It’s not often you don’t have to do anything to receive a check.
However, several veterans in the Tri-County Community Action Partnership’s (TCCAP) service area have it happen to them several times a year.
They never know how much it will be, but they know an actual check with their name and no restrictions attached to it will show up.
Tom Dreiling of Little Falls is one of the recipients of those checks.
“I usually put it toward, two months of my electric bill,” he said. “It isn’t real high, usually around the $80 mark. I think the highest was about $180 - in that range. It all helps.”
Tom is one of eight veterans in the TCCAP’s serve area that were signed up to receive a monetary rebate through a partnership the agency formed with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in 2019. RREAL was granted permission to install solar panels on the agency’s property on LeMieur Street in Little Falls, and in turn, some of TCCAP’s veteran clients would benefit.
“It doesn’t provide any energy to our building,” said TCCAP’s Housing & Weatherization Director Jason Foy. “It goes straight to the grid, into a fund that goes straight to the people who signed up. They get all the proceeds.”
Minnesota Power, Initiative Foundation, Morrison County Veterans Association, Region Five Development Commission, Werner Electric and Braun Intertec all supported and were involved in the funding, development and installation of the solar panels.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I could describe it,” Tom said of how he ends up with the rebate checks. “What I gather, is a business is converting energy to solar. Now, they’re saving people money on their electric bills.”
It might take an engineer to describe exactly how it works, but the result is some much needed help for area veterans. According to the Wounded Warrior Project’s annual survey, 80% of veterans have financial difficulties.
“They basically get the check and can do whatever they want with it,” Foy said of program participants. “Pay extra bills. Buy medication. Buy food. Whatever they need.”
To be eligible for the program, the veteran must live in the TCCAP service area, currently be eligible and receiving energy assistance from the agency and be a Minnesota Power customer. Participants receive anywhere from two to four rebates a year from Minnesota Power.
“A lot of us are living on social security,” Tom said of area veterans. “It’s pretty tough now days.”
There are 2,477 veterans in Morrison County, according to the Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs, and a total of 303,272 veterans in Minnesota.
Sixty-four percent of veterans reported having difficulty making ends meet in 2022, according to the Wounded Warrior Project’s survey. And, one in six were food insecure.
“It’s been going pretty good,” said Paul Helstrom, Minnesota Power Customer Programs and Services Representatives, Senior. “It’s not a life changing amount of money that they get. Maybe a little bump. It’s about $300 a year.”
Seeking utility assistance wasn’t something Tom had done before 2020, but living in an older home, his energy bills were escalating and he wasn’t able to tackle repairs to weatherize his home. He finally sought assistance from TCCAP.
He was surprised when they told him about the solar energy rebate program.
“I did not know anything about it,” said Tom, who joined the National Guard in 1972 and served 15 years. “As we spoke about energy assistance, she asked if I was interested in a little bit of help. I thought that was great. That was about three, could be four, years ago.”
That wasn’t the only assistance Tom was available to receive. TCCAP also offered to conduct a weatherization audit on his home.
Tom qualified for a new hot water heater and a furnace, along with other necessary weatherization improvements. There was no cost involved.
“There is no way I would have been able to afford it,” he admits. His daughters were surprised by all the assistance their father was able to receive from TCCAP.
“When I told my daughters about it, they thought it was great,” Tom said. “I told them I qualified for a rebate check, they didn’t understand how.”
Still, they were pleased because the extra money would come in handy.
When TCCAP staff sign up a person up for energy assistance and find out they’re a veteran, they’ll tell them about the solar energy rebate program and the free weatherization audit. There is currently a waiting list for the solar energy rebate program.
Unfortunately, TCCAP can’t expand the program from its current capacity of eight veterans.
“You can’t put any more solar array panels at the site we have,” Foy said. “We’re limited to the number of people we can sign up. If we have more, the rebate gets smaller.”
Helstrom said the partnership with TCCAP is one of the more innovative programs Minnesota Power has invested in. The power company also partnered to bring solar and renewable energy to Habitat for Humanity homes, the American Community Housing Organization, land trust homes in Duluth and apartment complexes in northern Minnesota.
The power company is committed to bringing solar and renewable to households with low- to – moderate incomes, according to Helstrom. “We understand when our communities, succeed we succeed,” he said.
Minnesota requires at least 25% of its electricity to come from renewable power sources. Newly passed legislation moves that number to 55% by 2035, it’s programs and partnerships such as it has with TCCAP that will allow power companies to reach that benchmark, Helstrom noted.
“We look to innovate and serve more customers,” Helstrom said.
In Tom’s view, the partnership, especially, TCCAP’s delivery of it, and its other programs and services have exceeded the expectations he had when he first sought assistance and learned about the solar energy rebate.
“I think Tri-County Community Action is a great thing,” Tom said. “It helps a lot of people. It definitely helped me.”