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If you need help finding local energy assistance resources, call the National Energy Assistance Referral hotline toll-free at 1-866-674-6327 or email (TTY 1-866-367-6228)

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OHIO PARTNERS: Helping to Make Energy Affordable and Changing Lives Around the Buckeye State

Reporting by Jake Brown


In the Buckeye State, Ohioans have always been known of taking care of their own, from the rust-belt Union towns that passed their tradition down from son to son during the WWII and Baby Boomer generations of working class, blue-collar American families that helped build this country during the Industrial Revolution. In the Millennium era post-Great Recession, sadly, many of these households have been the hardest hit by the economic downturn that took their factories, livelihoods, and sense of security with them when their jobs left town. Ironically, these demographics of newly-unemployed blue-collar families and elderly retirees who prided themselves on retiring with a pension that in many cases, disappeared or greatly diminished with the economic devastation of 2008 and 2009 and has had a long-term negative impact that has lasted to this day.


Bringing these families out of the shadows from behind their wall of pride and general lack of awareness of even the availability of programs like LIHEAP available to help has been among the greatest challenges for energy assistance advocates like Dave Rinebolt, Executive Director of Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy (OPEA), the largest single non-profit organization operating throughout the state. With over 400,000 households served annually, Director Rinebolt revealed that “probably the most reluctant clients are Seniors. The elderly folks don’t like to go ask for benefits, as a general rule, and so we needed to de-stigmatize the use of these available benefits for the clients. When natural gas went through the roof in 2008, in one year, we got 70,000 new elderly customers, and there’s a certain amount of word of mouth. You get to the Senior Centers, you explain what’s going on, and a couple people will take advantage of it, then they tell their friends they took advantage of it, and in a kind of sheepish way, and so that was a demographic that was hard to get to, but I think we’ve really succeeded in beginning to turn the tide to some degree.”


Speaking to the other sea of new faces he started to see peaking out of the shadows for help during this time of trouble were those of the blue-collar families who had worked their whole lives without ever taking a helping hand from anyone, such that “by 2011, we were staring to see folks we had never seen before, and who these folks were were people who’d worked in the factories that had closed. I remember in the Dayton area, in one day in 2010, they lost 15,000 jobs, which can devastate a while region. DHL pulled out of Wilmington, that was 12,000 jobs, when they shut down their biggest transfer center. Then on of the GM subsidiaries shut down, that was another 2000 people, it was insane. But what we started seeing at the agencies, we kind of called them “newbees,” they were people who had clearly never been in the system before, had lost their factory job, had maxed out their credit card, sold the bass boat, and they finally found us. They came us when they had no where else to turn, there just wasn’t any place anymore for them. So the stigma didn’t really play out in the blue-collar folks we saw coming our way, it was basically desperation. They didn’t understand the system, they didn’t understand how it worked for them, but they eventually got referred to us and we walked them through the system, and did what we could with other programs to get them back into the work force.”


Offering the poignant example of how those “programs” produced heroic results, Dir. Rinebolt cited among his personal favorites “one of the neatest ones we did, which was weatherizing an entire town called Murray City, Ohio! It was an old coal mining town, and 90% of the residents of this town qualified for low income programs, and we were able to do most of the structures in that town. We cobbled together some extra money and we even cobbled together some extra money and weatherized the church! We put solar lights on the playground in town, and it was a partnership with AEP, Columbia Gas, and then we brought in the WAP money, and there was obviously a community celebration at the end, and just talking to people about what a difference it had made in their lives… We found one family that was living in an old movie theatre, not a big one like you’d think of, just a little house-sized one, but it was a converted movie theatre and the bathroom was in the middle of the house, and was unvented, and that’s where the furnace was too and the water heater. There was a cracked heat exchanger in that furnace, so it was kicking out carbon monoxide like crazy – there was a 3 year old kid in that house and she could have died.”


