Posts Tagged ‘Energy Efficiency’

High Country residents speak up to save energy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly
Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation's CEO Doug Johnson.

Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation’s CEO Doug Johnson.

Visit our Energy Savings Action Center

Urge your utility provider to provide debt-free energy efficiency financing for your community.

On a sweltering day earlier this month, several residents of North Carolina’s High Country packed into cars and made what for some is a one-hour trip to the annual membership meeting of their rural electric cooperative.

The reason? To tell the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) Board of Directors they want incentives to improve their homes’ energy efficiency, specifically, though an “on-bill” financing loan program.

While this may sound too boring to encourage anyone to take hours out of their day to address the co-op board, the benefits of such a program are so exciting that they warranted the trip.

On-bill financing is a type of loan offered by utilities that pays for energy efficiency upgrades with no upfront cost to the homeowner or renter, making these improvements accessible to people of any income level. Loan recipients receive immediate savings on their electric bill after the upgrades, which may include insulation or air duct sealing. A portion of that monthly savings goes directly to the resident and the rest goes to the utility to pay back the cost of the upgrades.

These programs are designed so that no money ever comes out-of-pocket for the residents, who not only see immediate savings but also immediate improvements in the comfort of their homes and often their health. When all the upgrades are paid for (usually in five to ten years), the resident can see as much as a 40 percent reduction in their average monthly electric bill. Further, on-bill finance programs have substantial positive impacts for local economies and job creation.

The folks from North Carolina who traveled to BRE’s annual meeting wanted to advocate for these benefits. Mary Ruble, who, like almost anyone, could benefit from an on-bill financing program, spoke to the BRE board. She is hopeful that members will become more engaged so they too can voice the need for energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing.

“I know for myself I never really understood I was a member. It was just an electric bill,” she reflected.

Marisa Schor, another BRE member, spoke about being a renter and her limited ability to improve her home’s energy efficiency. “I can’t do anything about the insulation quality or efficiency of the heating system — I’m barely allowed to put nail holes in my walls,” Schor told the board.

Schor believes on-bill financing is part of the solution for her situation and for other renters. “What this program would do, however, is make it easy and convenient for landlords to increase the energy efficiency of their rental units,” said Schor. “As a tenant, this program would allow me the opportunity to easily reduce my energy consumption and would provide me with an easy, convenient and sustainable way to save money on my electric bill.”

BRE’s CEO Doug Johnson responded after each comment and assured the members that the co-op is seriously considering adopting an on-bill financing program for their members. In a press release after the meeting, Johnson stated publicly for the first time: “As we evolve into the utility of the future, key areas we are studying for programs to offer to members include renewables, more energy efficiency options, peak demand management, and a home weatherization/conservation program.”

Listen to a recorded presentation by Johnson here.

Electric co-op customers are actually members who own equal shares in the company and have the ability to significantly influence co-op decisions and direction. Appalachian Voices is working in western North Carolina and northeast Tennessee to connect folks with their electric co-ops and help them advocate for energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing.

This is especially important in the Southeast, where almost half of all co-op customers in the U.S. reside. The Southeast also accounts for almost half of electric co-op sales in the nation, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As electric co-op members continue to speak up — as in the case of BRE co-op in North Carolina’s High Country — demand will grow for on-bill financing and other energy efficiency programs.

Visit Appalachian Voices’ Energy Action Center to learn more, and take action now!

Video illustrates need for energy efficiency in the High Country

Friday, June 19th, 2015 - posted by eliza

In the mountainous northwestern corner of North Carolina, people pay higher percentages of their income on energy bills than almost every other part of Appalachia and the country. The especially harsh winters in this high-elevation region and widespread, outdated and energy-inefficient housing factor heavily into this problem.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia team held the High Country Home Energy Makeover contest this past winter to raise awareness about the issue and help three families in need. Their stories are representative of the more than 70 applications and inquiries we received about the contest. Our team is promoting affordable and accessible improvements to energy efficiency as a solution and advocating for our local rural electric cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to develop a program that will offer these improvements to its members.

This video takes you to the homes of the three winners and provides a glimpse of their experience living with high energy bills and struggling to heat their homes in the winter. See for yourself what the face of energy efficiency looks like, and how it can make you smile with lower bills and a more comfortable home!

If you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric, sign on to our letter of support asking for an on-bill financing program, which would help members cover the cost of home energy improvements.

