things are going to affect consumers—whether it be the choices they have for services and programs or the rates that they pay and see on their bills.

We are active in trying to make sure consumers' voices are being heard when these discussions are happening. We're also very interested in making sure that this clean energy transition that we're undergoing is a win-win for consumers, the environment, and the power providers. Because without a consumer voice, there's no guarantee that people are going to receive all the benefits available to them.

We especially want to make sure that communities that have long borne the negative impacts of our energy systems are going to see the benefits in this transition. That's really important. We're looking for a rapid cost effective transition to clean energy and making sure regular people can get the benefits of that. So that's one side of the organization—the policy side.

We see ourselves as a resource for people across the state in helping them understand their choices, so they can make good decisions for their households. We also see our role as a translator in helping people understand the energy transition and what it will mean for them as consumers.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Then the other area is the outreach side, which is what I focus on. We see ourselves as a resource for people across the state in helping them understand their choices, so they can make good decisions for their households. We also see our role as a translator in helping people understand the energy transition and what it will mean for them as consumers.

Even today, we're in the midst of the transition, and there are so many program options for people to take advantage of different rate structures that they could participate in. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure people are aware of those and educating them, so they can reap the benefits that exist today. It can be confusing. If you're going to go and buy a new heating system, what choices are available to you? How do you decide what to do? We try to coach people through the alternatives. We're not promoting one thing or the other per se. We're just trying to provide information for people.

The same goes for clean energy. We will have folks who reach out and say, “I want to participate in renewable energy, and I'm just not sure how or what options are available to me.” So, we will talk through options based on where they live, the different things that they could consider. We refer people a lot to the CERTs website. That's one of our go-to places for getting resources on clean energy. There's really good information there.

 

Addressing the question about what I focus on in my role and how I got to this work, as the Outreach Director, one of my big goals is to spread the word about our services, so we can reach as many individuals and groups as we can. A lot of that requires networking and building relationships. When we establish these relationships, we then have several different services we can offer to people.

We do educational presentations on a wide variety of energy topics. Every presentation is customized based on what that organization or group is interested in talking about and learning about. We talk about understanding your bills, how to save energy, how to prepare for winter. We’ve talked about energy policy. We’ve talked about this energy transition. Now, we are spending a lot of time talking about the impacts of COVID and resources available to people to help pay their bills that are struggling. That's definitely an important topic right now that we're covering a lot.

We also provide free energy bill consultations. All of our services are free of charge. So people can just reach out to us. We take a look at their bills, we ask a lot of questions about how their household works, and then we give them customized suggestions about ways that they can reduce their energy use, or save money or take advantage of programs and rebates that might be out there. In normal times we also do a lot of community events, where we're out tabling and talking to people. Unfortunately we're not able to do any of those right now, but we hope to in the future.

Then, addressing how I came to this work—I came to this work with an eclectic career path. I've done a lot of different things. But what's great is that this role combines the variety of experiences I've had and my interests. It's a really fulfilling job.

My background is in urban and regional planning, with specialties in environmental and transportation planning specifically. I spent about 10 years in that field. And then I also lived overseas a few different times. Most recently, I was in Switzerland for five years, and I worked as a substitute teacher at an American school. I was teaching intermittently, and then when I came back, I did some sales work and even worked in financial services.

What's neat about this job at CUB is that it combines every single one of those experiences. My environmental planning background helps me understand how energy systems affect communities and the future of how energy and environmental issues interact. The teaching experience fits well with giving presentations, talking with people, and helping them. And even the sales job, as I'm trying to kind of talk about CUB or promote its services—that ends up being a bit of a sales job too. Since a lot of people haven't heard of us, I need to explain and help them determine whether having us come in would be a nice benefit for their group. It's nice because our services are free, so it's not such a tough sales job. It's pretty easy.

Then finally, with the financial services [background], I am very sensitive to individual household budgets. Not only from my experience working, but also from my own personal circumstances. I love trying to save people money. That feels really good; it frees up money to meet other needs that people have in their households.

We're hearing a lot of good things about how people are trying to make sure everyone can be part of this transition in a positive way, but it has to be done in a thoughtful deliberate way—or people will get left behind. There's still a lot of fear that the folks who have borne the brunt of the negative impacts won't get the full benefits of the clean energy transition. So, we're working really hard to try to make sure that those issues are addressed.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: You mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the changes that CUB has been making to adapt. I'm curious to dig into that some more and to see how you're feeling about clean energy in Minnesota in these times. We've had quite the year, and we continue to confront this pandemic, systemic racism, economic uncertainties, and other pressing challenges—even the winter ahead. How are you feeling and how are you thinking about your work in these times?

