Energy in 30: Addressing energy efficiency in Indigenous communities

 

Tune in to our fifth episode of “Energy in 30: Addressing energy efficiency in Indigenous communities,” to hear from Yasmin Abraham and Karim Abraham, the brother-and-sister founders of Kambo Energy Group. Their organization focuses on equity-based social enterprise that designs solutions to reduce energy poverty and improve housing in underserved communities. Specifically, they work directly with Indigenous Nations, lower-income households, and new Canadians.

Yasmin and Karim are joined by ICF Senior Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Specialist Dany Kahumoku. The three recently teamed up to present at the 2022 NEUAC Conference in New Orleans. There, they presented “A Holistic Approach of Addressing Climate, Weatherization, and Capacity Needs through Housing Programs in Tribal Nations,” sharing their experiences and learnings of working in this sector and the historical context of why this work should be prioritized as part of the energy transition.

Some of the topics discussed in this episode include:

  • Holistic approaches to serving Indigenous communities
  • Prioritizing funding and building capacity to address the specific needs of Nations
  • Fostering relationships to bolster a community’s vision
  • Forging an entrepreneurial spirit with a community-minded focus
  • Supporting Indigenous leadership to focus energy-efficiency implementation
  • Decentralizing energy efficiency programs to bolster stakeholder designing and funding

Full transcript below:

Joan: Hi, welcome to Energy in 30. We'll use the next 30 minutes to explore how utilities and the industry are reacting to forces that are shaping new offerings for customers in order to meet decarbonization goals.

David: If you are a utility manager, consultant, technology provider, or just curious about energy, we hope to push your thinking about the changes that are happening in the energy industry with me, David Meisegeier.

Joan: And me, Joan Collins. David, this is going to be such an interesting podcast, as we have the founders of Kambo Energy Group—Yasmin Abraham and Karim Abraham—a brother and sister team, and our very own Dany Kahumoku who leads ICF's diversity, equity, inclusion, or DEI initiatives. And they are just off of presenting jointly in New Orleans at the NEUAC Conference. For those of you that don't know what NEUAC stands for, it is the National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition Conference. They spoke together about the holistic approach of addressing climate weatherization and capacity needs through housing programs in tribal nations. And I'm just really looking forward to digging into this more today, but before we do, we'd like to have Yasmin lead us off with an Indigenous land acknowledgement.

Yasmin: Thank you, Joan. It's so great to be here and thank you for the invitation. Yeah. I just wanted to acknowledge that I'm speaking to you today from the traditional unceded and stolen territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish, and Musqueam First Nations up here in, what is known as, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I am grateful and honored to live, work, and play and enjoy this land. And always, reflecting on my own role in reconciliation here in Canada and considering how generations of genocide and systemic bias in our society has really provided privilege for me as a settler on this land. We always start our meetings and anything formal here in Canada with the land acknowledgment. And it's really a chance to reflect on where we are and where we come from. So, thank you for that opportunity.

David: That's awesome. Thank you, Yasmin. And I know Karim, you're in the same location, and Joan and I learned about the land acknowledgment when we were prepping with you guys the other week. And so, we actually did research ourselves to better understand the Indigenous people and lands that we are on. I found it very fascinating, and I'd like to acknowledge that I'm on ancestral lands of the Piscataway people who were among the first in the Western Hemisphere. This Indigenous land was stolen from the Piscataway people by European colonists, and I pay respect to Piscataway elders and ancestors. And I want to acknowledge that I took some of that wording actually from the University of Maryland's land acknowledgement statement, which is also on the Piscataway people's land. And I've just found it very powerful to read the statement that they had on their website. So pleased to be able to share that. And Joan, you also did your research.

Joan: I did. And since we're virtual here and coming from different areas, I'd like to acknowledge that I'm on the traditional lands of the Oʼodham and Hohokam people and that the modern-day Indigenous nations that descended from the ancestral people are inhabitants of this land. And I also recognize the impact of their wisdom and their care for the planet.