Appalachian Regional Commission receives citizen input

Thursday, June 18th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Michael Shrader

The geographic area covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The geographic area covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

On June 4, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) held one of its five 2016-2020 Strategic Plan Listening Sessions in Morehead, Ky., to gather ideas from Appalachian citizens that will inform the commission’s plan for improving economic opportunities in communities across the region.

The Morehead Conference Center was full of forward-thinking minds from Kentucky and surrounding states who explained opportunities and barriers they see in their own communities. Many common themes emerged related to tourism, and adventure tourism in particular. Some attendants cited the need to cultivate and support family farms to create a local and sustainable Appalachian food system. Others spotlighted the opportunity for renewable energy generation in their communities.

The Obama administration’s POWER+ plan was mentioned several times as an opportunity that must be capitalized on. POWER+ invests in Appalachian workers and jobs through unique programs, many of which bear semblance to those discussed in Morehead. Appalachian Voices’ economic diversification campaign is currently building support for this proposal in Southwest Virginia.

Some attendees had a difficult time differentiating between opportunities and barriers to progress in their communities. Where some saw a vast, employable and idle workforce, others saw a lack of educational opportunities and substance abuse posing serious barriers to workforce development. Concrete barriers to development include a lack of local infrastructure such as highways, water systems and, especially, broadband Internet connectivity.

The massive amount of land owned by absentee corporations and extractive industries presents a unique challenge to regional development throughout most of central Appalachia and was mentioned several times throughout the session. Many residents cited less concrete barriers to progress such as a lack of hope and progressive leadership, and the enduring negative stereotypes associated with the region. Finally, there were many who stressed the need for the restoration of the landscape after mining and the resources to create jobs to do so.

Attendees outlined what they saw as ARC’s role in taking advantage of the opportunities and breaking down the barriers for development in their communities. The resounding consensus was a need to access capital and workforce development resources. In addition, attendees felt that ARC needed to work harder to make sure that groups in Appalachia could gain easier access to resources outside of ARC. Some felt that we needed to find ways to craft new language to talk about our problems and solutions. Others cited the need to address to vast health and wellness issues in the region.

Ultimately, many agreed that ARC, as a federal-state partnership, needs to broker change in Washington, D.C., on behalf of Appalachia. One attendee remarked that ARC must facilitate the conversation to look beyond Appalachia to other struggling regions across the nation to solve systemic problems and implement a new ‘true cost’ economic model.

The listening session brought a wide range of individuals and regional stakeholders together to share their unique perspectives. But some still felt that a representative range of people had not been able to participate. In fact, with the all-day session held on a Wednesday, many in attendance argued that it was impossible for the majority of working people to provide input, and stressed need for better stakeholder involvement and opportunities for public involvement.

Increasing Homeowner Access to Energy Savings

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Smith Insulation contractors install spray foam in Woolery's basement. "Last year, two new [regional contracting] businesses entered the spray foam industry," says Woolery. "There's a lot of demand for this type of work." Photo by Chris Woolery

Smith Insulation contractors install spray foam in Woolery’s basement. “Last year, two new [regional contracting] businesses entered the spray foam industry,” says Woolery. “There’s a lot of demand for this type of work.” Photo by Chris Woolery

By Eliza Laubach

Burning fossil fuels to create electricity comprises the largest share of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Department of Energy.

From changing incandescent bulbs out for LEDs to adding insulation, energy efficiency measures not only reduce a home’s carbon footprint but also are the cheapest form of reducing reliance on fossil fuels. A whole-home retrofit can lower a utility bill by 20 to 40 percent. While those energy savings will pay for the efficiency upgrades over time, the upfront investment can be substantial.

For many low-income homeowners across the country, the DOE offers a weatherization assistance program that distributes funds through a local community action agency. Demand often exceeds capacity, however, and many homeowners are put on a waiting list for years.

Other homeowners may not qualify for this program but do not have funds or credit for home energy improvements, even if the upgrades are badly needed. In rural areas, such as much of Appalachia, these situations are especially true.

In eastern Kentucky, “often people have higher energy bills than their mortgage,” says Chris Woolery, residential energy specialist at Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. “They didn’t have an incentive to be efficient because fuel was cheap.”

