The region served by the French Broad Electric Membership Corp. is an old rural area, with towns hanging on the precipice of a post-industrial existence, struggling to reinvent themselves. But the main towns of Marshall, Mars Hill, Burnsville, Bakersville, Spruce Pine and others are in the budding stage of a reinvention, with new locally owned cafes, breweries and other businesses popping up, and local governments exploring new economic development strategies. One of the greatest hurdles for these communities, however, is figuring out how to address the aging housing stock (more than 17,000 homes are more than 25 years old), the high poverty rate and the associated burden of energy costs for families and businesses.
That discussion is now happening, thanks to the efforts of Appalachian Voices and numerous community representatives dedicated to helping improve the lives of residents and supporting local economic development. As an expression of this commitment, last week nearly 60 community members came out to learn about and discuss how “on-bill energy efficiency financing” could improve their lives and their local economies.
The “French Broad Community Energy Forum” brought together residents who are members of the electric co-op, local government and economic development representatives, community service agencies, numerous businesses, and a regional development council. The forum even drew Nelle Hotchkiss, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations for the North Carolina Electric Membership Corp. — the statewide co-op owned by the state’s 26 rural electric cooperatives. The forum was sponsored by the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group, with Appalachian Voices, Community Housing Coalition of Madison County, and Southern Reconciliation House (Yancey County) serving as co-sponsors.
The purpose of the event was to serve as both an informational session and a discussion forum. It was kicked off with a warm welcome by Eliza Laubach, who was serving her last day as Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Outreach Associate. Eliza spent two years with us as an AmeriCorps and a part-time employee, and helping to organize the forum was her last major contribution to our organization.
Following Eliza, I gave a short presentation to illustrate the extent to which on-bill financing (OBF) investments are needed in the French Broad co-op service area.The high poverty level and the fact that more than 17,200 homes are more than 25 years old suggest a significant potential for reducing energy costs through OBF.
Next to speak were representatives from three community service agencies — Neighbors in Need, Community Housing Coalition and Southern Reconciliation House. Each of the speakers shared their experience with residents facing high energy costs and living in poor housing conditions, and how their respective service agencies assist with housing support and assistance with paying energy bills. Perhaps the key moment in the day came when John Miller of Southern Reconciliation House mentioned that they are only able to help 20 percent of all the families that seek their support with paying their heating and electric bills each winter. All three speakers ended their presentations with strong statements of support for comprehensive financing for home energy improvements available to all French Broad co-op customers.
Sam Hutchins, French Broad’s Member Services Manager, finished out the morning presentations by discussing the structure and operation of electric cooperatives. Notably, Sam shared how the co-op pays Duke Energy $17 per kilowatt of demand, with that price rising to $20 next year. Because of that, Sam said that even installing load management devices on residents’ water heaters could save the co-op, and therefore its members, a substantial amount of money each year. Unfortunately, Sam didn’t say that a comprehensive OBF program that covers all heating systems, appliances, weatherization and other improvements could achieve even greater savings. In fact, perhaps the only “failure” for the event was that, by the end of the day, Sam hadn’t been moved by all of the facts and stories and expressions of support to commit French Broad co-op to even taking steps to explore offering such a program.
Following a delicious lunch by Sweet Monkey Cafe, a local cafe in Marshall, Wesley Holmes of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (and coordinator of the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group), provided a detailed overview of OBF programs. Then, John Kidda, President of reNew Home Inc. — an energy services provider based out of Boone, discussed how he struggles to grow his business and maintain a dedicated working crew because there isn’t enough financial support available for families to afford his services, especially the families that most need it.
For more than 90 minutes at the end of the forum, community members had the chance to engage each of the speakers to ask questions about other clean energy programs French Broad is exploring or planning to offer, how different service agencies are funded and to what extent they lack sufficient funding for meeting community needs, and how the community can move forward to share and bring more resources to those in need.
Overall, the French Broad Community Energy Forum was a huge success. It showed how strongly knit these communities are, and how hard they work to help residents and even businesses who struggle to pay their energy bills, need help with basic home repairs, or are looking to gain a foothold as a new local business. Most of all, it showed just how strong the public support is across the French Broad co-op area for comprehensive on-bill energy efficiency financing, which could save residents as much as 10 percent on their energy costs while benefiting their electric co-op as well.
Additionally, a strong OBF program would generate new jobs and investment for French Broad communities while improving the local housing stock, raising property values and potentially attracting more people to the region. And while the French Broad co-op has yet to commit to developing such a program, it’s important to keep in mind that the co-op is owned by and accountable to its members and the communities it serves.
The voice of the communities served by French Broad EMC is growing louder, and moving forward, Appalachian Voices is committed to helping that growing collective voice be heard.
If you’d like to join our effort to expand inclusive energy efficiency financing to the French Broad region or to other areas in western North Carolina or East Tennessee, visit our website or contact Rory McIlmoil at (828) 262-1500.