Dany: That's really great, Joan and David, and I also like to start with land acknowledgements as well, just as a native person—I'm both a native and a settler. And so, I always like to send my mana and aloha to the ancestors of the people whose land I'm on right now, which is the Cowlitz, Clackamas, and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. And yes, it's definitely something that I'm hoping that ICF does, acknowledge at more of a corporate level. I know that there are different spaces that primarily work with Indigenous people within ICF. And so, it's not necessarily something that happens across the enterprise, but I know that it is really something that we are beginning to catch onto.

And it's not just about reading words off of paper and just making sure that you are stating an acknowledgement. It's really about the way that we are embedding these sustainable practices and acknowledging not just the past, but what we can do in present time to really impact the wellbeing of the land that we're on, the people who have occupied the land, and making sure that the programs that we are developing and implementing with our clients really are in alignment with what the people of these histories really have advocated for and fought for—for all of time.

It's really great to be in this space and hearing you both say that. At this level, it's pretty impactful for me to be a part of it. So, thank you.

Joan: I'm just so appreciative of the awareness and the realization, and gosh, we're so grateful to have the three of you on, you're truly putting a spotlight on prioritizing Indigenous communities for housing and energy projects as well. And just welcome, welcome to the three of you.

Karim: Thank you so much for having us.

Presenting on shared experiences serving Tribal Nations

Joan: As noted before, Kambo Energy Group is an equity-based social enterprise based in Vancouver, B.C. that designs and delivers solutions to reduce energy poverty and improve housing to communities often missed. And we have to ask now, how was NOLA and how was the NEUAC Conference?

Karim: The conference was great. We had a lot of fun. It was the first time the three of us actually got to meet each other in person. So, we've been talking for months virtually like this, and it was just, really a treat to get together in person. We had a lot of fun. We had a great presentation. I think we got a really good response from what we were talking about and some good conversations that came out of it. And it was a good opportunity to kind of see the work that's happening in the U.S. for us coming down from Canada. So, it was really fun.

Yasmin: I would say it was just so amazing to have 800 people at one conference, all talking about low-income energy efficiency, energy equity, energy poverty, and the right to cooling. It was just amazing. I think for us, especially Canada is a little bit behind the eight ball on some of this work. So, it was so fulfilling. And I think we got a lot of value from just meeting so many people who live and breathe and work in this space. And yeah, it was awesome. And also, NOLA is a great city. Karim and I had never been there. We enjoyed it.

Dany: Yes, we definitely did enjoy it. That's for sure. And I think that beyond the history and amazing culture and just vibrancy that New Orleans holds, the theme for this conference was “Rising in Resilience.” We heard and learned about everything that the people of New Orleans, that the community organizations and even the utility were doing in order to address all of these impacts of climate change, of these extreme weather events that have really drastically and negatively impacted communities in New Orleans. To have those conversations in that space it really made it very, very real—that this is not just a conceptual thing to talk about.

Dany: This is something that people are experiencing right now and have been for decades. In New Orleans, Katrina was one of the biggest things that—or one of the biggest weather events that I think in the United States we have remembered in our history and for Hurricane Ida to have happened again recently, it just brought to light that we have known about these issues and are not acknowledging them or doing things at a pace that is really warranted to make sure that communities and individuals are protected. So, it was really profound to be there in New Orleans, talking about resilience in this way.

Joan: Oh, I bet. You know, I volunteered. I was working with the utility here in Arizona and there were actually people that went to New Orleans afterwards and I volunteered to go, and it was really something to be part of that. So, I can imagine now coming back around and again, tying that back, it must have been profound for sure. And so, could you share a little more, the three of you, about exactly what you were presenting and any questions that came or any insights that you'd like to share?