Woolery works on MACED’s How$mart program, a model for electric cooperatives to finance energy efficiency upgrades for their members. On-bill financing allows a homeowner to secure a low-interest loan from their utility to pay for efficiency upgrades and then pay that loan back through their utility bill. Credit does not determine loan availability, and the program is structured so the bill is usually lower than before.

As of summer 2015, How$mart has funded 189 retrofits across four cooperatives in eastern Kentucky. Jeff Gulley of Flemingsburg, Ky., was one of the first program participants. His attic and crawlspace were sealed and insulated with spray foam, and he also received a new thermostat and heat pump.

Gulley discussed his retrofit in a promotional video about How$mart. “From November to February, it took everything we had to pay our heating bills,” he said of the winters before he received the retrofit. “This program is one of the best things — as a homeowner — that has happened to me.” The total savings of the energy upgrades on Gulley’s bills are estimated at $102 per bill, and after the loan payment, he still pockets $16 a month.

In February, Roanoke Electric Membership Corp. launched its own on-bill financing program in eastern North Carolina. The cooperative is one of the first to use the Department of Agriculture’s Energy Efficiency & Conservation Loan Program funding to back the loans, but must assume the financial risk if a homeowner defaults on their loan payments.

Risk is a serious consideration for rural electric cooperatives that rarely have the funds to cover defaulted loans without passing that cost along to their members. In order to avoid disconnecting electricity when a homeowner defaults, some cooperatives are looking elsewhere for financial security.

The Home Energy Loan Program in Arkansas uses DOE funding to cover defaulted loans. Tammy Agard, who formed HELP, is working to implement it on a large scale. She is building a directory of reliable contractors and teamed up with Rob Moody, a software designer, to create an interactive smartphone application that shows day-to-day energy savings and alerts homeowners when their energy usage is above average.

Moody and Agard are currently fundraising for this developing project. “We think real results is what’s going to make this industry take off,” says Agard. Moody says the software could also monitor cooperatives’ carbon offsets from the retrofits, which will help them meet new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

In a region that hosts a waning coal industry, energy efficiency spurs economic development. How$mart has provided 11 jobs for Kentuckians, and Woolery was recently told that the program allowed a contractor to make three new hires. In Arkansas, HELP spurred 27 new jobs in just two years. “[Right] now that’s just a drop in the bucket, but can you imagine this at scale?” says Agard.

Appalachian Voices is promoting energy efficiency and on-bill financing in the region. Learn more at appvoices.org/energysavings

Schools Do the Math and Go Green

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Students at Henley Middle School in Crozet, Va. helped design an art installation powered by a solar panel. Photo courtesy Albemarle County Public Schools

Students at Henley Middle School in Crozet, Va. helped design an art installation powered by a solar panel. Photo courtesy Albemarle County Public Schools

By Lorelei Goff

A growing number of schools across Appalachia are going green with renewable energy and energy efficiency programs. Though the common denominator in budget-challenged Appalachian schools is cutting energy costs, students benefit from applied learning opportunities and communities feel the positive impact of sustainable practices.

In Tennessee, Greene County Schools cut their energy costs by $1 million over the last two years with a combination of 50-kilowatt solar arrays, an energy efficiency plan, and updating aging equipment.

According to Greene County Schools’ Energy Specialist Steve Tipton, the solar arrays were installed at no cost to the school system through a partnership with private investors brokered by the Tennessee-based company Terra Shares. The Tennessee Valley Authority utility doesn’t allow the schools to directly use the solar energy they produce, however, so the solar arrays feed directly into the grid and the school system receives corresponding credits on their electric bills.

“We have two different programs here at the schools, and solar is actually a small part,” says Tipton. “We have an energy conservation program, where we try … to reduce consumption through behavior modification. That’s where most of our savings comes from.”

The behavior modification program includes turning off lights as soon as students leave the building for the day and controlling the temperature in classrooms. The school has also upgraded aging equipment, such as water heaters and air conditioning, to more efficient models.

Dr. Cindy Bowman, principal of South Greene High School, says that having the solar arrays on campus provides a good tool for teaching about green energy and sustainability.

“My teacher that teaches pre-engineering will use it some, and sometimes our science people will use it,” says Bowman, adding, “We talk here a lot about green energy.”

To the west, Campbell County, Tenn., installed 13 solar arrays in its school system by using a similar business model with funding from private investors, brokered by Efficient Energy of Tennessee.

