Instead of celebrating the first weekend of the spring semester by sleeping in, students at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. spent a recent Saturday volunteering with different community organizations as part of the school’s 18th annual Martin Luther King Challenge. Appalachian Voices was proud to be counted among those organizations and to once again participate in the service day. Thanks to the help of the student volunteers along with AmeriCorps Project Conserve members, myself included, our Energy Savings team was able to improve the energy efficiency of two local homes.
Energy efficiency upgrades can help families lower their energy bills and make their homes more comfortable, while at the same time benefiting the environment. Unfortunately, these upgrades often have a high upfront cost that many families cannot afford. Even low-cost, do-it-yourself efficiency projects can be inaccessible for people who have limited mobility or lack experience with home repair. While there are programs that provide free and low-cost weatherization services, such as the Weatherization Assistance Program, the existing need greatly exceeds the available aid. In Western North Carolina for instance, there are tens of thousands of old homes that likely require efficiency improvements, but less than 500 receive weatherization assistance each year. Furthermore, high energy costs disproportionately burden low-income, African-American, and Latino households, making access to energy efficiency an issue of environmental justice.
For our two local home projects, John Kidda of ReNew Home Inc., generously provided energy assessments free of charge to identify needed efficiency upgrades. All houses are different, so getting a professional energy audit done ensures that time and resources are spent wisely, prioritizing the upgrades with the most impact. Installing insulation and sealing air leaks are often identified as prime targets of efficiency improvements.
One service day site was an old farmhouse in Todd, N.C. that had been pieced together over decades. When Brooke Walker, the resident, applied for Appalachian Voices’ Home Energy Makeover Contest in 2014, she was spending more than a quarter of her income on her electric bill. At the time, she described the difficulties in improving her home’s energy efficiency: “Our home was built in the 1950’s, so it has no insulation and the windows are single pane and drafty. Since our main income is from the farm, we find it very hard to have extra money for fixing those problems.”
Brooke’s home lacked any insulation in the walls, basement and crawlspace, and the existing insulation in the attic was inadequate. With the volunteers, we were able to air seal and insulate the basement, as well as weatherstrip two leaky exterior doors and install LED light bulbs throughout the house.
“We didn’t have enough resources to re-insulate her attic, but we did insulate the basement ceiling, which will greatly reduce cold air infiltration into the house from the basement. So Brooke will be able to live a lot more comfortably in the winter,” said Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Program Manager. John, the energy auditor, was also able to advise Brooke on other insulation projects she may perform in the future.
The second participant, Faith Wright of Vilas, N.C., had insulation in her basement, attic, and walls, but it was in various states of disrepair. So the volunteers, or “student worker-bees,” as Faith called them, realigned basement insulation that had shifted or fallen and filled gaps in the basement ceiling around pipes and other penetrations. These simple fixes will stop cold air from leaking into Faith’s home. We also weather-stripped the basement door and attic hatch to keep heated air from leaking into the unconditioned basement and attic.
“They caught energy leaks I knew nothing about,” Faith said after the work day. “There was a major gap in my flooring below the bathtub that was funneling cold air up from the basement, plus an un-insulated access door to the attic that was letting heat up out of my living space.”
The service day was a beneficial experience for everyone, not just the homeowners. “It was great to see the students so eager to learn and to help community members. We were able to teach them quite a bit about how to safely and effectively make energy efficiency improvements, and their enthusiasm for the work was inspiring,” said Lauren Essick, our N.C. Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator.
To make energy efficiency more accessible to our neighbors like Brooke and Faith, Appalachian Voices is advocating for the establishment of on-bill financing programs by electric cooperatives in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. These programs would provide the co-ops’ member-owners with the upfront cost of energy upgrades, like insulation and air sealing as well as heating and cooling improvements, which they would pay back over time through a minimal charge on their electric bill. The best designed programs structure repayment as a tariff, tying repayment to the property’s electric meter, not the person, making the program accessible to renters and homeowners who plan on moving. Ideally, monthly repayment amounts are less than the average savings on electricity costs as a result of the improvements, meaning the member-owner will have lower energy bills even while paying the extra charge. And, importantly, they will enjoy more comfortable, health living conditions right away.
Brooke and Faith are both member-owners of Blue Ridge Electric Membership Cooperative, which offers the Energy SAVER Loan Program. Launched after community organizing and outreach efforts led by Appalachian Voices, the program offers loans to member-owners to finance home energy efficiency upgrades worth up to $7,500. Unfortunately, the current program is only available to homeowners — not renters — and is not as affordable as it could be.
We hope that Blue Ridge EMC converts soon to a tariffed on-bill financing program so more of its member-owners, like Faith and Brooke, can benefit from lower energy bills and more comfortable homes as a result of energy efficiency improvements.