Karim: Yeah, so we were talking about our work in Indigenous communities and so that work is really focused on improving housing outcomes. And the reason for that is a lot of homes in Indigenous communities—especially remote communities in Canada—are in really poor state and in poor condition. And that leads to a lot of negative health impacts. Energy poverty comes out of that as well. And so, it's a tremendously big issue. And so, our work, we pull together both an energy efficiency approach, as well as a whole home construction approach to improve homes. And we do this at community scale. We are fortunate enough to present on how we approach that work. Some of the learnings that we've had over the last 13 years doing this work. And then we got to present alongside Dany as well to really tie in ICFs strategy and approach to this work as well. And the way that we're going to be hoping to work together in this space as well.

David: I wonder if you could share a little bit, because I found it fascinating. You say that energy efficiency in tribal nations requires holistic thinking that goes beyond energy audits, rebates, and conservation measures. Talk a little bit more about what you mean by that and how you wrap all the different services together.

Holistic approaches to serving Indigenous communities

Karim: Yeah, that's a great question. I think because these communities are really remote and the houses are in poor condition that if consultants or utilities or programs are going in with the expectation of changing light bulbs and putting in attic insulation and these typical DSM recommendations in a home, and you walk into these homes that have leaky roofs and they have major other issues—there's mold issues, there's structural issues, there's fire safety concerns. There's really a lot going on in a home. And if you go into that home trying to improve insulation levels or change light bulbs, you're really missing the mark. And so certainly those energy efficiency improvements are needed in many homes, but really what's needed is the home's condition needs to be improved.

Karim: I think the challenge is that funding dollars and programs are completely siloed when it comes to housing versus energy. And so, the housing folks aren't able to do a lot of energy upgrades and kind of energy specific work and the energy folks aren't able to do kind of housing specific work. And what happens is you have this complete isolation of issues. And because the house is a system concept, but I'm sure a lot of you understand on this podcast, these things are integrated, right? There's no point improving energy systems if you have a really poor envelope. And so, our approach is to try to pull both money and technical disciplines from those two areas together to improve houses from both the energy and the kind of building condition side at the same time. And that really leads to improving outcomes for the residents and not just doing shortsighted improvements that may be good for a utility but are not really impactful at the community level.

David: Mm. So, who or what are some of the funding sources that in addition to utility program funds that you are able to tie together to accomplish some of this?

Karim: Yeah. So, finding funding for our work is certainly a constant. And it's always something that we're really trying to stay on top of. And we really pull from a whole bunch of different sources. So certainly, the utilities have a role to play or have played a role in our work. A lot of the time that is for specific upgrades. There's rebates and incentives that we lean on, but they've also been, they've funded the initial upfront work as well like doing housing assessments and really understanding the condition of homes. We pull on federal funding from Indigenous Services Canada, which is a federal organization, and they have funding available for Nations, for housing specific. We look at foundations and grants. We look at provincial incentives and programs as well. We're really kind of scanning all of the funding opportunities to try to build a project that's in line with the Nation's vision. And so that's a full-time job for more than one person on our team is to kind of source that funding. And so, it's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.

David: Yeah.

Yasmin: And just to jump in there, I think across our organization and across the programs we deliver, whether it's with Indigenous Nations or through Empower Me, we really try to make sure that first and foremost, the solutions we develop address the needs of the people we're working with and whether that's an Indigenous Nation, a new immigrant or a lower income customer, we create solutions that address their needs. And often that's energy efficiency and often it's affordability, but sometimes it's health. Sometimes it's safety. Sometimes it's educating on “I moved to this new city and then what is this green bin in front of my house? And what day do I put out my recycling?” So, we create holistic programs that are multi-solving. And the benefit of that is that the goals that we're achieving achieve the goals of multiple different types of funders. And so, whether it's energy savings for the utility, whether it's greenhouse gas (GHG) savings for governments, whether it's brand awareness or philanthropic dollars that we can access, we really try to pull in funding from multiple different sources because our programs and our solutions address multiple issues.