“They’re thrilled,” says Janet Holcomb, accounts manager with the company, noting that energy production has exceeded their initial projections.

But according to Holcomb,gradual changes in the TVA solar incentive program have placed limits on the amount of electricity that schools are allowed to produce and lowered the amount the utility pays for that electricity per kilowatt hour. Due to this, Efficient Energy can no longer attract solar investors to Tennessee to fund the school installations, and the program is at a standstill.

John Atkins of Terra Shares, the company that brokered Greene County’s program, says it’s unlikely that future solar projects of this type will be initiated in Tennessee schools under TVA’s current solar policies.

“I still have another dozen schools under contract [in] Greene County, but I cannot interest any investors to come to Tennessee,” says Atkins. “They can go to many, many other states, and invest the same money in exactly the same equipment and make a much higher return.”

Funding Solar Schools

In other parts of the region, state grants have helped Virginia schools to go green. Students in Albemarle County raised $40,000 toward solar panels in 2011, which helped the school district procure a number of state grants totalling over $212,000. Since the panels were installed, the school district has saved $25,000 on energy costs, using a combination of solar and wind power, lighting and equipment upgrades and improved building automation controls. Four of the schools in Albemarle also compost food waste from their cafeterias.

“Some of the teachers are using the systems in their lesson plans,” says Lindsay Check Snoddy, program manager for environment, energy and sustainability with Albemarle County Public Schools.

According to Snoddy, the educational opportunities of the solar system aren’t limited to science and math. An art class at Henley Middle School integrated demo solar panels with art to create and animate an outdoor art sculpture.

And in late May, the school system announced a partnership with Staunton, Va.-based solar company Secure Futures to install 3,000 solar panels on six schools, which will generate 1.3 million kilowatt-hours per year. The contract is the first between a third-party energy company and a school district in Virginia.

Solar energy companies have also shown support for the green schools movement by donating prizes for green competitions. The Asheville-Buncombe school system in North Carolina held its first ever Solar Schools Challenge last year. North Buncombe Middle School won the grand prize, a 1-kilowatt, grid-tied solar system donated by FLS Energy. The contest, part of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Solar Schools campaign, helped students learn about solar power and encouraged schools to seek creative ways to incorporate solar energy.

Elsewhere in the Tarheel State, NC Green Power, a nonprofit based in Raleigh, is offering schools across North Carolina an opportunity to apply for matching grants to fund small-scale solar photovoltaic systems.

Though green practices add up to savings on energy costs and more educational opportunities for Appalachia’s schools, varying regulations and funding means that all school systems aren’t on equal footing. For some, going green may require innovative funding that includes a variety of public and private sources.

The economic impact of energy efficiency

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015 - posted by Amy Kelly

Making the case for utility on-bill financing in the High Country

Several High Country businesses would see their customer base grow dramatically if an on-bill energy efficiency financing program was adopted by Blue Ridge Electric.

Several High Country businesses would see their customer bases grow dramatically if an on-bill energy efficiency financing program was adopted by Blue Ridge Electric.

While not as exciting as solar panels glimmering in the sunlight, energy efficiency retrofits can be just as important in reducing energy consumption, lowering utility bills, and making an economic impact. One such program that makes energy efficiency retrofits accessible on a large scale is utility on-bill financing.

On-bill financing programs are a way for utilities to offer energy efficiency upgrades with no up-front cost to customers. After receiving the upgrades, customers see immediate savings. A portion of the savings goes back to the utility to pay for the upgrades through residents’ monthly bills (hence the name on-bill). When the improvements are paid for, residents pocket all their utility savings, which could be up to a 40 percent reduction in their bill. In turn, residents are able to use what they would otherwise be spending on electric bills to further stimulate the local economy.

Energy efficiency upgrades covered by most on-bill financing programs include air sealing, insulation, duct sealing, and heat pump repair or replacement, depending on what needed improvements are identified through energy audits. General contractors have specialized in energy efficiency certifications in order to do this work. Because this work is more labor intensive, every dollar that is redirected from the energy sector and spent in the home improvement industry has a more prominent impact on the local economy and jobs.

According to The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a dollar spent in the local economy has more than double the positive effect on domestic employment and wages of spending a dollar on utility bills. John Kidda is the founder of reNew Home, Inc., a Boone-based home energy improvement company. “An additional $300,000 annual revenue stream would be a game changer for my business,” he says. “It would mean at least two new employees.”