Carmen Carruthers: I think this is a really good question. As we've heard many, many times, these are just such unusual times, but I do think they have created an opportunity to talk about energy systems and the importance of clean energy in a new way. Because of what we've all gone through in the last year, I think people are able to see all these interrelationships between all these issues of the environment, systemic racism, and economic issues. It's more evident how all these things are interrelated when we're dealing with the issues we are.

I was recalling, when everyone first started staying at home in March to try to slow COVID-19 down, all the comments about how clean the air was, and how much people appreciated that and noticed that. So that was one piece of this—why clean energy matters. Granted, a lot of the pollution reduction was due to transportation. But again, this is still all interrelated.

After the civil unrest, we had early in the summer, the issues of equity came to the forefront. We can look at the economics of clean energy, notably wind and solar, which are so compelling. There’s this need to do as much as fast as we can and make sure everybody has the opportunity to participate. That's really important. We're hearing a lot of good things about how people are trying to make sure everyone can be part of this transition in a positive way, but it has to be done in a thoughtful deliberate way—or people will get left behind. There's still a lot of fear that the folks who have borne the brunt of the negative impacts won't get the full benefits of the clean energy transition. So, we're working really hard to try to make sure that those issues are addressed.

For over a year now, we've been involved in a project called the Energy Efficiency Peer Learning Cohort. And what that means is we got together with some other nonprofits. The Center for Earth Energy and Democracy, Community Power, and then the City of Minneapolis, plus about 10 community organizations. We went through this year-long process of digging into how and why the energy system was created the way it was, what have the impacts been of that, and what programs exist to help communities. These communities identify as being low-income, a lot of renters, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Understanding are their needs being met by the existing system and programs?

 

Through this year long process, we started to come up with ideas about where we think things could be done in a better way to meet these needs, especially when it comes to energy efficiency programs. Ideas about how these programs need to be designed in ways that address systemic inequalities of our programs. That process gives me a lot of hope. Unfortunately, COVID disrupted the end of that particular project in the way we had envisioned it. We had to finish it in a remote way.

At the same time, COVID has created this opportunity to really hone in on these issues in a way that I think folks who maybe weren't as aware of them or weren't listening are going to be more open to understanding as disparities, because they've been exaggerated through COVID. The timing is really good to be talking about these issues and the changes that are needed.

When we talk about energy efficiency, that's one of the really important means to address environmental issues and to address energy burden, which disproportionately affects these communities that we're talking about, and it provides more long-term stability. Weatherization makes your home more energy efficient. It helps reduce the spikes in energy bills that when you're under economic duress are really harmful to a household’s budget. There's a lot of opportunity to get the attention needed to these issues and hopefully address them in the upcoming years.

When we talk about energy efficiency, that's one of the really important means to address environmental issues and to address energy burden, which disproportionately affects these communities that we're talking about, and it provides more long-term stability. Weatherization makes your home more energy efficient. It helps reduce the spikes in energy bills that when you're under economic duress are really harmful to a household’s budget.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: So you spoke a bit to this as well, but how have you and your colleagues adapted or found new ways to approach your work in the office, but also in your project-based work? What have you been prioritizing even more recently?

Carmen Carruthers: Yeah, like so many people, it felt very sudden. We were in the office one day, and the next day we weren't. But we pivoted really quickly in mid-March, when we realized what was happening. We focused on trying to address the immediate needs that we anticipated households would be going through. Because there was such a dramatic economic impact to so many people, it was obvious that people were going to start struggling to pay their energy bills and that was going to be a major concern. Especially thinking about the health impacts of COVID, you do not want your energy shut off when you're trying to maintain healthy practices: washing your hands, making sure you're doing laundry, staying comfortable because you’re at home, and kids are remote learning.

These are essential services that people need. We pretty quickly started using social media, Facebook and Facebook Messenger, to reach out to people around the state and find out if they needed assistance and to be able to offer that.

We've spoken to hundreds of people either via phone, email or via Facebook, trying to understand what their concerns are and connecting them to resources that are available to help them pay their bills. Some utilities are promising not to shut off during the Governor's peacetime emergency, so in some cases, we can give them reassurance that this isn't an immediate concern. But, making sure that they are still working to make progress on their bills, so they're not built up to the point where they can't catch up. It's really important to connect people to resources that can help pay those bills. 

All of this outreach work has helped feed into some of our policy and advocacy work. We're hearing across the state where people are struggling and what the issues are. For example, we hear of customers who are trying to arrange payment plans to avoid shut offs. There are utilities across the state that are shutting people off now, such as some cooperatives and municipal utilities. We are really trying to make sure that they're getting reasonable payment plans set up. But it's not going to be helpful if they can't keep up with them. So, we’re making policymakers aware of some of these issues that people are struggling with.