With roots running decades deep in his organization’s fight to help reach the maximum number of people in need of energy assistance, Rinebolt has proudly counted on a synergized network of like-minded agencies, utilities, non-profit and state Government entities streamlined through his organization, Ohio Partners for Energy Assistance, whose primary charters the Director to include “really focusing on bill payment assistance and within the context of bill payment assistance, so its LIHEAP, percentage income payment plan, the fuel funds and weatherization work we primarily focus on. OPEA (Ohio Partners) was created as the result of a collaborative that was spear-headed, interestingly enough, by the NLIEC (National Low Income Energy Consortium), which is the predecessor of NEUAC. They brought together all of the organizations that were interested in low-income utility issues as well as the utilities and other stake holders, and the result of the two-day workshop was they decided to start an organization, which grew into OPEA. This was back in 1996, so we’re 20 years old now. I think the initial motivation was because of deregulation of the electric and gas utilities, so they put it together, and I think we started with an $80,000 grant. That was basically just me, and we got involved with the commission and with the legislature, and were very active in both of those spheres, and as a result of that activity, were able to put Ohio’s Income Percentage Payment Plan – which is an affordable rate plan where a customer pays based on their income, and it had been in Ohio since 1983, but wasn’t in statute. It was an creature of the Commission’s emergency power, so we took the approach that we needed to get this thing in statute, and added to it an energy efficiency program focused on electric use, and a consumer education program is also part of it.”


Organizations like Rinebolt’s have long been the lynch-pins holding together the collective cooperative of the aforementioned consortium of players, who, the Director proudly points out, “together, because of the combination of LIHEAP and the Affordable Rate Plan in Ohio” have succeeded in “actually not seeing any customer deaths during the winter heating season for as long as I can remember.” Architects of the aforementioned Affordable Rate Plan, OPEA acknowledges that “without LIHEAP, we would see a much larger number of shut-offs in this state, and we would see obviously with the disconnection a huge dislocation of family units, forcing them to leave their homes, change school districts, etc.”




(Source: Ohio Development Services Agency)


Making the most of the LIHEAP funding they are provided on an annual basis, Rinebolt’s organization pioneered the Percentage Income Payment Program that OPEA has now successfully brought all of the state’s major utility providers on board with, an achievement that the Director reveals as quite robust in and of itself, explaining that “I think our LIHEAP allocation was about $147 million, and the Percentage Income Payment program is, all-told, about $550 million, so we’ve had the support of the utilities and the commission and the rest of the Government, the Executive branch and the Legislature. And to have these robust programs was certainly warranted given the economic dislocation we’ve seen in Ohio, so that’s the bill-payment side of it.”


Seeking to help the maximum number of households possible who apply for assistance, Rinebolt reasons that his organization’s approach has proven itself a sound one in line with a philosophy where “there are two approaches to doing HEAP/LIHEAP benefits: 1.) there’s some states that provide a lot of money to a few people. They really provide funding to a level where you’ve got an affordable rate for that customer. Ohio is a state that gives a lot of people a little money, but that funding will cover one-two winter months, and that in turn prevents a host of shut-offs that we would see otherwise. And we’re looking at a demographic population within Heap where over half of the people are elderly or disabled, and many of those – as well as the bulk of the balance of the clients – work for a living, but their work doesn’t provide them with enough money to pay for the basic necessities.”


As part of putting that philosophy into practice, Weatherization has long been a key player in the quest to help as many households through not only the short-term financial crisis of winter but equally, in the longer term by focusing on fixing one of the key causes of higher utility bills: the homes themselves. Proud of the priority his organization has made of this essential part of the solutions process, Dir. Rinebolt spotlights the progress made in the fact that “we’ve seen an increase in investment in weatherization, and a lot of that is as a result of the advocacy of OPEA. For example, this year, our WAP budget is about $30 million dollars, overall, in this state, we’ll spend $84 million for weatherization and efficiency services, and that’s money that we’ve developed through partnerships with the utilities. We use a single intake form, so when you apply for LIHEAP, you’ve also applied for WAP and for all the utility programs. We actually have access to utility billing records, what we call the human services website, with all the major utilities, so we can literally look at a client’s bill, and 2 years of usage history. And we use that to kind of tailor the services we provide to that client, so that we get the biggest bang for the buck. Weatherization, it is the permanent solution, that’s why the state has always transferred 15% of the LIHEAP over to Weatherization, and I think that number will probably rise in the upcoming year. In AEP’s service territory in Ohio – I think they’re the largest electric utility – 42% of their customers are eligible for our low-income weatherization services. They have like 1.4 million customers, and our LIHEAP market penetration is right around 30%.”


