CERTs effort reduces energy burden in 38 manufactured home parks, and counting!

Good clean energy projects do more than just reduce pollution: good projects support people in making their lives better and provide on-ramps to engagement in the clean energy transition. 

Thanks to the generous support of the Carolyn Foundation, CERTs worked side-by-side with numerous community partners to put this idea into practice in a project spanning multiple years and (as of 2023) 38 manufactured home parks.

If you’re looking for clean energy work that combats climate change while also reducing systemic energy burden, manufactured homes are a good place to start. 

Joel Haskard, Co-Director, CERTs

Why manufactured home parks?

Manufactured homes (sometimes called “mobile homes” or "trailers") can offer a path to home ownership for many individuals and families who might not otherwise be able to afford to buy (or rent) a home. In Minnesota, over 180,000 people live in manufactured homes, with nearly half of these households living on an annual income of $35,000 or less.

But housing affordability is about more than just the purchase price. It also matters how much it costs to live there, and energy is a big part of that. Many manufactured homes use more energy than similarly sized housing of other types, because of inefficiencies like poor insulation and air sealing. So, as CERTs works to reduce Minnesotans’ energy burden to under 5% of income, reaching manufactured home residents is a key piece of the puzzle.

When it comes to making manufactured homes more energy efficient, there are many challenges. Insulation is nearly impossible to implement (except for crawling underneath to insulate the “belly” of the home). What’s more, many homes are heated by propane, and there are no state-mandated utility programs to reduce propane use. 

Many of the refugees and immigrants we serve are unfamiliar with the climate and home structure here in the United States and do not know how to make simple changes that can make their homes more energy efficient. 

Katie van Eijl, Program Manager, Project FINE

Efficiency and affordability matter. So, too, does the ability of all Minnesotans to participate in shaping our state’s clean energy future. That’s why this project worked to build partnerships with community-based organizations and residents in manufactured home parks, as well as with park owners, electric and gas utilities, and Community Action Agencies. As will be seen below, the project provided accessible ways for residents and community organizations to enter the clean energy space, whether through changes at home or by strengthening their capacity to do energy work in community.

Developing a strategy for manufactured home parks

The strategies used in this project were based on 2016 research from Slipstream (PDF) and on CERTs’ own experience partnering on six pilot projects in 2019: three with the Northcountry Cooperative Foundation in member-owned parks (in southern Minnesota), and three with Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership and Detroit Lake Public Utilities (in the Detroit Lakes area).

Research showed that a “blitz” style outreach approach—bringing as many partners as possible together for a big event that targeted the entire park—was the best way to reach the most community members. Our own experiences told us that the “secret sauce” to make the blitz even more successful was to have community members themselves be as heavily involved in the project as possible, and to be paid for their time. 

In 2020, CERTs received $25,000 in funding from the Carolyn Foundation, to expand and further develop our work with manufactured home communities. The goals of the project were to decrease energy use and increase safety, comfort, and affordability for Minnesotans living in manufactured housing. CERTs’ approach would be to work with local partners to conduct energy efficiency blitzes in 15-20 manufactured home parks, reaching at least 40% of the homes in the parks. In the end, the project met — and exceeded — these goals. And along the way, we learned a few things! 

Between 2020-2023:

Total parks served with energy saving devices and educational materials: 38

Total units reached: 2,530

Annual bill savings: $100,257

Energy savings annually: 393,123 kWh, 66,685 therms

Implementation: success requires adaptability

We started implementing the new project in 2020, and…well, we all know how 2020 went! 

We planned to host in-person trainings on efficiency measures. Given the global pandemic, those didn’t happen. COVID’s supply chain impacts meant that appliances and some weatherization materials were scarce. In addition, for a significant part of the implementation period, it was not possible to go into people’s homes to do the actual weatherization installation work. The project therefore shifted to what could be distributed safely and with social distancing. 

We were able to have several in-person outreach events that were very successful, but in many parks we had to shift gears and provide $300 debit cards to participating park managers or resident leaders, and then coordinate with them to distribute conservation kits, written materials (including Energy Assistance applications), and educational videos. This was done outdoors (and socially distanced), either at a community event or during the Friday of the month when residents went to the manager’s office to pay their rent. Because of local partnerships, additional opportunities were often uncovered, such as a fire department with free heat tape materials, a church providing food, or a nonprofit giving out books and even laptops at events. A particularly fun and effective event in Willmar included ice cream—popular with the kids!

