Small grants aimed at boosting energy efficiency in manufactured home parks are sprouting into an Xcel Energy pilot program that will insulate mobile homes in Maplewood and Faribault.
Maplewood’s climate adaptation plan calls for the city to help energy burdened residents, which is defined as households paying more than 6 percent of their take home pay on energy bills. The city saw an opportunity to help residents at three large manufactured home parks. Previous outreach at those parks identified them as places with diverse demographics and lower household incomes, according to Shann Finwall, an environmental planner for the city of Maplewood.
Mobile homes are notoriously energy inefficient and struggle in Minnesota’s climate, and the city wanted to help residents lower their bills, decrease carbon footprints, and live more comfortably.
In 2022, Maplewood was awarded a $1,000 seed grant from Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) to fund outreach to the three parks. The city partnered with the nonprofit Citizens Utility Board and the Center for Energy and Environment to help residents understand their bills and get them signed up for federal energy assistance and other programs.
The work helped 50 households sign up for energy clinics that saved them an average of $150 in annual energy bills. Another 30 households received improved equipment like LED light bulbs and programmable thermostats through home energy audits, according to CERTs.
That small grant helped boost Maplewood’s Clean Energy For All plan and led to the city commissioning a report about energy burdens in the city and paths to reduce carbon emissions in ways that helped underserved residents.
“The name of the grant, I guess, is true—it planted a little seed,” Finwall said.
The work is similar to a previous CERTs seed grant awarded to Growing Up Healthy, a nonprofit serving immigrant communities in Rice County. The group has done substantial energy outreach to a largely Latino community living in manufactured home parks in Northfield and Faribault.
Those efforts helped inspire a new pilot program from Xcel Energy, which is training contractors to do insulation retrofits on manufactured home parks in Maplewood and Faribault. They’re hoping to insulate 60 mobile homes this fall, according to Sofia Troutman, manager of Xcel’s partners in energy program.
Seeding for success
More than $1.6 million dollars in seed grants administered through CERTs have been distributed to more than 400 community organizations statewide since 2006.
CERTs is a partnership between the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the nonprofit Great Plains Institute, and the Southwest Regional Development Commission.
Seed grants help cities, community organizations, and Tribal Nations achieve green energy goals across Minnesota. The program provides small sums to help cover personnel costs that enable organizations to take on larger, more ambitious projects. New funding from the state and a philanthropic group doubled the pool of seed grant money last year, with an emphasis on projects in underserved communities.
Seed grants will cover small materials like pamphlets, but largely don’t pay for stuff; they pay for labor, said Shaylyn Bernhardt, CERTs communications and engagement manager.
The grants have paid for outreach workers to sign up apartment residents for rooftop solar in Minneapolis, community organizations to translate energy efficiency information in Rochester, and funded the installation of solar panels to power greenhouses on a Black-owned farm in Sandstone.
Seed grants are funded by the Minnesota Department of Commerce through the Legislature, typically at $140,000 per biennium*. But in 2022, the commerce department added an additional $120,000 for projects focused on underserved communities, including energy burdened households, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, and Indigenous Minnesotans.
The Morgan Family Foundation, a philanthropic group, pitched in another $70,000 to expand the grants for underserved communities. (The Morgan Family Foundation also supports Sahan Journal.)
In 2022, more than half of all seed grants were awarded in rural areas and 65 percent went toward underserved communities, according to CERTs.
That funding boost is continuing in 2023, and is increasing the average amount of money individual recipients receive, Bernhardt said. Grants historically ranged between $1,000 and $10,000 per recipient, but are between $5,000 and $10,000 today.
Many seed grants follow the model seen in mobile home parks in Maplewood and Rice County, where groups helping specific communities help spread the word about energy-saving techniques and programs.
“What’s nice about CERTs is that they’re statewide,” said Carmen Carruthers, outreach director with the Citizens Utility Board, which partnered with CERTs on the Maplewood project.