While OPEA’s outstanding record setter of weatherizing an entire town might stand unchallenged for some time to come, the Director breaks down into more specific metrics the difference his organization’s efforts continue to make on a year in-and-out basis, beginning with their present-day capacity “if you combine the gas utility programs and WAP, we do probably about 10,000 units a year. During ARA, Ohio spent $247 million in 27 months. We weatherized 42,000 homes, we were only supposed to do 31,000, and now, we’re averaging about 10,000 that are comprehensive weatherizations, and then we do probably another 4000 that are electric only. But an electric unit, it costs us $1000 to do, rule of thumb, a comprehensive weatherization’s going to cost us about $5000, so you can do 5 base loads for what it costs you to do one comprehensively. We would rather do the comprehensive job, because when we do a base load, on average, we save the equivalent of one–month’s bill. That’s our average number, its great because if people come in and sign up and we can’t do their house at that point, at least we can give them a baseload, and that makes for a happy client and one that will wait on us patiently on the waiting list, but you have a real impact right away.”


While his elderly clients have proved a harder initial sell on accepting LIHEAP help, Dir. Rinebolt jokes matter-of-factly that “Weatherization has always been more acceptable to elderly than bill payment assistance,” reasoning that from their point of view, “the idea of having somebody help them fix up their house, they somehow don’t object to that, (laughs), and of course, for a lot of these older folks, that house is their only asset, so to stabilize somebody like that financially – working on that house really addresses that, and that’s why a higher percentage of the homes we do are occupied by elderly people, and are single-family homes. We just don’t do a lot of apartments, because you can’t have a huge impact on somebody’s financial situation when they’re living in a small apartment. But if they’re living in a big, old farm house, we can certainly have a huge impact. Our average savings for single–family homes is about 30% of that natural gas and propane used to heat that place, and that has just a huge effect on people’s lives.”


Singing the praises of weatherization as a stabilizing force not only for an individual home but the community that surrounds in the same time, through his extraordinarily experienced eyes, the Director offers his estimation that “one of the things I think is under recognized is the impact Weatherization has on stabilizing affordable housing, in the neighborhoods in which that housing exists. One of the problems in low-income neighborhoods is that people don’t have the wherewithal to maintain their housing. We see a lot of units that have roof issues, electrical system issues, and other structural defects, and our network is particularly creative at cobbling together multiple resources to be able to address the condition of the housing and put it into a condition so that we can weatherize it. You’d be amaze at some of the stuff we see and wind up having to fix.”


Staying true to the tradition of the state he calls home, Rinebolt proudly (points) to the fact that “there are people that have been doing intake for LIHEAP and Weatherizing homes working in this network for 20, 25 years, so we’re now moving into our third generation of employees,” a loyalty that has built an army of weatherizers ready for battle during summer or winter alike. Coming out of his most recent freezing season, the Director highlighted as an example of the life-saving difference his organization is able to make – in part thanks to LIHEAP funding funneled to weatherization calls – when OPEA began responding to “one thing we do a lot of, its respond to what we call “No-Heat” calls. They start coming in as soon as the weather turns cold, people turn on their furnaces and they don’t work. The first thing we do is send an inspector out to see what’s going on with the furnace, because maybe there’s something little you can do to fix it, and you try to prioritize it because its not an unlimited amount of money that we have to replace the furnaces. So you get a good auditor out there first to take a look at the dang thing, and then, depending on where you are, you either hire an HVAC contractor, and that’s generally the situation in the more urban areas where licensor and registration requirements make it more cost-effective for us to hire HVAC contractors than to do it in-house. In the very rural areas of the state, there are no HVAC contractors, and so our agency staff – we have trained and certified HVAC technicians that answer those calls.”


Illustrating just how hard his organization works to improve the homes and lives of the families they serve, the Director – underscoring just how savvy OPEA is at stretching every dollar as far as they can to make as big a difference in as many ways as possible for the home owner – revealed that “one nice thing about all of this is, because we do such volume, whether its contractors or whether its in-house crews, we buy in bulk. So we pay maybe 60% or half of what you would pay for a new furnace, so there’s a bulk-buying aspect that lets us reach out and serve so many people. One of my agencies is the third-largest purchaser of refrigerators from LOWE’S in the country, and then they all go into those homes. We use electric utility money to do refrigerator replacements, lighting replacements, none of that money comes from WAP or LIHEAP.”