 

Trying to pivot more in the positive area—this has created an opportunity for us as an organization to be more comfortable reaching out to people virtually. The state of Minnesota is a large state geographically. One of our challenges was trying to make sure we were getting to different parts of the state on a regular basis, as much as possible. And so now that more of the population is comfortable with this virtual environment, we see it's a nice opportunity to supplement our outreach work into the future by being able to offer virtual events, as well.

For example, we would go up to Duluth on a fairly regular basis, but it would be an all day trip, often over 12 hours. So, it is kind of nice now to be able to hop on a Zoom call and interact with people. It's not the same. We definitely want to get back to in-person events. But I do think it's going to be a nice tool for us in the future to continue to reach more parts of the state.

Because there was such a dramatic economic impact to so many people, it was obvious that people were going to start struggling to pay their energy bills and that was going to be a major concern. Especially thinking about the health impacts of COVID, you do not want your energy shut off when you're trying to maintain healthy practices: washing your hands, making sure you're doing laundry, staying comfortable because you’re at home, and kids are remote learning.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: I am curious to dig more into some of that work and outreach that you are doing. To hear more about those conversations. Are they with consumers and residents? And what are some of the things you're hearing about those immediate needs, short-term but also long-term? How do those conversations usually go?

Carmen Carruthers: Yeah, I’ve described it to some people as almost a triage situation. A lot of these messages are very immediate needs—they need help paying their bills. They're worried about getting their energy shut off. Or they're concerned about how high their bills are. That's another impact of COVID: the fact that so many people are home more, so their energy bills are higher than they would otherwise be. It’s a double whammy for these households who have been impacted economically. They don't have as much income coming in and they have higher bills.

It's really a difficult situation. We focus on the immediate needs first, like getting them hooked up to resources that can help pay their bills. That's probably the number one thing right now—they need help. They need money to pay the bills. We refer people to energy assistance. We encourage them to see if they're eligible for County assistance. There's the COVID Housing Fund [note: since recording, applications have now closed for this assistance but other resources for renters and homeowners are still available]. People can also call 211. Different social service agencies, which may have programs available. Salvation Army has a HeatShare Program, sometimes local houses of worship might have emergency funds for community members. If you're a student, you might be able to reach out to those resources, or Student Services might have some help. Making sure people are aware of the wide variety of places they can get assistance is where we start. That is really what most people's focus is—to get that bill paid. 

We also offer—after they get immediate needs taken care of—a bill consultation with us to talk about what are some strategies for their expenses going forward. That’s a secondary conversation because there's this urgency to prevent the shut off. That's the main focus. Once they can get to that stage, then they can start thinking more into the future about, “How can I reduce my use going forward?” To try to minimize some of the economic impact.

We're referring a lot of people to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission Consumer Affairs Office. When they're not able to arrange a reasonable payment plan with their utility, we encourage them to reach out to that organization because they can interact with the utilities on the consumers behalf in a lot of cases, and try to arrange something that's more reasonable or to get them reconnected.

That's another impact of COVID: the fact that so many people are home more, so their energy bills are higher than they would otherwise be. It’s a double whammy for these households who have been impacted economically. They don't have as much income coming in and they have higher bills.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: Thank you for digging into that more. In addition to the ways you’re connecting with folks’ immediate needs, it is great to hear how you are supporting and empowering them to advocate for themselves and engage in these topics more directly too. For my next question, how and what you found challenging about all of this and your work in these times?

Carmen Carruthers: Probably the most challenging part is hearing all these tough stories. We're hearing from people across the state. Every story's a bit different about how they've been impacted by COVID. The challenges they have in just trying to keep this basic service of electricity and heat on.

I have a colleague who fields a lot of these questions. She's great at providing resources and reaching out to people, but it's a struggle because sometimes you come to a point where there's not a lot more you can offer people. We can't provide a solution to every situation and that's hard because we know people are in desperate situations.

We would hear stories like this before but definitely not the volume. It's a different situation. I also think more people are aware of our services, so they're reaching out to us more. That’s a good thing, because that's what we're here to do. We want to be providing these resources. We just wish that this problem wasn't so prevalent—that we would be doing more of our more typical outreach work.

 

From a personal standpoint, I miss the in-person interactions. That was a really important part of the outreach work, and it's hard not to be seeing and interacting with people. For the Energy Efficiency Cohort project, we did a special fall event and then delivered a bunch of energy efficiency kits to some of the neighborhood groups to distribute to residents. It was so good to see some of these people from the community organizations that we've been working with again. That was a highlight. It really reminded me how much I like that, and how I missed that as part of our work.

A big part of my job is networking. That's pretty tough in a virtual environment—finding additional groups and organizations and individuals, who could benefit from some of our educational programming—when we're not out and about, like we normally are. We had to be more creative and use our existing networks to slowly build into new areas. Or we have to just reach out to people who we have an inkling could benefit.