The Citizens Utility Board also worked with seed grants from CERTs that were awarded to Project Fine, which serves refugees in Winona. The organization also trained workers from Unidos MN, an advocacy group for Latinos, to help educate Latin American immigrants about energy savings across the state.
Challenges for mobile home parks
Manufactured homes are affordable housing options, but often have hidden costs in the form of energy bills, Carruthers said. A rent or mortgage payment might be cheap, but paying $300 per month to stay warm in the winter isn’t.
The Citizens Utility Board worked with residents of Maplewood mobile home parks to help them understand their power bills. The organization asked residents about their households and gave advice about adjusting thermostats to find ways to save them money. The Maplewood seed grant was funded by the Great Plains Institute.
“Even a degree or two can help,” Caurrthers said.
A big part of the outreach is helping people understand federal energy assistance programs, which is currently accepting applications.
Mobile homes can be heated by natural gas or propane, but many use electric baseboard heating, which is expensive, Carruthers said. And plugging in electric space heaters to make a space more comfortable can add a big strain on electric bills.
Troutman, from Xcel Energy, said the homes pose a number of challenges from an energy efficiency standpoint. Mobile home residents often need to delay maintenance projects that address structural issues and leaks in windows.
The biggest problem is often the area underneath the home, known as the belly, which makes heating ineffective because cool air circulates under the structure. A lot of contractors don’t work in mobile home parks, Troutman said.
Xcel’s pilot project to insulate mobile homes is working with local Community Action Partnership agencies to train contractors who will work on those homes, according to Tami Gunderzik, team leader for equity and inclusion at Xcel Energy.
The funding is provided by various Xcel affordability programs financed through the Conservation Improvement Program, a state mandated fund that requires utilities to use dollars paid by customers to finance efforts to conserve energy and save money for low-income households. The Conservation Improvement Program was expanded in the 2021 Eco Act.
Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility, serves more than 11,000 manufactured homes in about 120 parks, according to Xcel spokesperson Lacey Nygard.
“The mobile home parks traditionally are low participants in our programs,” Gunderzik said.
Xcel is partnering with the city of Maplewood and Growing Up Healthy in Rice County to spread word of the program at manufactured home parks. Xcel has fliers in Spanish, Gunderzik said, but it’s better to work with trusted community members because they can help address cultural and language barriers.
“We get a lot of skepticism—we have a lot of people who think this might be too good to be true, so that’s why we’re excited to partner with these community organizations,” Troutman said.
The pilot program aims to simplify the process for customers to receive benefits. The program will geographically pre-qualify manufactured home parks for benefits automatically based on socioeconomic status, a practice Xcel is interested in doing more often, Troutman said. The idea works well in multifamily buildings, and could work well for mobile home parks, she said.
The pilot program will start with Xcel staff conducting energy audits at mobile homes to understand where and why the homes are inefficient with energy use. Recipients would automatically qualify for equipment upgrades ranging from LED light bulbs to new furnaces to full insulation for the “belly” of their homes, Troutman said. They could also be eligible for pre-weatherization work like fixing leaks before new insulation is added.
Xcel plans to serve around 60 homes this fall and put together a report that will look at the residents’ winter bills and the comfort levels inside their homes, Troutman said.
*Correction: Seed grants are typically funded at $140,000 per biennium, or $70,000 per year.
How to apply for a CERTs seed grant
Applications for seed grants are open until October 10. CERTs staff are accepting questions about applications and can provide Spanish translation if needed.
What is funded?
Grants are awarded for clean energy projects that promote conservation, electrification, or producing renewable energy.
Who can apply for grants?
Local and tribal governments, school districts, student groups, religious institutions, companies, cooperatives, and nonprofit and community organizations in Minnesota can apply.
CERTs divides the state into seven regions, each of which has its own funding pool.
How much money is awarded?
Grants can range from $5,000 to $10,000 per recipient.
How do I apply?
Interested groups can apply online.
Where can I find more information?
Visit the CERTs website here.
If you have questions about whether a potential project could qualify, email firstname.lastname@example.org.