The ideal on-bill financing program is accessible to everyone because it is tied to the meter, meaning once the renter or homeowner moves, the on-bill financing charge will not follow them but will instead be paid by the next occupant or owner who will also see savings. The program that works best also operates without a credit check, with eligibility instead being based on utility payment history, thereby removing traditional barriers of getting a loan.

Appalachian Voices is working in the High Country to promote and help develop programs that will benefit residents who are suffering from poorly constructed or aging homes. Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation (BRE) provides electricity to most of the High Country. The rural electric cooperative serves approximately 66,500 residential customers.

A report produced by Appalachian Voices in early 2014 found that a larger portion of BRE members’ income goes to utility bills than the national average. If Blue Ridge Electric offered on-bill financing, and, if just 1 percent of its residential customers took a $7,500 loan:

• $5 million could be spent on energy efficiency projects in a 5-year period
• 70 total jobs could be created from that investment
• $600 a year could be the amount the average household saves (the customer would pocket $120 a year until the improvements are paid in full.)
• Another 80 jobs could be created from the reinvestment of this saved money in local goods and services

Several businesses already focus on weatherization and energy efficiency improvements in the High Country, and could see their businesses grow if an on-bill finance program were in place. “If there were financing available, I would be hiring local contractors to improve the homes in our local area,” says Sam Zimmerman, President of Sunny Day Homes. “It means local jobs and reduced reliance on fossil fuels while improving home value and comfort.”

With an average 23 percent poverty rate in Blue Ridge Electric’s service area, this program would help raise the market accessibility for companies such as Sunny Day Homes and reduce the cost of living for families some of whom are barely making it. “The economic benefits are dramatic for the people who get the jobs and the people who get the work done,” Zimmerman says.

Energy efficiency and on-bill financing programs would have a significant and positive impact on all of the area’s weatherization businesses says Will Hadaway, founder of HomEfficient. “My usual crew consists of myself and two others,” Hadaway remarks. “This would equate to 2/3 to 3/4 of a years worth of work for us, and that is very significant to say the least.”

Kent Walker of Blue Ridge Energy Works agrees that the program could have a significant impact and provide a steady stream of work for his business. “BRE could really stimulate the economy with this program!” says Walker.

You can help bring energy efficiency programs like on-bill financing to the High Country. If you’re a member of BRE, sign a letter to support on-bill financing today! If BRE is not your electric provider, visit Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Action Center to ask your utility to support energy efficiency initiatives.

The job estimates were calculated using state and region-wide values reported from a 2013 Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance report. Loan investment and average annual household savings were calculated by Appalachian Voices.

South Fork Sharestead

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

An Idea About What Is Possible

By Eliza Laubach

A brick house off Hwy. 58 just west of Damascus, Va., stands out in a curious way. Flowerbeds have replaced the blacktop driveway and small fruit trees dot the front yard. To the side, on top of a large shed, sit four blue barrels spray-painted with the letters L-O-V-E — a message easily seen from the busy road.

"Our goal this year is less grass," says Jonathan Towers. He already grows enough food to donate surplus to neighbors or a family in need.

“Our goal this year is less grass,” says Jonathan Towers. He already grows enough food to donate surplus to neighbors or a family in need.

Rarely does Jonathan Towers advertise his home as the South Fork Sharestead, although the name accurately describes his one and a half acres. “It was basically created to share with both the people who are here and the community,” says Towers. He and his wife Carol, both in their 60s, converted his two-car garage into a living space for themselves. The sharesteaders — up to four at a time — live in the house. Most of them are from the surrounding area and are at least a generation younger than the couple.

Courtney Rowle, 26, moved in 18 months ago after meeting the Towers at a restaurant where she worked in Damascus. The sharestead is the longest she has lived anywhere since leaving the Marine Corps. “I call this the refuge,” says Rowle. While exemplifying intergenerational living, those at the sharestead strive for resource conservation and a low-impact lifestyle.

He says his endeavors are a fearless preparation for an uncertain future affected by climate change. He hopes when people drive by and see the LOVE barrels, in the background at right, they will be reminded of the primary driver of his actions. Photos by Elize Laubach.

He says his endeavors are a fearless preparation for an uncertain future affected by climate change. He hopes when people drive by and see the LOVE barrels, in the background at right, they will be reminded of the primary driver of his actions. Photos by Eliza Laubach.