So there are quite a few challenges, but again, I think we're really grateful we can be directly helping people in a meaningful way right now.

There are so many people in the energy sector who want to do good things, make it better, and take these opportunities to do so. I think there's this unique chance to highlight the disparities that exist and what energy burden does to households.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: Thank you for bringing those forward. All of those resonate with me, and I imagine many of our listeners, as well. On the other side of the coin, what gives you hope and what efforts are energizing you in spite of these challenges?

Carmen Carruthers: Thinking back to the Energy Efficiency Cohort work, we're hopeful to continue that work into the next year. There are so many community organizations who are really invested in addressing inequalities and the systemic racism that is embedded in all of these programs. That gives me a lot of inspiration.

There are so many people in the energy sector who want to do good things, make it better, and take these opportunities to do so. I think there's this unique chance to highlight the disparities that exist and what energy burden does to households. And when you have an economic downturn, how that gets exaggerated.

There have always been people who struggled to pay their bills, unfortunately. That's not a new situation. But we've also heard from a lot of households that this is a new experience. They had never had an issue before. So being able to explain the different programs that are out there and making them aware of these resources has been really important. I think it also highlights that these things can happen to lots of different people in lots of different circumstances. Hopefully there's an appetite to think about these issues long-term. To take this as an opportunity to continue having affordable energy, cleaner energy, more energy efficiency programs, and weatherization programs, all of which can really benefit everybody. This makes our communities more stable overall.

Those are the things that give me hope. We have to get through this pandemic, but it doesn't mean we're losing sight of these bigger issues because it all is interrelated and feeds into the bigger goal.

 

Marie Donahue: Yeah, thank you. So, how might folks engage in and support these efforts? What are you as an organization needing now and how might folks engage more?

Carmen Carruthers: Yeah, and we would love to continue to reach out and provide assistance. Encouraging people to reach out. Or if they're interested in hosting events that would help their community members. We would love to spread the word about the resources and the issues that are happening right now to continue to educate people and connect them to the things that they need.

We would love it for those who are in the position to, you know, to be giving back and to be giving to organizations that directly help people with their bills. CUB doesn't provide direct assistance, but we're helping connect people to those resources. Organizations like the Salvation Army, social service organizations, and other charitable groups that actually help people pay their bills would be fabulous because there's such a need out there. We would see that as a big help.

Marie Donahue: Anything else that we did not touch on yet that you would like to dig into more? Projects you're working on, things in the future that you hope to elevate, or any resources to dig into that we didn't touch on?

Carmen Carruthers: Again, encouraging folks to reach out to us if they're interested in hosting a virtual event in the upcoming months. As I mentioned earlier, we customize every presentation to what's going to be of interest to that group. We'd love to hear from an even wider variety of folks, different audiences, and to keep spreading the word about a variety of energy topics.

That's something we'd love to encourage because the more consumers are educated, the better choices they can make for their households. They have a role in influencing what energy should look like in the future too, so that's equally important.

The more consumers are educated, the better choices they can make for their households. They have a role in influencing what energy should look like in the future.

Carmen Carruthers, Outreach Director, Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota

Marie Donahue: Are there groups or audiences that you see as gaps in who you're reaching now and groups that you want to reach but haven't yet?

Carmen Carruthers: That's a great question because one of the things we were working on before all this happened was to be more creative in reaching rural Minnesota. Thankfully through some of the social media work we've been doing, we have been able to connect more with folks who live in rural parts of the state. But we would love to do more of that. People in rural Minnesota tend to have significantly higher energy bills than folks who live in the metropolitan areas. Primarily because of their heating systems. They're more likely to be heating with propane or electricity, rather than natural gas. And that is much more expensive. Those households can see much higher bills and are probably more likely to fit in that energy burden category because energy is a bigger part of their household budget.

 

There are a lot of different technological changes happening right now that could really benefit those rural households. We'd love to have conversations with people to think ahead about how in the shorter-, mid-, and longer terms, how they could manage those energy expenses in a more cost effective way.

We've been partnering with the Minnesota Farmers Union and CERTs to target rural communities specifically (see related videos below). That's a venue for us to reach people, but there are probably other organizations or informal groups of people that we'd love to hear from to be able to provide some useful information when it comes to energy.

I do think that this has, despite all the unfortunate circumstances and the challenges, created this unique piece in time to hone in on some of these issues. Issues we have been talking about for years, but now can actually garner some real attention around, hopefully.

Marie Donahue: Really appreciate connecting and pleased to have you here today, Carmen. Thank you so much for your time. 

Carmen Carruthers: Thank you, we appreciate the opportunity to share what we're working on and share the resources we can provide to Minnesota consumers.

Video series: Help with energy bills

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