With over “800 people working in the LIHEAP network in this state” that OPEA manages day in and out in one form or another, the secret to Dir. Rinebolt’s success has long been based on “a theory I have that the way I count success is, lots of people in Government say “Oh, let’s be innovative, let’s do something new,” and I don’t think that’s the most important thing. I think the most important thing is to achieve a level of quality in customer service and maintain that and improve it. With 60 agencies at any given time, I’ve got a couple of them that aren’t doing a very good job, and so as a network, we help them improve, we help them achieve the standards of quality that we expect, and so going forward, obviously we’d like more resources. We know the need is out there, and we’re working with the Legislature and others to see what we can do to increase the funding that’s available, but just providing high-quality service on a consistent basis now and for years in the future is really what I think the most important thing is.”


Keeping his network alive and vibrant through regular conferences that produce new introductions and exchanges of ideas between agencies and advocates all working toward the same ends, Rinebolt points to OPEA’s management of “a weatherization training conference here in Ohio that the state co-funds and we pay for part of it, and then this year we’re also going to manage 5 regional LIHEAP trainings, which includes income eligibility rules, calculating the benefits, how to work the online reporting system – there are changes every year of one kind or another – and of course, we have the income percentage plan, which we change every 5 years. Then we have new customer service people that need to be trained and exposed to people who have been doing this for a long time. We also find the trainings useful because it allows people from different agencies to talk where one may be having a problem and the other one’s figured out how to solve it, and so they get that exchange. I always say, ‘You know a conference is good when its really noise in the hallway between sessions!” (laughs) That means people are learning something, and we do this in partnership with the state, but I think that we help the state be more effective in managing these programs, we bring additional resources to the table to compliment what the state has, so it’s a pretty synergistic relationship.


OPEA has sought to make sure there is room in their family for a growing army of new faces in the form of thousands of Military Veterans returning home to find an all-together different struggle facing economically on top of the P.T.S.D. many are already battling. To answer their call when its come, Reinbolt’s organization has been aggressively proactive in doing “joint projects with the V.A., we had a big Veteran’s Outreach about 3 years as guys started to come back, so we’re bringing them in for emergency assistance, and we do have the weatherization that solves longer term problems.”


A more-than-willing partner in this and other outreach efforts has come in the form of a cooperative with the state’s biggest utilities, who the Director confirms “we have a good working relationship with, and if you remember in the old days when utilities had local offices in every major town where you could go pay your bill, well, they shut all those down, so if you call their call center now adays and say ‘I’m having trouble paying my bills,’ then they say ‘Call your local community action and they’ll help you.’ So we get referrals from the utility call centers, anytime somebody says they can’t pay, they send them to us, so we don’t have to do a whole lot of outreach. So working with the utilities has always been an essential part of our work is working at the Commission, our view has always been that a low-income customers are utility customers, they’re residential customers, and they take it on the chin if rates go up too much. So if I can keep rates down, I have a much bigger impact than getting a couple million dollars for a fuel fund, which we’ve also done. And it pays side benefits too, homes are healthier, people are more likely to be able to afford their bills, they don’t have to make the choices between heating and eating and medicine.”


On the days when he makes an impact in stopping a citizen from having to make that impossible choice, Dir. Rinebolt admits he often feels proudest, coupled with the success he and his organization have had in changing the culture within the utility where communication between the two – company and customer – had historically been a roadblock to the customer getting help and the utility getting paid. Highlighting it as possibly the most rewarding aspect of his work because of the direct difference its made in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families year in and out around the state, the director points to “probably the biggest thing that we’ve been able to do, which is to get the utilities to really support bill payment assistance programs. All of our utilities are pretty active in the LIHEAP coalition, its about getting the utilities to recognize the difficulties faced by their customers, and to try to proactively – and in the case of weatherization and fuel funds reactively – help those customers. The utilities do like getting paid, and they don’t like turning people off, so we really are using a two-prong strategy: we’re using the bill payment assistance programs to deal with the immediate needs, and using weatherization to address the longer-term needs of our client population.”


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