David: That's awesome.

Joan: And do you find prioritization of the projects are sometimes limited by the availability of people who can do the work in particular communities? Just curious about that?

Prioritizing funding and building capacity to address the specific needs of Nations

Karim: Yeah, I would say capacity is one of the largest challenges that we try to address. And so that capacity is really at all stages of kind of project development. So even just capacity to support with funding applications or capacity to organize and get home assessors into each home and do the communication, the capacity of every Nation is completely different. And then certainly when we're looking at upgrading or improving homes and doing renovations, capacity for trades within the community can be an issue, even finding local trades within a hundred kilometers can be an issue as well. And so capacity and finding the right folks is a major issue, but we've worked with a lot of great groups over the last number of years and have built strong relationships. So sometimes it's a little bit easier.

Joan: Yeah. I'm sure that makes it much easier.

David: Are you able to find funding that can support kind of like workforce training so that communities can do this work beyond what you're able to do?

Karim: Yeah, there are a lot of workforce training dollars and capacity-building dollars available. And the nice thing is if we're doing community-scale renovations, it's a great opportunity to build internal capacity. Actually, one of the Nations we're working with building homes in right now, they've actually developed and are building a construction company. It's part of their economic development group. And so, they're using us as a supporting partner, but they're also building significant opportunity capacity internally that we can then partner in other communities to help support as well. Also, there's a lot of interesting approaches and methodologies on how we like to build capacity. We always joke that we want to work ourselves out of a job—that hasn't seemed to happen yet, but I think that philosophy is important.

Fostering relationships to bolster a community’s vision

David: Yes. Yeah. We completely agree with that. Market transformation is the term that we would use around that. And we want to build the market, we don't want to be the market, so completely in sync. You mentioned something earlier about being in sync with the community's vision and I was wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about how you involve the community from the start and are not just taking an off-the-shelf program per se, but really working with those communities to understand their needs and what they're motivated by and how that shapes what you end up doing.

Yasmin: Yeah. I think that's really the critical piece and part of the magic of our success is that regardless of who we're working with, as I mentioned, we start with the participant. We start with their needs. And so that really, it's going to sound simple, but it really starts with listening and creating relationships and introducing ourselves. We're so lucky and privileged to have such a great reputation in this work, but often it just involves showing up and bringing a gift and talking to people and talking about things that are not energy-related and not housing-related and getting to know people and talking about your kids and what you do this weekend. And it's really about creating relationships and getting to know people because then you get to understand what's important to them and you don't come to them with a solution that you think they need. You really create space for a conversation to tease that out. I think that's been part of the magic that we've been able to really expand and scale over the last decade. Karim, I don't know if you have anything to add there.

Karim: Yeah. I would say from a community perspective, I think absolutely helping a Nation or chief and council or whoever it is, really solidify their vision of where they want to go. And then we just support that. We're not—it's their direction. And we just want to provide decision support. We want to provide an extra pair of hands and we want to provide capacity where we can. And so, I think, I say this a lot, but a government or utility program does not make a strategy or a vision, right? They can support specific aspects and milestones within that vision. But I think really looking at the community to be able to set the direction and vision, and then we're just supporting actors in that role.

Joan: Yeah. It's just truly authentic. And I'm wondering, I mean, what you do in every day. And just one of the questions that we really like to ask and it's kind of a big question, but what is the why that's driving you? And it seems like, it almost seems the easiest to ask you of any of the guests that we've had on because you can just feel the passion from you both.

Forging an entrepreneurial spirit with a community-minded focus

Yasmin: Yeah. That is a really big question, and multiple things going through my head, I think we are a family business. Our father started this business 12 or 13 years ago now. And he always worked in the energy and equity space, starting in the U.K., designing their low-income program back in the '90s. And we grew. Our family is a family of entrepreneurs. I think we have four generations of entrepreneurs. And so, we always grew up with a business mindset. And I think, I'll just speak for me. Karim can jump in, but I want to use my power for good. It's important to me that as we're transitioning to a low carbon economy, that folks aren't left behind. I think it's so easy to design programming and consider solutions for that white, upper-middle-class family, but so easily things can change.

