From the Top
Michigan winters are storied across the globe. Temperatures can drop far into the negatives and drifts of snow many feet high can barricade us in our homes for days depending on where in the Mitten we live. We weatherize our homes, add extra layers to our clothes, stock up on food, and run the furnace at full blast to stay safe and comfortable until the season passes. What can make these times most dangerous, however, isn’t always a lack of entertainment or a sparse pantry. It’s a missed utility bill payment leading to a shutoff—no energy, no heat. Michigan households use 38 percent more energy overall than the U.S. average and 14 percent more just to heat their homes, and while energy is essential, it is not always affordable. For households living below the poverty line, energy costs can account for more than 20 percent to 40 percent of their annual income.
So what can a Michigander do when they’re faced with the potentially life-threatening problem of an energy shutoff midwinter?
The Cast and Crew
PSC’s dedication to its policy priorities—particularly energy equity—led to continued work with DTE Energy (DTE) and Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest energy providers, to discover just how effective the state’s energy accessibility programs are. These programs are an invaluable tools that provide enrollees with support to pay their bills, secure their homes against the state’s sometimes brutal temperatures, and access other necessary services that can provide further financial assistance. The evaluation project focused on the Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP), which was designed to help households with low incomes become more self-sufficient, a novel approach to the unaffordable energy problem, when many state and federal programs focus instead on crisis intervention. The case for affordability in Michigan was dire, with 35 percent of the state’s population grappling with unaffordable energy burdens and 1.3 million residents with energy bills that were more than 30 days overdue. Plus, programs like the MEAP need extensive evaluation to make sure they’re doing what they set out to do—get Michiganders struggling with their energy bills help when they need it most.
The Plot Thickens
Each year, more than a million Michiganders struggle to afford their energy bills, and many of these individual customers represent critical data points needed to gain a clear picture of a program’s effectiveness. Evaluating a relatively new program while it’s still running proved to be a difficult task, and the amount of data to sift through was daunting. Alongside the sea of data, with complicated relationships between funding from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the MEAP’s goals, the need for specialized policy knowledge was clear. PSC’s energy and evaluation expertise proved key in harnessing the right information at the right times to create an in-depth perspective of Michigan’s energy assistance programs.
Thirty-five percent of the state’s population grapples with unaffordable energy burdens.
Research, Innovate, Action
With widespread research, PSC provided DTE and Consumers with a holistic view of energy assistance programs in Michigan, including the Home Heating Credit and the State Emergency Relief program. The evaluation included analysis of customer account data to determine overall impacts of the MEAP as well as exploration of secondary inputs, like stakeholder interviews, that provide deeper insight than numbers alone. In the beginning, the novel approach to data collection was made possible by the strong partnership PSC has with the energy providers that was rooted in trust and mutual respect. This relationship created an exclusive opportunity to access necessary customer data that wouldn’t otherwise have been available.
For the interviews, PSC developed tailored discussion guides, each of which was created to suit the role of the participants. The work unveiled a roster of diverse issues and strengths in Michigan’s energy assistance programs, including:
- A need for consistent and cohesive measurement of program success
- Complications between the goal of preventative action and crisis management funding from federal programs
- Burdensome application paperwork that deterred customers and hefty administrative work
- Michigan is working hard to get all of the available benefits from federal funding
- The state is constantly improving its service delivery when it comes to energy assistance
Each of these findings, among the many others, was rolled into a well-designed report and supported with one-pagers and presentations for meetings and further advocacy for energy security and assistance programs in Michigan—all created by PSC.
For Michigan and Beyond
With an accessible research report, presentations, and helpful one-pagers, PSC’s work was implemented when many different community stakeholders were convened across the state to learn more about the MEAP and Michigan’s other energy assistance programs. This multilayered communications approach made it possible to reach the audiences that needed the information the most. It also increased advocacy for additional programs to earn the state greater federal funding and help Michigan residents become more self-sufficient.
Program evaluations like this not only enrich client relationships, they also offer energy providers the chance to more effectively implement and expand similar programs, as well as save those that are under fire from federal funding cuts. Using PSC’s final evaluation report and recommendations, the providers involved in the work are able to help thousands of people each year avoid the health and safety impacts of running out of fuel or having energy services shut off. Now they can proactively intervene before crises arise and provide vital heating assistance benefits. Efforts like the MEAP have connected energy assistance with other social services by shifting the focus of assistance programs from crisis intervention to a more holistic, preventative approach, exponentially multiplying the positive outcomes from this work to help people before the need is dire.