UPDATE: On February 22, the MLGW Board voted unanimously to change the Share the Pennies program to automatically enroll all customers, while offering all customers the ability to opt out. Customers will be abel to opt-out starting July 1, 2017.
In these increasingly polarized political times, it is becoming rarer and rarer to see bipartisan support for any issue. That is what makes a recent vote by the Memphis City Council all the more exciting.
At Tuesday afternoon’s Memphis City Council meeting, the Council unanimously approved a resolution that strongly recommends changing Memphis Light Gas and Water‘s (MLGW) current Share the Pennies program to an “automatically enrolled” format. This small program design change, which SACE has been advocating for since Spring 2016, will help generate significantly more funding for Project Care, MLGW’s low-income home weatherization initiative – potentially generating around $1.5 million dollars per year! Additionally, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), MLGW’s wholesale power provider, has agreed to purchase any energy savings realized by the “new” Share the Pennies program, providing another valuable source of funding for a program.
In the past, Share the Pennies had low participation numbers, likely due to poor promotion of the program, resulting in an annual budget of around $50,000 dollars. Thanks to grassroots leaders in MLGW’s Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) and community advocacy groups like the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, support for a Share the Pennies redesign program began as far back as summer 2016. Around that time, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy released a report that identified Memphis as the city with the largest energy burden in the country – a burden that falls harder on low-income and minority communities. With the problem clearly identified, community members, SACE and MLGW staff began meeting to discuss the issue, the causes of Memphis’ high energy burden and potential solutions. Through those conversations, it became clear that tweaking the Share the Pennies program in order to generate more participation, and funding, was a good first step.
Outreach efforts, ranging from community meetings to engagement with faith communities, began in earnest and NAC members began sharing concerns and input from the larger Memphis community – who would benefit from the new program? How could people who didn’t want to round up their bills remove themselves from the program? How do we make sure contractors performing the work are qualified? Should improvements focus on making the house more comfortable or more energy efficient?
The answers to these questions, and many others, are still being discussed and the stakeholder group involved is looking for more input as it waits for the MLGW Board to formally approve the program redesign (which will likely take place in February). MLGW plans to have a 6-month build up to the official Share the Pennies program design switch, during which it will focus on communicating the program change to its customers and making sure anyone who wants to remove themselves from the program can do so easily. Internet, phone, email, snail mail and in-person customer removal options are already being planned.
MLGW has already begun informal outreach and education about the redesigned Share the Pennies program, including taking part in an Energy Justice Town Hall event, hosted by Just Energy Memphis and Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, on Thursday, Jan. 12th. Panelists at the Town Hall included Councilwoman Robinson, Housing and Community Development (HCD) Director Paul Young, MLGW NAC member Linda Williams, MLGW’s Vice President of Customer Relations Clint Richardson, and Susan Steppe, Director of LeBonheur Children Hospital’s CHAMP program.
Some attendees of the Town Hall shared their concerns about the program redesign, while others shared their support for a common-sense solution and asked questions about how any money generated by the program redesign would be spent. HCD Director Young shared information about the newly revitalized Weatherization Assistance Program, which HCD will be administering, beginning with low-income multi-family weatherization projects and moving to single-family housing projects in Spring 2017.
Susan Steppe from LeBonheur spoke about her first hand experience with how poor housing can affect children’s health, especially those suffering from asthma. Councilwoman Robinson, who has made addressing Memphis’ energy burden a top priority, educated the audience about the City Council resolution and her commitment to providing oversight of the new program to ensure it is successful and appropriately administered.
The City Council’s unanimous support for the Share the Pennies redesign resolution is the first step on the road to a less energy burdened Memphis. SACE will continue to be engaged, both at the community and utility level, to ensure that the program is designed in such a way that maximizes energy savings for Memphis’ most vulnerable communities.