And I think we saw that so much with the pandemic. Everybody really had no idea what was going to happen. Are we going to lose our jobs? How much money do I have in the bank? Ooh, am I going to be able to pay my mortgage? What are interest rates? So, everybody had that moment where goodness, who knows what's going to happen. And I think that empathy and that acknowledgment that it's just by luck and privilege that some of us end up not having challenges accessing these programs. And there are so many households and families who cannot access these programs because they're not designed for the unique needs of them. And so that's a really long way to say that equity and justice piece of it is so important to me.

Karim: I like that. And I would just add for me, I mean, I echo almost all of that. For me, I think, being able to run a business that is really providing kind of win-win-win solutions across the board—where you're able to develop a business model that creates financial value, but also improves social outcomes and environmental outcomes—like that magical mix of win-win-win is something that I'm just really passionate about. I love the game of business. I love building things and building teams but being able to use that skill and that roller coaster to do something that's good for the world and to help people I think is really special. So that's kind of why I do it.

Yasmin: And Karim really loves working with his sister.

David: Awesome.

Karim: It's up there.

David: How about you, Dany?

Dany: I have so much to say in response to that question. I think the beauty of what I've felt my role right now, even with Karim and Yasmin, has just been to see the different ways that we can approach accomplishing these energy goals that ICF really has been tackling for many, many years. And the human-centric approach, the community-centric approach has been foundational to Kambo in a way that we very much are looking to better ourselves in that direction. It has always been something that I think has been on our minds and that we have implemented in different ways, but this is also becoming a goal from our clients in the communities that we are serving. The accountability that we have seen in the past couple years to really say energy permeates every part of our life.

It impacts our education, our labor, our finances, our health, and our housing. It is central to our well-being as an individual, as family unit, in our communities and households. And so, I've really, really loved just being able to be in a space where I can kind of lend my expertise and knowledge in all of these different sectors that I've been a part of to say it's not just about the technical aspect of energy. It's not just about kWh and therms and the different technologies that we're using. This really is ultimately about the betterment of our well-being and our society's well-being. And I think energy is such a unique way to address the needs that the people around us have. And so it's been, really, that is my driving force is just making sure that we are continuing in this transition to be as inclusive as possible, to recognize the impacts that the industry has had in the past and still to this day, and make sure that we are building new and in a way that is really going to center health and well-being.

So that's really what's driving me in this role and just kind of in general with the way that I operate.

David: Awesome.

Joan: I feel like the three of you are transforming thought in 30. It's just, I mean, wow, thank you so much for sharing that. And David, did you have something that you were...

David: I know you liked that to be the wrap-up question, but I have one more question that I really want to ask. So, I'm going to ask. Money is always tight, I mean, period—I'll just leave it at that. And often you have to decide between doing more work in one or a few homes or doing less work in more homes, but how do you make that decision?

Supporting Indigenous leadership to focus energy-efficiency implementation

Karim: I would say that we don't make that decision, especially when it's from an Indigenous community perspective, which is really up to the Nation's leadership. Our role is to provide the decision support, right? So, here's a path forward. Here's our recommendation on what we think is important. Let's really look at health and safety as kind of the first round, and then we can kind of move down the list of priorities, but it's not our call. That's leadership's job. And we just want to help support them and make that decision.

