Project FINE incorporates energy efficiency resources into operations

January 2023

Project FINE (Focus on Integrating Newcomers through Education) is a Winona-based nonprofit founded over 30 years ago to provide services for immigrants and refugees.

Originally focusing on Hmong newcomers, they now provide translation in 24 languages as well as referrals for employment, youth services, housing, and navigating social and government services. They have also been instrumental in building inclusive communities through the Welcoming America movement, Welcoming Table, and diversity training.

Though energy-related work has never been a part of their core mission, Project FINE began working with CERTs in 2021 on efforts to reduce energy burden for the newcomers they serve, and in 2022 were awarded two CERTs Seed Grants to extend this work. 

"This was outside our regular area of work; it was worthwhile and beneficial in deepening our impact on an area of great need for the families we serve."

Executive Director and founder of Project FINE Fatima Said

Energy burden is the percentage of household income spent on home energy bills. The nation’s average burden is around 3.5%, but many times those who can least afford it spend 20 to 30 percent of their income on energy. This is because less expensive housing is often older and less energy efficient. The federal government provides help to pay energy bills with the Energy Assistance Program as well as Weatherization Assistance to improve efficiency for low-income residents, but only a fraction of those in need are served annually. In addition, language can be a barrier to reaching available programs. 

In the spring of 2021, CERTs staff along with representatives of the City of Winona and Xcel Energy’s Home Energy Squad walked door-to-door visiting over 200 residents of local manufactured home parks.

For low-income residents, Home Energy Squad visits are performed at no-cost and provide up to several hundred dollars of value with installation of weather stripping, LED bulbs, and other energy-saving devices.

Outreach Team

The team provided information about the Home Energy Squad in both English and Spanish. Project FINE followed up with personal communications with families they knew and succeeded in signing up a couple of dozen families for Home Energy Squad visits.

Katie Van Eijl, Program Manager at Project FINE stresses the importance of fostering relationships, “because we are a trusted organization for newcomers, they are more likely to follow up on opportunities when outreach is conducted.”

With one of the 2022 CERTs Seed Grants Project FINE translated the existing CERTS Right Light Guide and several energy guides including Energy for Single Family Homes, Energy for Renters, and Energy for Landlords into Hmong.

They then reached 52 local families to provide both Hmong and Spanish versions of those guides.

With the other seed grant, in-person and virtual events to help residents understand their energy bills were conducted.

The nonprofit Citizens Utility Board (CUB) and Project FINE held free energy bill clinics and a presentation about home energy use in the cities of St. Charles and Winona. Fifteen families participated in the bill clinics and 27 residents attended the presentation.

At the bill clinics CUB staff analyzed all items line-by-line and gave tips. For example, they determined that though many attendees qualified for a low-income natural gas credit most were not signed up for it, and thus had a surcharge instead, that contributed to the fund.

Understanding Energy Bills

Staff from Project FINE assisted the residents through translation of follow-up documents from the clinics and with subsequent work to find additional resources, such as signing up for energy assistance programs.

Project FINE’s Katie Van Eijl emphasizes the value of the bill clinics in combination with the presentation. 

"People don’t know why their bills are high and may think they are saving money by using a space heater, when the exact opposite is true. The more times people hear a message the more it sinks in."

Project FINE Program Manager Katie Van Eijl

She also says there was a high learning curve for Project FINE as an organization in understanding the importance of energy efficiency and the complexity of services available, “we learned that bills vary widely between households and energy providers so we invested time into translating the follow-up documents.”

Van Eijl says they would likely not hold more energy-related events but that experiences from the projects would “slide into all their other programs.” She says helping their clients with access and information about energy efficiency and assistance to reduce their energy burden is now just “part of the way we operate.” 

SE CERT Seed Grant Projects: Energy Efficiency Outreach to Refugees and Immigrants & Understanding Your Energy Bill

Clean Energy Focus: Energy efficiency education with refugees and immigrants through bill clinics, workshops, and translated materials

Two Southeast CERT Seed Grants: $9,950

People Involved and Reached: 175

The Under 5% Campaign is part of CERTs ongoing work to reduce Minnesota resident’s energy burden through partnerships with local utilities, community groups and nonprofits.

Contact CERTs Statewide Co-Director Joel Haskard to participate in the campaign. CERTs also accepts Seed Grant applications every other year. Sign up for our newsletter to be notified of the next RFP.

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