Teaming Up to Combat Fuel Poverty in Central Minnesota

Mother and sons getting new solar heat system With energy costs on the rise and low-income families feeling the greatest pressure, the Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance are teaming up to weatherize homes and install solar heat systems, with a little help from the Central Clean Energy Resource Team.

Fuel Poverty

Energy costs are on the rise and predicted to continue growing over the winter heating season—with home energy bills rising right along with them. This will have a dramatic impact on families across the “frost belt” who need to stay warm, many of whom were not able to pay their bills last winter. Rising energy costs have been all over the news, but only a few articles have focused specifically on the impact these heating costs will have on low-income Americans, who already contribute an average 35% of their income to home heating (States prepare for home heating crisis & Falling into ‘fuel poverty’). Fuel poverty is a real issue when a family has to choose whether to heat their home or buy food, and with the economy’s current state, more families than ever before will be falling into the home energy affordability gap.

Source: Center for American Progress

Low-Income Assistance Programs

The two federal programs that address fuel poverty are the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which has been supplementing low-income families’ heating bills since 1982, and the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which provides weatherization services to low-income families, thus reducing their energy consumption and need for energy assistance in the first place. Weatherization also reduces greenhouse gas emissions and creates local jobs. Minnesota receives funding for both of these programs (MN EAP, MN WAP), which are administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce through 38 local service providers around the state.

In Minnesota, as with the rest of the nation, these two programs can only serve a small percentage of eligible families. However, forseeing the burden that winter heating costs will bring, Governor Pawlenty recently announced, the federal government released the program funds early to make sure that states have the resources they need to serve low-income residents. Not only that, but Minnesota received $144.5 million for LIHEAP, almost double the normal amount. There were increases to WAP as well—$16 million coming to Minnesota—which will help the state to expand the program beyond its average 3,000 households per year.

Home with solar heat system

Teaming up for Lasting Solutions

The Community Action groups across the state provide weatherization services to low-income residents that include such measures as installing insulation, sealing air leaks, caulking and weather stripping around windows and doors, and installing storm windows and doors. The weatherization assistance programs can reduce average home energy costs by about 20%—and even more if residents are heating with natural gas or heating oil.

In Central Minnesota, Otter Tail-Wadena Community Action Council (OTWCAC) was born in 1965 when seventy-five local residents met to discuss the Economic Opportunity Act. They started Energy Savers, the first weatherization project in the nation, as well as several other innovative programs. To add a small bump to the services they are able to provide, the Central Clean Energy Resource Team decided to contribute around $20,000 of their regional funds to OTWCAC for weatherization services this coming season.

A number of years ago, Steve Connell, who manages the weatherization program at OTWCAC, met Jason Edens, director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), a non-profit that is working to make solar power available to people of all income levels through their Solar Assistance Program. RREAL manufactures and sells a Solar Powered Furnace, which provides solar air heat, that they now use in many of their solar assistance installations. Solar Assistance systems are installed at no cost to the families who qualify for energy assistance in North Central Minnesota, and contribute from 10 to 30 percent of the families’ heating load, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for government fuel assistance for decades.

Installing a solar system Steve and Jason saw an opportunity for partnership, and are now working together to provide lasting energy solutions for low-income residents in Central Minnesota. There is a small pot of money from a tax on fuel oil deliveries that the state legislature sets aside each year, and some of this money is available on a first-come first-served basis for Minnesota energy assistance providers each year, mostly to cover further weatherization services. The state recently decided that recipients should spend more of these funds on renewable energy systems for their clients.

OTWCAC used a fair chunk of what was available last year to work with RREAL. As OTWCAC is weatherizing homes (they plan to do about 100 this season), they identify potential clients who they think have a good orientation for solar heat, and pass them on to RREAL, who does a site visit to investigate further. If they are good candidates, they install a solar heat system. Last year they installed six systems, and plan to do another six this year.

Looking Forward

OTWCAC and RREAL are definitely the trailblazers on this kind of initiative, but other energy assistance service providers are beginning to show an interest. There is still a great need for further assistance, but these two groups are leading the way to providing lasting solutions.

Family with new solar power system

CERTs-Supported Projects for RREAL

Solar Space Heating System Warms Rooms for Sebeka FamilyDecember 2005
A Sebeka, MN family has become the first in the neighborhood to have a solar space heating system will heat two bedrooms with energy from the sun, with the help of federal assistance and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL). It does not use electricity or any other energy source for its operation. Read the case study.

Solar Air Heat Installation on Cass County Transfer Station: This project is a partnership between Cass County Environmental Services and the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL). By installing a solar space heating system in a service building at the Cass County Transfer Station, RREAL is demonstrating to the public how this kind of renewable energy system works to because it is on a government building. Some benefits for the Transfer Station is they will save money on heating costs in the winter, because the sun is providing heat rather than propane, and they estimate the project will also reduce CO2 emissions by 7000 pounds per year. With rising heating costs, this installaion will is in the public interest, because much of the operation costs for Cass County Transfer Station is provided by tax payers. ($5,000)

Leech Lake Solar Heater Demonstration: The Planning Division of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is working to acquire a demonstration model of a solar heater to be used in a residential setting. Students at the Leech Lake Tribal College will work on designing the model and will install it on campus building. The purpose is to demonstrate how solar technologies can reduce residential heating costs for low income families and businesses on the reservation, and to promote its use in the region. This will be a working model showcasing the technology and the benefits it can provide. The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance will work with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe to install the solar heaters and serve as the technical services provider for the project. Monitoring and displays will be available as an educational resource for the public. ($5,000)

RREAL Website Operation: Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) seeks to develop a new website that will be the web authority and resource on solar air heat. Additionally the reworked RREAL website will be aimed at providing: product & ordering information, Solar Assistance Program information, and access to their ongoing research on solar air heat among other things. RREAL seeks CERT funds to hire staff from Sunday’s Energy to produce the site, train RREAL staff, and develop web content. ($5,000)

RREAL Solar Air Heat Crop Drying: Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) seeks funding to conduct a feasibility study of utilizing Solar Air Heat for Crop Drying. RREAL believes that crop drying may be an excellent application for solar air heat and may prove to be an appropriate agricultural use for the RREAL Solar Powered Furnace (SPF), their solar air heating collector. The feasibility study will consist of literature reviews on current crop drying methods and solar crop drying. ($5,000)

Video about RREAL from our recent documentary, ENERGIZED: Communities Building Minnesota’s Clean Energy Future, released November 2011.

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