Making energy efficiency more equitableQ&A with Mary Templeton: Nonprofit Journal Project

Michigan Saves, the nation’s first nonprofit green bank, was started in 2009 by the Michigan Public Service Commission to make energy efficiency more affordable and equitable. Mary Templeton, who has served as the organization’s CEO since 2013 and is preparing to retire in the next month, shared with us her passion for the agency’s work.

What is Michigan Saves’ mission and why is it important to Michigan residents?

Our mission is to promote accessible, equitable and just investments in energy efficiency and clean energy to support healthy and thriving communities. What if asthma was able to be minimized because of work that is done at home? What if the exposure to lead from paint in older homes was mitigated because people had access to funds that could help them make those improvements in their homes and in their businesses as well? If you think about bringing all of those things together along with a thriving job market, it's a nice ecosystem that supports those healthy and thriving communities, reduces the carbon emissions in the world and really contributes to a more resilient state.

Can you explain the new loan program and how it is different from other loan programs?

This one is focused on both the residential side and the commercial side. Our credit union lenders on the residential side do a really good job of making those loan terms accessible. That said, we don't approve all of the loans, and we did some analysis where we looked at approval rates around the state and then in more diverse counties, specifically in the city of Detroit. Our loan approval rates were not as high and Detroit is one of the most diverse cities and a very large city obviously, the largest city in the state of Michigan, so we wanted to address that need.

We launched that program with support from the Kresge Foundation. Their loan to us is at a low-interest rate so that we can turn around and offer really attractive interest rates to those that are denied from our credit union program. It’s a beautiful thing because of the systems behind it. You only have to have one application and you can go to the credit union program, but if you're denied from that, we take another look, we make sure that there is the ability to pay the loans back, but it does not look at credit score at all. It has been so popular, we've almost exhausted our funds in a very short year. We kind of expected it to last two years so we're actively looking for other partners to help us extend this program even further.

On the commercial side, we are offering electrification and renewable energy improvement loans to small commercial entities like houses of worship or nonprofits that may not typically take out a loan but we're offering longer terms like 10-year terms, 7% interest rate and a very light touch on the underwriting side to help these entities make carbon reduction.

How does Michigan Saves get the word out about opportunities?

We have a very robust contractor network, with 1,000 contractors that we work with around the state. The contractors are the ones that are typically in communication with the end customer, so we educate the contractors about our loan tools, and they then talk to the end customers about what the offer is. That's primarily how we get the word out, and then we work with other entities like nonprofit entities, municipalities, townships, just so that there is more awareness of what Michigan Saves is and what we do.

What challenges has the organization faced?

One of the things that would allow us to expand even further is if we had more funds like the ones the Kresge Foundation has given us. That's probably the biggest challenge for us.

How many people has Michigan Saves supported? Could you highlight specific strong examples of one individual and one organization that the agency has supported?

I think there's about 40,000 individuals and organizations that have, over the 13 years that we've been around, taken advantage of the programs that we offer.

The thing that inspires me most is what I hear from the contractors and individuals that are impacted. There was a story of this person in the city of Detroit who was using space heaters, which are really dangerous, and was not able to get her heater working for two years. Her utility bills were extremely high and she was kind of at a loss. She was able to take advantage of this program. It's really efficient, she’s saving money every single day and her home is super comfortable. It's just a really, really lovely story.

One specific organization example is the work done in the Upper Peninsular with Donckers, which is a great local candy shop, everything from replacing the HVAC equipment with highly efficient equipment all the way to solar panels, and that was a really good case study.

The other organization that I would love to highlight is we recently supported the Detroit Pizza Bar, that's relatively new. I think they've only been open for a couple of years in an area that has not had a lot of new restaurants open for a very long time. Financing new restaurants is not always so easy. The market is a challenge just because there are so many variables with that, but we were able to support some of their energy equipment. They've been a great partner of ours, and they launched during COVID. They were very creative in the way that they launched by providing healthy pizzas to some of the local schools; they've been growing their business ever since then. We're really proud of that relationship.

As you get ready to retire, what do you hope that the team at Michigan Saves achieves in the future?

That’s a great question. I think about the strategic plan that we just completed last year. We got a lot of stakeholder feedback. We worked with our board, our staff, and external stakeholders to develop this strategic plan centered in equity and justice. That, in combination with some of the federal incentives that are coming in a place where we are serving those that have been underrepresented in the past, is an important piece of that puzzle. So my hope and dream is that the mission, the vision that no one in Michigan is left out, and that there's this equitable transition to a carbon-free Michigan. Everybody gets to take advantage of the benefits of clean energy and a resilient climate. We're poised to do so, and it's super inspiring to think about Michigan Saves’ role in supporting that.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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