MES Deferrals Workshop Recap

Photo from the workshop

Blog includes contributions by Sonia Holsen.

English rock band, The Clash, poses an important question in their 1982 hit – “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” This is the same concern that contractors face when they are in a unit or building that is not weatherization ready due to structural or safety reasons. On February 1, at MEEA’s annual Midwest Energy Solutions conference, energy professionals and stakeholders participated in a workshop centered on the causes, effects and ways to mitigate these potential and sometimes inevitable walkaways, also called deferrals. 

Katrina Metzler, Executive Director of the National Energy & Utility Affordability Coalition, provided attendees with a background presentation on deferrals before facilitated breakout discussions ensued at the individual tables. Session facilitators were representative of the Midwest region both geographically and by sector. They included Kara Jonas, Manager of Energy Efficiency Programs at ComEd; Brad Banks, Energy Efficiency Analyst with the Michigan Public Service Commission; Karen Lusson, Staff Attorney at the National Consumer Law Center; Laura Goldberg, the Midwest Director of Energy Equity and Affordability in the People and Communities Program at the National Resources Defense Council; Mari Ojeda, Senior Policy Associate for Energy Access and Equity at Fresh Energy and Molly Graham, Director of Market Solutions and Education at MEEA.  

Katrina broke down what exactly is meant by “deferrals,” explaining that when the condition of the home renders delivering weatherization services either unsafe or ineffective, a home may be delayed service until remedied. Further, Katrina addressed common reasons for deferrals, such as electrical or plumbing disrepair, lead-based paint, asbestos and structural issues. 

Moving beyond the ordinary walkaway reasons, Katrina asked workshop participants, “What other reasons have you encountered for deferral?” It quickly became apparent that nearly every weatherization worker has an anecdote about situations they have encountered in homes that either halt or delay the needed upgrades and repairs. Katrina shared examples of unexpected and unfamiliar obstructions that prevent weatherization crews from fully accessing the home of focus. Unpredictable issues of this nature can trigger deferrals or force weatherization workers to perform work outside their traditional scope until home repairs can ensue and resultantly, the residents can live in a safer and healthier space.  

Of course, a large part of the conversations around pre-weatherization and weatherization is about the actual structural upgrades that a given building needs and how to pay for them. However, at its core, this work requires entering individual households and therefore cannot be separated from the very human elements of living. For example, hoarding is a physical manifestation of stress and an array of mental health conditions but can cause a walkaway in the same way moisture or mold in the home’s structure can. Many pre-weatherization programs that are designed and funded to decrease deferral rates through addressing health and safety issues are stringent about which measures money from these programs can address. One such example Katrina pointed to is administered by the Indiana Weatherization Assistance Program, which addresses eligible issues including pest control, grading and roof repair. Regardless of the amount of money allocated to this type of program, without an expanded allowable use of funding, there will still be deferrals for reasons such as hoarding or miscommunication between tenants and property management that prevents a weatherization crew from being able to access the home they intended to service. This is not to discount the need for increased funding (which was widely agreed upon by workshop participants), but rather to understand how to expand the reach of those dollars to more community members. 

Flexibility of pre-weatherization measures was among the common threads drawn in facilitator-led breakout discussions. Similarly, another theme was around efforts to quantify non-energy impacts and allow programs to claim impacts accordingly beyond energy savings. The pre-weatherization program in Indiana has reported health outcomes where 25% of people served reported improvement in their asthma and allergy symptoms and 20% reported improvement in their anxiety and depression symptoms. Thinking of weatherization as being connected to more than just energy savings opened space at the tables to talk about the legislative differences across state lines. Specifically, related to the varying perspectives of public service commissions on whether cost-effectiveness testing for program approval should solely consider monetary costs and benefits or also be inclusive of broader societal impacts. Individual tables quickly reached the same conclusion, that the legislative appetite for adopting new cost-effectiveness tests is limited in many Midwestern states, as the efficiency programs administered by utilities help complement federally funded Weatherization Assistance Programs implemented at the state level.  

The table groups identified common barriers faced across states and programs. One subject that was brought up in nearly every group was difficulties pertaining to workforce shortfalls. The consensus was that broadly there is a shortage of labor, training and engagement with weatherization contractors. Contractors, while being experts in home repair and technical engineering, are most often not trained in participant communication and engagement. This sometimes leads to miscommunication and consequently misunderstanding by the homeowners or renters about programs, implementation requirements and funding opportunities available to them. One workshop group also considered contractor incentives for program participation, or more so, the lack thereof as imposed extensive reporting and frequent quality control inspections are a potential deterrent to many contractors.  

Another key barrier identified was the lack of cohesion and communication among stakeholders. Many program territories overlap in different areas throughout the country. While this is an opportunity for collaboration and partnership, it often manifests as a source of competition and confusion for program administrators. One source of internal implementor confusion and disconnect is a lack of comprehensive tracking and mapping of deferrals. Each utility program and WAP grantee or subgrantee may not track deferrals at all, or if they do, may not collect consistent data relating to deferred homes, leading to a lack of information to understand the scale of homes being deferred. Workshop attendees expressed frustration as identifying where and why deferrals are taking place is crucial to know where resources are needed to support homes originally deferred to hopefully get the home weatherized. 

Tables at the workshop agreed that one way to strengthen programs and overcome legislative, workforce and miscommunication barriers is through leveraging new partnerships, particularly with community-based organizations, diverse contractors, commissioners and across industries (such as insurance and healthcare companies). Emphasis on such partnerships will naturally expand the type of work able to be completed and sources of funding, while also increasing the connection points and engagement opportunities with the community being served. A greater number of partnerships highlight the usefulness of one-stop-shop models for consumer communication. Streamlining data collection reduces redundancy and helps to relieve residents from having the onerous task of needing to know what services they need and/or qualify for. 

Imagining the ideal pre-weatherization program that addresses all problems necessary without running into financial constraints is a useful thought exercise. However, the workshop participants stayed grounded by recognizing available funding mechanisms such as federal dollars through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) as well as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants and Community Services Block Grants. Additional funding that provides opportunities to be creative in braiding dollars together includes unique state set-aside funds, utility programs and other local programs. Provisions under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) Capitalization Grant Program include that RLF grants (rather than loans) may be used to complete a deeper retrofit on a home or remediate structural or repair issues that WAP cannot address. Funding from this program will go to states directly through respective formula allocations. Related to healthcare, ACEEE recently published a new webpage with resources to help states access health funding for in-home energy services. Regardless of funding mechanisms, workshop participants agreed that seeking additional pre-weatherization and weatherization dollars should never supplant LIHEAP money that provides immediate bill assistance and lifts consumers out of crisis. 

Thanks again to our facilitator, table leads and participants for helping MEEA start a fruitful dialogue and bring this important issue to light. MEEA will continue tracking deferral mitigation strategies, new funding opportunities and program case studies to share with our membership. Previous MEEA research in this space can be found in Key to reducing walkaways? Collaboration from the ground upMissed Opportunities: Lowering Deferral Rates on Efficiency Programs and Income-Qualified Program Innovations to Reduce Deferral Rates. If you’re interested in learning more, contact Molly Graham, Market Solutions & Education Director.