Smart Strategies for Optimizing Energy Assistance Programs

A utility’s energy assistance portfolio encompasses a variety of programs and initiatives from weatherization programs to bill discounts and crisis assistance. How do you optimize a program portfolio?

We’ve already looked at the foundations for an effective energy assistance portfolio. In earlier sections, we defined key energy equity concepts, laid out the business case for utility assistance programs and discussed an energy burden framework for quantifying the effectiveness of energy assistance programs.

In essence, we have our energy equity GPS that tells us where we are and where we’re going while giving us feedback on our speed and location.

But how do we actually get to our goal? Do we walk or bike or just take the rickshaw? Zoom on the freeway or meander along the scenic route?

In other words, now that you can calculate and monitor key metrics that tie directly to energy assistance program goals, how do you use these metrics to optimize an energy assistance portfolio?

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Here we share three of the data-driven strategies we’ve developed over the years to inform our decisions, whether we’re re-examining a whole energy assistance portfolio, launching a specific program or making concrete program design choices.

Equity Program Strategies
Data-driven strategies can be applied at every level of an energy assistance portfolio
  1. How should utilities organize their energy assistance portfolio? Which programs or initiatives should they run?

    The Equity Program Funnel applies to a utility’s energy assistance portfolio and advocates for comprehensive, linked program offerings that yield efficiencies in marketing and program delivery.

  2. How can a quantitative framework be integrated deeply into program delivery to ensure continuous improvement?

    The Energy Equity Flywheel is a data-driven approach to planning, designing and implementing individual energy assistance programs by relying on strong feedback loops that inform program delivery and improve results.

  3. How do we design intentional programs that deliver value?

    The Equity Program Architecture lays out a structured approach for designing energy assistance programs that are optimized for continuous evaluation and improvement.

Strategy #1: Equity Program Funnel

When planning energy assistance programs, utilities have a choice between many program options. Do you target more immediate bill relief for customers or more persistent savings through energy efficiency? Should you focus on a few high-touch customers or should you build more mass-market programs?

Equity Program Funnel

The idea of the Equity Program Funnel is to build a comprehensive suite of interconnected energy assistance offerings.

At the top of the funnel, we find programs and initiatives that can be rolled out at scale to most low-income customers at a relatively low cost per customer. These include behavioral programs, targeted marketing or rate designs.

At a slightly higher level of investment per customer, utilities can implement widget programs (e.g. smart thermostats) or offer free audits to identify low-cost conservation opportunities. They can also administer customer donation programs at a relatively low cost or offer critical bill assistance, which would apply only in certain situations.

Further down the funnel, we find strategies that require a larger investment and higher level of customer support, but are more personalized to specific customers, including efficient appliance programs, cash assistance and arrearage management.

Finally, at the bottom of the funnel are the heavy hitters: the weatherization and HVAC programs that deliver significant levels of sustained burdened reduction, but at a very high cost per participant.

Crafting a Customer Journey

The Equity Program Funnel doesn’t mean running every kind of program out there, but instead focusing on building a continuous customer journey from light touch to more demanding interventions.

For example, a utility could leverage targeted bill inserts to low-income customers that include conservation tips and information about critical assistance programs. In these mailers, they can include information for how to sign up for a free energy audit.

Customers who opt for an energy audit can be pre-qualified for bill discounts if they meet certain energy burden criteria. And those with high energy savings potential can be directly signed up for the weatherization program.

If these same four programs were run separately, the customer would receive a bill insert without a clear call to action. Then, on their own, the customer would somehow have to learn about and apply for three separate programs, while navigating separate application forms and different eligibility criteria.

At first glance, crafting a customer journey sounds overwhelming… and expensive. But building a holistic energy assistance portfolio has several advantages:

  • Economies of scale. Building interconnected programs creates efficiencies in program delivery and technical infrastructure. Programs can share staff, application workflows, marketing assets and accounting systems to reduce overhead and administrative costs.

  • Single entry point to the energy assistance portfolio. Customers appreciate having a one-stop shop for their energy assistance needs, rather than a collection of disparate programs and processes.

  • Customer engagement. Maintaining strong ongoing relationships with low-income customers reduces barriers to participation in energy efficiency programs, which require a heavier investment of time (and sometimes money) from the customer.

  • “Automated” marketing. The different programs can more effectively serve as lead generation for each other, especially if they use the same participant databases and have consistent branding.

Strategy #2: Energy Equity Flywheel

When launching or redesigning a specific program that fits in our Equity Program Funnel, how do you ensure that each program is aligned with your goals and with the needs of low-income customers? How big do these programs need to be anyway? And what steps do we take to make sure they are performing well?

Enter the Energy Equity Flywheel.

The Flywheel framework relies on strong feedback loops between the different components of an energy assistance program. There are four components: Understand, Evaluate, Design and Implement.

Each feedback loop tracks specific data points used to drive decisions in other components of the flywheel. As the flywheel gains momentum and effective communication and reporting processes are put in place, the feedback loops become stronger. Program delivery becomes more streamlined, more customers are served, and program cost-effectiveness improves.

The flywheel is then able to keep rolling unless it meets significant resistance from any of the “flywheel brakes”, including low funding levels, poor stakeholder engagement or breakdown of feedback and accountability.

Explore the different components of the Flywheel in this interactive image or read on for a description.