In the six years since he moved from Boone, N.C., Towers has transformed his average American home into an energy-efficient, food-abundant powerhouse. By retrofitting the house to be energy efficient and maintaining a strong commitment to energy conservation, their utility bill has dropped 75 percent. The Towers started with little things, such as line-drying clothes. Soon their next-door neighbors had a line out, too. “We realized it could be a demonstration house,” says Jonathan.

The couple models sustainable living on a budget. A wood stove, along with extra insulation in the attic and curtains made out of sleeping bags, replaced the central heating and air conditioning system. A water tank on the back of the woodstove and a solar shower have greatly reduced the use of their hot water heater, which, like the windows, is covered in a down Army-surplus sleeping bag.

Towers allows function to determine placement. He found that a chest freezer operating on a warmer setting uses a lot less energy than a refrigerator. To move hot air without a central heating system, he installed fans into the walls above many doors in the house.

Garden beds in his front yard follow pathway borders, and in the backyard are two round gardens that host intensive, small-scale vegetable cultivation. Towers devised these gardens as a system the average person, of any age, could easily tend. Their accessible shape allows a gardener to easily grow an abundance of food in a compact space, he says. Fencing encircles each plot and a drainage pipe snakes underground, emerging outside the fence, to be supplied with rainwater reserved from his roof. He remembers harvesting more than 500 pounds of tomatoes from the two 220-square-foot spaces one year.

A barn housing two horses and 11 chickens features a greenhouse on the south side. A passive solar design lights and ventilates the barn, a system that Towers also applied to his basement to make it comfortable without a dehumidifier.

“If there is something here that somebody is interested in doing, we do it,” says Towers. “We’ve let everything evolve here rather than coming in thinking we know everything.” He doesn’t invite people to live at the sharestead to learn from him and Carol, but to learn with them.

The Towers have espoused this belief since they first moved to Damascus with their friends, Steve and Ashley Ahn. Steve describes his family as quite typical before they met the Towers, but they wanted to do something different. The Ahns and their three young children moved into the brick house with the Towers in an exploration of extended-family living.

Eventually, the Ahns bought their own house nearby and cultivate a homestead there, and the two families have grown even closer. The Towers help the Ahns build on land in the backcountry of Grayson County, a purchase the Towers also helped finance. “They are like our adopted parents,” says Steve.

Jonathan’s mantra, “that we each need to take personal responsibility for our wellbeing,” empowers the sharesteaders’ reasoning. He thinks in terms of perpetual inner growth, a philosophy he and Carol promote among other residents in the home.

Rowle takes this seriously, as her educational experience at the sharestead is enriched by an apprenticeship with a local Native American medicine woman. She credits the grounding support she finds with Jonathan and Carol as an incubator for her projects. “When you have to share with other people you start to grow,” she says. “You start thinking about the other person, kind of like a family.”

Two historic homes get some TLC energy

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by eliza

Sean Dunlap and his wife Lynnea McElreath live in a wood-slat farmhouse in Boone, N.C. built in 1938 by Lynnea’s great-grandfather. They bought the house and moved in eight years ago and have been slowly refurbishing the house ever since. Sean describes living in their drafty house in the wintertime as “frustrating and expensive.”

In January, the DIY couple won $800 worth of energy upgrades in Appalachian Voices’ “High Country Home Energy Contest.” John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit so they will have a detailed report to use for future projects. He was astounded to find that Sean and Lynnea’s house leaks air 10 times more than an average home.

“Your house is so drafty,” John said to Lynnea during the energy audit, “that it is overpowering the exhaust fans. I’ve never seen that before.”

Starting a family has halted the couple’s progress on most projects due to a diminished budget and time. “Having an infant in a house that gets really, really cold in the wintertime is an additional stress,” says Sean. They have used extra blankets and space heaters to stay comfortable, but, in part due to education they they received from Appalachian Voices, are aware that energy efficiency is the solution.

When she’s not taking care of her children, Lynnea enjoys researching how to modernize their home, which led her to discover Appalachian Voices’ contest last fall. Sean knew their house was drafty, but was at a loss to stop it. “I don’t think we really understood the causes,” he says.

After working with our Energy Savings for Appalachia team, Sean and Lynnea are finding out what they can do to alleviate the exacerbated “chimney effect” of a leaky house.