Yasmin: And I think that's a great example of how we really center the community, that it's not our decision. It's the Nation's decision. I think just to add to that answer, when we are designing lower income/energy poverty programs, our goal is always to increase affordability in those homes. We cannot deliver programming in lower-income families without improving their lives. And so, if you ask me that question, 100% would we focus on doing more in less houses because we've seen the negative impacts of, and forgive me, but delivering energy savings kits across lower-income families. They have their place, but it doesn't impact affordability. It doesn't have a meaningful impact on their bill. And so certainly we always look to deliver programs that maximize affordability and GHGs, kWh in homes. So, we would do more in less.

David: Very, very inspiring. Thank you, Joan, for humoring me on that last question.

Joan: No, it was great. And it leads right into our kind of final question that we like to ask all of our guests. If there's one thing that you could change in the industry, what would it be?

Decentralizing energy efficiency programs to bolster stakeholder designing and funding

Dany: I would say if there was one thing I could change, it would really just be the makeup of decision makers. I think that would be incredibly impactful, even in what you were just talking about of who is making the decision. It's the people who have been part of the community, who have trust and potentially our elders, or at least our leaders. And I think that if we had more racial diversity, if we had more gender diversity, and age diversity in the people who are developing policies, who are in government offices, in the leadership positions, in the development of these programs—whether it's for utility or consultancy or for the community-based organizations—I think if we see different people who have come from different walks of life, it would really impact the products and the outcomes that we see. And not just the outcomes, but the processes and the way that we're approaching even getting to those outcomes.

Yasmin: I like that answer. I won't steal it.

I would like to do what Dany wants to do. And my answer to that is also, I think it's around decentralizing energy efficiency programs and kind of going back to that multi-solving piece of designing and delivering energy efficiency programs in a way that allows multiple stakeholders to both fund and design them. So, I think our utility partners and friends, we come from a long history of them designing programs, and it makes a lot of sense based on the history of our industry. However, I think we're at a point now, as we transition and with the climate crisis and equity and cost of living, that we need to consider that there's ways that we can multi-solve program problems including energy efficiency work. So that's kind of my magic wand wish, which is going to come true because I'm on this podcast, right?

David: Nice. Yes.

Joan: Absolutely.

Karim: That's how it works.

Yasmin: Don't underestimate the power of the podcast.

Dany: I love it.

Karim: I will steal both of those answers and just add a short little addition. I think for me, it's similar to Yasmin's, it's finding ways for programs to work together more efficiently. I mean, there's always so much overlap in outcomes that they're trying to achieve, but there's a lot of rigidity in design and what you end up, you create more and more work just to access very rigid pools of funding. Whereas if those pools of funding could talk to each other and kind of work with partners on delivering the outcomes that they all agreed on, I think there would be just a lot more efficiency, pun intended, in our work.

Joan: Those are great. Oh, I, ugh. I just want us to keep going on... It's always the same.

Karim: Energy in 40.

Joan: I know, it's so hard to keep it short, but I just thank you again so very much, the three of you, for such a thoughtful discussion and also for educating and for those that are listening to the podcast. We are going to put a link in the notes for you to learn more about the territory that you're living on, and you can go to native-land.ca, but the link also is in the notes. And as we wrap up here, if you've enjoyed listening to Energy in 30, you can look to September for our next episode.

David: This has really been fabulous. I appreciate the three of you taking your time out of your busy days to join us. And just hearing firsthand how getting involvement from communities from the beginning is so critical to ensuring you're delivering solutions that meet their needs, it's really good to hear those success stories and remind all of our listeners of the importance of that. So, thank you very much.

Joan: And here's to our next transformation of thought in 30, I mean, Energy in 30. Thanks so much.

Meet the authors
  1. Dany Kahumoku, Senior Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist
  2. Joan Collins, Director, Energy Offering Solutions and Sales

    Joan is an energy expert with more than 20 years of experience serving utilities focusing on customer engagement, electrification, demand response, and flexible load management. View bio

  3. David Meisegeier, Vice President, Finance and Smart Homes Programs

    David helps innovate customer-centric energy programs that meet utilities’ current and future needs, with nearly 30 years of experience in the energy industry. View bio

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