Beyond the community events, follow-up included going door to door with the conservation kits and educational materials. This was done by paid staff, volunteers, or in some cases CERTs, utility, or non-profit staff who wanted to ensure that the outreach had been completed. 

CERTs’ emphasis on reducing energy burden by working closely with park managers and residents has been refreshing and pragmatic, and residents are seeing real energy savings.

Victoria (Tory) Clark, Executive Director, Northcountry Cooperative Foundation

Valuing people’s time

From the beginning, we knew we wanted to respect the value of people’s time: if we were asking community members to partner on the project, they should be compensated. Given how project implementation changed and adapted to on-the-ground conditions, we found that the most straightforward way to do that was to provide a $300 debit card to the community member or park manager helping coordinate the effort.

Respecting the value of people’s time had another important dimension in this project, and that was to recognize that people have a lot going on in their lives. They don’t have unlimited time and mental resources to devote to any single thing, including energy efficiency. In particular, a process that required people to sign up for an in-home visit, confirm that visit, and then schedule their lives in a way that they could be home for that visit was unrealistic for many people.

We found that the most successful efforts had brief, direct, social-distanced contact with a community member to speak with them and provide them with the DIY energy saving materials, forms, and educational resources that they were interested in.

Information works only if it’s accessible

Making information accessible to community members — many of whom are new Minnesotans — meant providing content in multiple formats (written, spoken, and video) and multiple languages, as well as building capacity of local partners to do energy work. 

Of the initial 22 parks we served, 12 were majority Spanish speaking. We now have videos in English and Spanish, as well as Home Energy Guides translated into Spanish, Somali, and Hmong. Residents of the Willmar Regency project were about 60% Spanish-speaking and 40% Karen-speaking, so that event had publicity and interpreters for both languages, as well as Spanish-language materials for weatherization, home energy savings, and wastewater information.

The project made the partnerships...

This project could not have happened without partnerships. A large part of CERTs’ role was to identify and bring together a diverse array of partners: 

  • Park residents
  • Park owners, managers, and maintenance employees
  • Gas and electric utility representatives
  • Energy assistance and weatherization service providers
  • Local governments 
  • Native Nation governments
  • Community-based organizations

CERTs has long worked with utilities and service providers, and a couple of developments made their involvement easier. First, the Minnesota Department of Commerce permitted service providers to claim 50% of a park’s residents as being able to access income-eligible programming from the utilities without individual income verification. This seemingly small change — spearheaded by CERTs — created an easier path for utilities to put their conservation programming toward manufactured home parks without the intrusive step of getting each household’s income separately verified. Second, the natural gas company Minnesota Energy Resources created and implemented a new pilot conservation program specifically for manufactured home parks, working with CERTs in several of the parks.

Overall, intense community organizing, with participation of the park managers and residents, was the key factor in the project’s success. Each outreach effort — big or small — required many emails, calls, and Zooms to coordinate and implement. 

...and the partnerships made the project!

The work was worth it.

Building partnerships with community organizations like Growing Up Healthy, Project FINE, 8th Fire, and UNIDOS MN, with Native nations like Lower Sioux Community, and with residents and managers of manufactured home parks, made it easier to build trust, bridge cultural and language differences, and get the work done.

At CERTs, we believed — and still believe — that building a network of community members who are knowledgeable about ways to reduce energy costs, while at the same time improving the comfort and safety of their homes, will have a lasting impact.

Similarly, the partnerships built over the course of this project continue, creating on-ramps for community members and community-based organizations to engage meaningfully in energy and climate work. 

Next steps for CERTs' work with manufactured home communities

This project is a foundational part of CERTs’ ongoing Under 5% Campaign: helping Minnesotans reduce energy costs to below 5% of their household income. With the new ECO Act legislation that became law in 2021, we expect to see more utilities working to find ways to reduce energy use of manufactured homes. 

Beyond programming like energy efficiency kits, educational materials and Energy Assistance and weatherization, CERTs hopes to expand programming into two exciting areas:

  1. Working with the Minnesota Department of Commerce - Division of Energy Resources, CERTs plans to coordinate pilot projects for on-site solar or community solar garden subscriptions that reduce energy costs for manufactured home park residents.
  2. CERTs is looking to pilot cold-climate air source heat pumps with manufactured home residents currently using propane to realize further energy savings. 

As Minnesota rises to meet the challenges of energy equity, climate, and reducing energy burdens for those in the greatest need, CERTs and our partners are working to ensure that all Minnesotans can shape — and benefit from — the clean energy transition. 

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