They had recently installed a wood-burning furnace in their basement, which decreases their heating costs substantially. Before, their utility bills averaged around $330 a month. The insulation and air-sealing they were awarded will ensure that the heated air stays in their house and the cold air stays out. This results in the Dunlaps using a lot less energy to keep their home warm and comfortable in the winter. The energy audit they received as part of the contest gives them a roadmap for future improvements.

Another couple benefits from energy efficiency

Vance and Thelma Woodie also live in an old home. Their historic home near downtown West Jefferson, N.C. was once heated by a coal-stoker furnace. Coal still litters the basement floor. Vance, a Korean War veteran, bought the home with the help of the G.I. bill. It had a major roof leak and they spent all they had to get it fixed. “Back then we didn’t have nothing; we still don’t have nothing,” says Vance.

They have replaced that furnace with a modern one, but the 80-year-old duct system needs updating. There is even still asbestos tape on the duct that heats their kitchen. They had improved the house little by little each year, but when Vance retired, they could no longer afford upgrades on a fixed income.

Even though they close off part of their second floor during the winter, they still spent an average of 15 percent of their income on utility bills before the awarded retrofit. Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance, completed a walk-through energy assessment of their house as part of their prize. He identified the duct system as the place where the highest energy impact will be seen. The air loses heat as it travels through the ducts, and even warms the basement, because the duct system is not insulated or sealed. This means that the heater has to work even harder to heat the house to the temperature the Woodies want, resulting in a substantial amount of wasted energy.

He also explained to the Woodies a major air quality problem. One of the air intake vents is in the hand-dug basement, which means their heating system is taking up air, and dust along with it, from the basement to heat and distribute throughout the house. “Oh I notice it,” says Thelma. “When it first comes through I usually put my hand over my nose.”

As runners-up in our “High Country Home Energy Contest,” the Woodies have had their duct system sealed and insulated.

“I know it’ll help a whole lot,” says Vance of the energy upgrades he won. Living in the High Country his whole life, he knows that there will be another cold snap before trout season starts, the first weekend of April. The Energy Savings team will be keeping track of his energy use through a partnership with ResiSpeak, a program that takes weather into account when comparing monthly and annual energy usage.

The Energy Savings team is working with a local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to explore the development of a utility-implemented program that provides a loan for home energy retrofits. Blue RIdge Electric wants to be sure that any new programs do not cost its members. On-bill financing would increase access to energy efficiency to a service territory with a 23 percent poverty rate.

The contest culled members of Blue Ridge Electric that spend a disproportionate amount of money on their energy bills compared to the whole service territory. The average applicant pays more than double on their energy bills than the average Blue Ridge Electric member, and three times the national energy bill average.

Vance says he would take advantage of an on-bill financing program. “People like me can’t come up with the money when they need it,” Vance says, “It would help a lot of people.”

Check out our High Country Campaign where you can sign on to our petition to Blue Ridge Electric or send a letter of support for energy efficiency and ask Blue Ridge Electric to do more for its members.

TVA 20-year Plan Heavy on Natural Gas, Nuclear

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

The Tennessee Valley Authority announced in March that it will not need to build a new power plant for at least 20 years. The utility, which covers all of Tennessee and parts of neighboring states, plans to address future power demand by increasing nuclear power output, retrofitting coal-fired power plants to burn natural gas, and utilizing energy efficiency programs.

While TVA recently funded a nuclear reactor to go online in Tennessee by this December, making it the first public utility to do so in the 21st century, it is abandoning construction on a $6 billion nuclear power plant project in Alabama. The utility is also holding off on plans to build a high-voltage power line that would carry wind power from Texas and Oklahoma.

Campaign to Bring Energy Savings to the High Country Gaining Momentum

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

The High Country Home Energy Contest has come to a close, but the winners are already seeing tangible results from the upgrades they won. We received a playful painting made by the young children of contest runners-up Sean Dunlap and Lynnea McElreath, and will soon be releasing a video detailing the impact of the contest. Visit appvoices.org/energycontest to explore the winners’ stories and pictures of the retrofitting process!

Our team is also gathering signatures of support for a strong energy efficiency loan program from Blue Ridge Electric. We are in discussions with the North Carolina electric membership cooperative about how to make energy efficiency more accessible to its members, including low-income residents, and want the cooperative leadership to know that its members support a financing model that works for all. Visit appvoices.org/eesupport to learn more and sign on.