Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Efficiency for All, an Interview with Kristol Simms of Ameren Illinois
image credit: Kristol Simms
- Jan 22, 2020 5:00 pm GMT
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Energy efficiency is often called the cheapest and cleanest form of energy, as the kilowatthour not used has no carbon footprint and it costs nothing to produce. With this in mind, a renewed strong push has come from utilities across the country to empower customers to increase their efficiency in ways that will not only reduce personal carbon footprints (and aggregate emissions for the utilities themselves) but will also save customers on their monthly bill. Unfortunately, though, many types of energy efficiency measures require investments that can be obstructive to lower income families, the exact types of homes that would benefit the most from saving money on their monthly utility bills. This unfortunate irony is not lost on the utility players, and so with the push towards energy efficiency has also come the momentum towards initiating energy efficiency measures that enable all homes to take advantage of these benefits.
This area is one that Kristol Simms, Director of Energy Efficiency Strategy and Innovation at Ameren Illinois, takes to heart. Not only does she make sure such programs are a high priority at Ameren, but she also is sure to share her lessons learned in this field with her peers across the utility industry, ensuring more people are able to benefit from such great programs. In fact, she’ll be sharing her presentation, “Energy Efficiency For All – Market Development Initiative Engages Underserved Communities,” at the upcoming AESP 30th Annual Conference & Expo. As she prepared to share her insights with fellow AESP members at this conference, she was kind enough to give a sneak peek to the Energy Central community as a part of our Power Perspectives™ interview series:
Matt Chester: Ensuring that energy efficiency programs are able to benefit the underserved communities that can best benefit from them is a great goal, and one that is thankfully becoming more common in the industry. Can you talk about the impetus for Ameren Illinois to focus their efforts on this area of energy efficiency programs?
Kristol Simms: Ameren Illinois first introduced our award-winning energy efficiency programs back in 2008. While we were able to help many of our customers save energy and money, we knew we needed to do more to engage customers in underserved communities. The Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA), signed in 2016, is a significant piece of energy legislation that helped to shape and realize Chairman and President Richard Mark’s vision of “Energy Efficiency for All.” With provisions to expand energy efficiency programs and options for moderate- and low-income customers and communities, the Act empowered us to take a demographically driven approach to better meet the needs of low- and moderate-income customers.
Our program was approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission in 2017, and our Market Development Initiative was officially launched in early 2018. In that inaugural year, we dedicated $2.9 million to create economic and energy efficiency opportunities for diverse individuals, businesses and communities across our service territory.
MC: An interesting wrinkle is you’re not just looking out for customers from underserved communities, but also including an effort to team with local, diverse-owned contractors to implement the programs. What benefits have you found this aspect of the program to bring to the communities and to the end implementation?
KS: At Ameren, we value diversity in our workplace, our communities, and in the suppliers we do business with, and our Market Development Initiative (MDI) reflects that. To further boost local economies, we teamed with leading diverse-owned, including minority–, woman-, and Veteran-owned business partners, to administer our residential energy efficiency programs in underserved communities.
To position diverse-owned installers for success, we provide world-class training, as well as staffing grants to support their initial expansion into energy efficiency. We also provide other supportive funding associated with energy audit equipment and weatherization material. In our first year, this support contributed to a nearly seven-fold increase in diverse spending and a 40% increase in minority- and woman-owned business enterprises that are registered Ameren Illinois Program Allies. Taking a long-term view, MDI also created scholarship and internship opportunities to connect diverse talent to the energy efficiency workforce of tomorrow.
Local businesses are the lifeblood of a community. Helping these businesses thrive creates a ripple effect throughout the community. Beyond the economic advantages, when customers in underserved areas see a local business — maybe even someone they know — installing energy-efficient equipment, it helps Ameren Illinois build trust and credibility.
MC: What have been the biggest hurdles or unexpected challenges Ameren Illinois has had to overcome with this program? What were the keys to tackling them?
KS: Trust (or lack of) was a key challenge to the success of this initiative. Ameren Illinois needed to position itself as a trusted ally, rather than simply the source of the monthly power bill or, worse yet, the source of service disconnections. Educating the target market on the value of energy efficiency was another hurdle. After all, if you’re worried about putting food on the table, energy efficiency is probably not going to be top of mind.
To address both of these challenges, Ameren Illinois partnered with local non-profits and community-based organizations that are established and trusted in the communities we serve. These organizations can conveniently disseminate information and provide services to customers through existing touchpoints. For example, we collaborated with “Meals on Wheels” to provide customers with energy-saving kits and tips during meal drop-offs.
Working with our community partners, Ameren Illinois hosted just under 300 outreach events at churches, libraries, schools, and other community centers in 2018 and 2019. These events introduced thousands of low- and moderate-income customers to energy-saving tips, tools and incentives, from free smart thermostats to our comprehensive home efficiency program. Our community partnerships have been key to helping us connect with customers most in need of energy efficiency assistance.
We also had to find innovative, organic ways to deliver our energy efficiency message. For example, to promote our first-ever, family-friendly Neighborhood Energy Efficiency Day, we hosted the event in the neighborhood adjacent to one of our non-profit partners, and boosted attendance through word of mouth and neighborhood canvassing. Another community partner reached over 3,000 customers with energy efficiency education in 6 months' time by going out into the community, including churches, city halls, and joining local radio programs.
As trust grows, along with an awareness of energy efficiency, customers feel empowered to take steps to use less energy through our incentive programs.
MC: By all accounts it appears that this has been a resounding success of a program thus far. What comes next? How do you see the program growing in the coming years?
KS: Our Market Development Initiative will always evolve to bring greater equity to our energy efficiency offerings. As new technology emerges, we will create targeted offerings to make it more accessible to low- and moderate-income customers. We are also continuing to push ourselves to identify underserved groups in our programs beyond low- and moderate-income customers, including customers who are blind or vision-impaired, Veterans, and customers who do not speak English as their first language. We will also continue to expand our reach by developing more partnerships with community-based organizations and local, diverse-owned businesses. In 2020, we are incorporating additional smart thermostat outreach and education into our projects as a result of customer feedback.
MC: Beyond the efficiency for all topic you’re presenting on, what topics are you eager to hear and learn about at the AESP 30th Annual Conference?
KS: I am always interested in learning how other utilities are connecting with customers in innovative ways. Technology is another topic I will be eager to hear about, from new energy-saving technologies that will benefit our customers to technology we can use in-house to pinpoint our target market more precisely. It’s great to meet colleagues who face similar challenges and goals and to learn from each other.
If you’re interested in hearing more about Kristol’s work into ‘Energy Efficiency for All, be sure to catch her presentation at the 2020 AESP Annual Conference & Expo from February 17 to 20 in Anaheim, California. You can check out the agenda and register for the conference here.