In the image below, keep in mind that the components in the Flywheel are nothing new. It’s the blue data connections that make the flywheel magic, by making sure each component meaningfully informs every other one.

Energy Equity Flywheel


How many of my customers have a high energy burden? What’s their geographic and demographic distribution? Which customer segments are under-served by current energy assistance programs? How much would it cost to meet the need in my service territory?

The first component of the Energy Equity Flywheel involves understanding low-income customers in your service territory. Understanding the need and program gaps drives better program design and also allows your program evaluations to focus on the metrics and processes that matter. Insight into the low-income segment is also critical to effectively engaging customers during program implementation.

The Understand phase is implemented using low-income needs assessments and conservation potential assessments, which help you understand energy burden based on geographic, demographic and building characteristics, energy efficiency potential, energy assistance need and the gap between need and energy assistance program performance.


Do my existing programs deliver customer bill savings? Are they running efficiently? Do they have streamlined processes? How can program delivery be modified to improve performance?

The Evaluate component in the Energy Equity Flywheel is a deep dive into the performance of your existing energy assistance programs. The purpose of this stage is to identify points of improvement in the delivery and cost-effectiveness of existing programs. Also, when paired with the Understand component, we can identify potential gaps that can be filled with tweaks to program design or by deploying additional programs. Evaluation also informs workflow improvements for streamlined program implementation.

The Evaluate phase is implemented through program process and impact evaluations, which examine current program processes and workflows, identify customer bill impacts, assess program rules and eligibility criteria and compare with best practices.


Which customers should I target? What should my eligibility rules be? How does a customer apply to my programs? How much should I pay in incentives or discounts? How much should we budget?

The Design component in the Energy Equity flywheel involves crafting a comprehensive program architecture to ensure successful program delivery. The main purpose of this stage is to design cost-effective programs, in line with the insights from the Understand and Evaluate components. Once a program is launched, the architecture can be refined with insights from program implementation.

The Design phase is implemented through program design architectures, which include informed incentive/discount structure and economic analysis, recommended program workflows and processes, marketing and outreach strategy including segmentation, budgets and schedules.


What kind of infrastructure do I need to run my programs? What about IT, marketing and finance? Which reports do I need to show compliance? Who should I hire? What should I outsource?

The Implement component in the Energy Equity Flywheel involves setting up the people, process and tools required for cost-effective success and the integrated monitoring KPIs.

The main purpose of this stage is to put the infrastructure in place to efficiently run and scale the program. This includes assessments and recommendations for specific tooling and marketing and IT infrastructure, workshops with trade allies and contractors, training for implementation staff, and everything else needed to begin implementation. Practical insights in this stage are used to drive improvements in all the other components of the Flywheel.

Strategy #3: Equity Program Architecture

The Equity Program Architecture is a series of discrete steps that use insights and data from other program activities to design energy assistance programs that are effective at reducing energy assistance need.

The design process ingests the results from prior program evaluations, conservation potential assessments and low-income needs assessments, in addition to participation data from existing programs.

The core components of this process are stakeholder engagement, economic analysis of the program, targeted marketing strategy and a program delivery plan. Within these steps are ongoing efforts to include best practices from other programs and ensure evaluability.

The design process is not linear but iterative. The goal is to validate or invalidate assumptions early in the process by soliciting constant stakeholder feedback.

Equity Program Architecture

Stakeholder Engagement

What are the utility’s overarching goals with this program? Do initial hypotheses from assessments and evaluations agree with on-the-ground experience of community organizations or customers? How do we integrate feedback from different stakeholders to deliver an effective program?

The work involves working with senior management at the utility, community organizations and internal utility stakeholders to plan brainstorming sessions and agree on the goals of the program design.

Economic Analysis

Which measures or interventions should we offer customers? How should incentives or discounts be structured? How big should the program budget be each year?

This analysis revolves around cost effectiveness modeling by quantifying the potential costs and benefits of the program. These financial scenarios and budgets can be built around on different participation rate scenarios.

Marketing Plan

How do we reach high-burden customers effectively? What kinds of messaging and channels should we use? How do we work with our community partners to spread the word? This step involves creating a targeted communication plan and schedule, along with the branding and theme for future marketing campaigns.

Program Delivery Plan

Is this a 100% in-house program or do we bring in contractors for support? What level of digital, website and database support do we need? What should our application and review workflows look like? How can we leverage existing program infrastructure to reduce overhead?

This step involves auditing existing program infrastructure and available resources and identifying gaps that need to be filled. This is also a good time to define QA and reporting procedures.

Best Practices Research + Evaluation Plan

How do we avoid recreating the wheel? Which strategies worked elsewhere and how do we adapt them to our territory? How do we build in regular evaluations to keep track of program performance?

This step includes researching energy assistance program strategies through academic and industry sources, as well as peer review of assistance programs in surrounding areas. It also includes developing an evaluation plan and schedule for the following 4-5 years.

Whether a utility is launching new energy assistance programs or revisiting existing ones, being strategic about your energy assistance portfolio can return dividends in terms of improved program performance and cost-effectiveness.

The three strategies shared here leverage data-driven and quantitative frameworks discussed in earlier sections to orient energy assistance programs towards delivering on their core goal of effectively reducing energy assistance need.

Ready to make your programs more effective and equitable?

Or interested in learning about quantitative frameworks for measuring the performance of your energy assistance programs?

Download your free copy of our Comprehensive Guide to Quantifying Energy Equity.

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