UDM receives Department of Energy multi-million grant to help nonprofits increase energy efficiency

December 13, 2023

Models of buildings are positioned on a desk.University of Detroit Mercy won a $3.79-million award from the Department of Energy’s Office of State and Community Energy Program’s (SCEP) Renew America’s Nonprofits grant program to support energy efficiency in the country’s nonprofit sector. 

This program will enlist scores of UDM students and faculty to help 13 nonprofits in Detroit and southeast Michigan reduce their carbon footprint. In addition, this ground-breaking DOE investment represents a significant step toward a new strategic future envisioned by UDM President Donald B. Taylor when he joined the University in 2022.

“UDM has a unique opportunity to work with project partners and nonprofits through collaborative work that connects to our vision and mission as one of the best Jesuit and Mercy Catholic Universities in Michigan and our region,” Taylor said. “We are beyond excited to partner with such incredible organizations as the DOE, Focus: HOPE, the nonprofit agencies in our community and the people they serve who will directly benefit from this grant.” 

Portia Roberson, chief executive officer of Focus: HOPE, agrees with Taylor.

"Focus: HOPE is excited to be one of the partner nonprofits involved in this great initiative,” Roberson said. “Having the opportunity to work toward reducing our carbon footprint helps ensure our organization and the surrounding community do our part helping to uphold more energy-efficient practices," she said.

The Renew America's Nonprofits grant aims to support nonprofits by reducing common barriers to implementing efficiency upgrades. According to a press release announcing the awards issued by the DOE on Oct. 26, energy costs are the second-highest operational expense for nonprofits behind salaries. The DOE selected grantees based on their proposed projects to help reduce energy consumption and expenses, which will free up a meaningful percentage of funds and lead to savings that can be redirected to mission-critical work.

The project proposed by UDM is titled UDM Sustaining Service Organization and will work to improve energy efficiency of 13 nonprofit-owned buildings in the Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park communities. The grant amount of $3.79 million will be supplemented by a match of $1.01 million, which will be shared among project partners in the form of in-kind resources. This brings the total investment in the project to $4.8 million.

The nonprofit organizations participating in this project serve hundreds of thousands of community members each day. These organizations include:

The tactical work, which will be led by faculty and students from the College of Engineering & Science, School of Architecture & Community Development (SACD), SACD’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center and project partner Focus: HOPE, will focus on upgrades to heating and cooling systems, insulation, windows and air sealing, among others.

During the four-year project, 22 to 27 Detroit Mercy students will help with energy audits, modeling and project coordination for the program. Of this number, 50% of these students will be female, first-generation students from underrepresented communities. These students will learn practical applications of engineering and design, gain an appreciation for the outsized impacts of energy inefficiency in disadvantaged communities, and be encouraged to continue using skills to advance sustainability as they move into their careers.

The DOE selected just nine organizations from across the country to participate in this program. The Renew America's Nonprofits grant is part of the $50-million Renew America's Nonprofits Program, funded by President Joe Biden's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Funding for the competition meets and exceeds the goals of the Biden-Harris Administration's Justice40 Initiative to put environmental and economic justice at the center of America's transition to a net-zero economy.

Beyond unlocking energy savings and amplifying sub-recipient impacts in communities, each award winner (identified as Prime Selectees) has identified enduring impacts from proposed plan, which include:

  • Workforce training opportunities.
  • Creation of pipelines for high-quality, clean energy jobs.
  • Development of networks for financing; and
  • Demonstration of replicable partnership models that increase pathways for future improvements in the sector.

Models of buildings are positioned on a table.Project Plan


UDM’s College of Engineering & Science, School of Architecture & Community Development, and the University’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), will lead project implementation. The project team is comprised of Christina Heximer, co-executive director of the DCDC who also serves as the primary investigator (PI) for this effort; Alan Hoback, professor and chair of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering; and Nassif Rayess, professor and chair of Mechanical Engineering. In addition, the program team will hire a new project manager to manage the initiative.  

Additionally, Focus: HOPE will recruit a minimum of 10 trainees each year who will complete a five-week preconstruction training program. These trainees will then be hired by construction firms that bid on and complete the energy efficiency improvements for sub-recipients. Over the course of the four-year grant-funded program, Focus: HOPE expects to have 40 or more individuals who will receive training and be prepared to take on new career opportunities in the HVAC field and other energy upgrade trades as a result of this project. 

Heximer looks forward to the impact this project will have on nonprofits that work closely with the community every day.

“The DCDC is excited to work with organizations to reduce their carbon footprints so that they invest the financial savings back into their work with the community,” she said. 

Project Goals

The goals of this project include a reduction in energy use and emissions, and to lower utility costs in nonprofit facilities, which will then allow each organization to redirect savings into their work. In addition, these savings will aid nonprofits in building greater organizational capacity and further provide services to their constituents in metro Detroit. The team will achieve these cost-savings through the installation of HVAC equipment, updated lighting and tightening the overall building envelope.

On a more specific and measurable level, the project expects to achieve the following:

  • A payback goal on investment of 25 years or less.
  • An expected energy savings of 25-30% per facility.
  • An expected energy cost savings of 25% for electricity and 25% for gas.
  • An emissions reduction of 4.9ilbs. of CO2 per square foot for each facility.

In addition to UDM, the DOE identified eight other institutions who will collaborate to deliver energy improvements in more than 300 facilities across America. They include:

  • Alaska Heat Smart, Juneau, Alaska
  • Ecology Action, Santa Cruz, Calif.
  • Mid America Regional Council Community Services Corporation, Kansas City, Mo.
  • Medici Road, Washington, D.C.
  • Southface Energy Institute, Atlanta, Ga.
  • Sustainable Westchester, Mount Kisco, Ky.
  • Tierra Del Sol Housing Corporation, Las Cruces, NM
  • University of Colorado, Boulder, Co. 

The Renew America's Nonprofits program is one of the Community Energy Programs at the Department of Energy. Learn more.