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As an Illinois utility seeks to boost enrollment in its efficiency programs, it is partnering with neighborhood groups and others to connect with customers, particularly low-income households that could benefit the most.

In the pilot phase of a new program launched recently, ComEd is partnering with Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), and The Resurrection Project — as well as local aldermen and officials — to do outreach among affordable-housing residents in largely Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. That might include on-site workshops, door-to-door campaigns and other efforts that leverage existing community networks to spread the word about energy-saving options.

Since launching in 2008, ComEd’s suite of energy-saving incentives have saved customers more than $2 billion in energy costs and helped to eliminate 21.6 billion pounds of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, according to the utility.

Despite the benefits of these programs — which include free home energy assessments, rebates for efficient appliances, discounts on CFL and LED lighting and others — enrollment remains low. In a given zip code, 5 to 7 percent participation in energy efficiency programs is considered a good rate, says George Malek, ComEd’s director of energy efficiency services. Nationally, fewer than one in ten residential customers participate in energy efficiency programs, according to a survey by Market Strategies International, a market research firm.

ComEd’s new initiative, Community Energy Management, seeks to boost those numbers by offering a “boots-on-the-ground, concentrated campaign and marketing effort within diverse communities,” says Martin Montes, ComEd’s director of Regulatory Affairs.

“It’s one thing to listen to a commercial on the radio or receive a flier in your mail saying ‘Here’s a home energy assessment,’” Montes says. “But it’s another thing when you can sit across the table from someone whom you trust, who is partnering with us, and we’re explaining exactly how these programs will save you money.”

Low participation

ComEd’s program — and similar utility outreach efforts across the country — are a reminder that despite all the promises of new energy technologies, building a smarter, more efficient grid still requires old-fashioned, shoe-leather human interaction. Designing a new smart thermostat almost looks easy when compared with the task of getting everyday consumers to change deeply entrenched habits around energy use and take advantage of rebate programs.

“A lot of customers actually still think that it’s too good to be true,” Malek says of programs that help ratepayers save money on their energy costs. That skepticism is warranted given the tendency to believe that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” It can be particularly hard to overcome among low-income residents and senior citizens who may have been previously targeted by fraudulent offers and other scams.

At the same time, low-income communities stand to gain the most from efficiency discounts and rebates offered by utilities. Households with a median annual income of less than $24,998 spend an average of 7.2 percent of their income on energy bills, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. That’s more than three times the energy burden faced by higher-income households for heating, cooling and electricity.

Latino communities, which are the target of ComEd’s first round of Community Energy Management, face an average energy burden of 4.1 percent, according to the April 2016 study.

“At a time of profound fiscal austerity, and rapidly increasing demand for affordable apartments, ComEd’s partnership can be an important tool to reduce energy costs and help stabilize affordable housing throughout Chicago,” Hipolito “Paul” Roldán, president and CEO of the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, said in a press release.

A ‘customer service’ utility

For ComEd, these kinds of programs can help the utility meet efficiency targets as set out by the 2007 Illinois Power Agency Act. Community Energy Management is also part of an effort by ComEd to improve customer experience. Faced with competition by third-party companies and new demands from a more distributed and active grid, ComEd and other utilities across the country are looking for new ways to distinguish themselves.

“We’re looking at ourselves not as the normal, nuts-and-bolts, 100-year-old utility company, but [as] a company that is servicing its customers,” says Montes. Similar to how the future of the grid may look more like a network of smaller, islandable grids, Montes sees the future of ComEd’s customer engagement as “very pocketed, focused efforts, in terms of overall service to our customers in certain communities.”

Community Energy Management will run initially for six months, Montes says, and, if successful, ComEd may run similar programs focused on other communities across the city and suburbs.

Lorena Lopez, outreach coordinator for energy at the non-profit Faith in Place, says utilities have come a long way in engaging with individual communities, but that there is still work to be done. Though she is not involved in this specific ComEd program, Lopez agrees that engaging community allies can help spread energy literacy and awareness of efficiency incentives.

“There’s nothing like an ambassador of your community,” Lopez says. “I speak native ‘Little Village,’” she adds, referring to a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. “I know how to connect with my people there. Even if they speak English, it’s a different kind of language.”

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.