Posts Tagged ‘Energy Efficiency’

The Energy Burden

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Inefficient housing and financial difficulties can lead to insurmountable energy bills for rural residents

By Lou Murrey

Left, Gerlene Wilmoth surveys the damage to the foundation of their home in Tazewell, Tenn. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Gerlene Wilmoth surveys the damage to the foundation of their home in Tazewell, Tenn. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Gerlene and Ronald Wilmoth of Tazewell, Tenn., had always paid their electric bill on time.

That is, until August of 2015 when Ronald suffered a stroke at the age of 55 that left him unable to use much of the right side of his body and unable to return to his job as a truck driver. Gerlene had to quit her job cleaning homes to take care of her husband. With both of them unable to work, the couple’s monthly income was reduced to just $400 a month to cover all of their expenses.

Their home is drafty and in desperate need of repairs to the roof and foundation, which has led to high electric bills and uncomfortable living conditions. It turns out that $400 a month doesn’t stretch far for residents trying to pay for everyday living expenses on top of medical bills and high utility bills.

Residents in East Tennessee, like in many places across Appalachia, spend a significant portion of their income on energy bills. When federal funding for utility payment assistance and weatherization can’t meet the need, it falls on a small number of local service agencies and churches to fill the gap. Many of these service agencies and churches already struggle to help everyone in their communities who needs it, but with threats to federal funding, they may face an even greater demand. Relief could take the form of energy efficiency programs through the Tennessee Valley Authority and local power companies.

Available Resources

For the first few months following Ronald’s stroke, he and Gerlene received aid from the few service agencies who provide utility bill payment assistance around Claiborne County. First Baptist Church of New Tazewell was able to pay one month. Manna House, a Christian charity that offers one-time bill relief, was able to pay $25 the next, and the Claiborne County Office on Aging was then able to pay for three months’ worth of bills. The Wilmoths also received the maximum available $450 from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program known as LIHEAP, but that only covered two months’ worth of electric bills.

Then came July of 2016, when temperatures in Claiborne County consistently hovered in the low nineties. The heat was relentless, and it got especially bad for Gerlene and Ronald when the heat pump responsible for their air conditioning broke down and temperatures in their home reached 95 degrees, sending Ronald to the hospital for heat exhaustion.

As if the stress of Ronald’s hospitalization wasn’t enough, right as they reached the last little bit of their LIHEAP money, July’s electric bill arrived. Gerlene felt like she’d been socked in the gut. It was the highest one yet, at $225, and not knowing where she was going to turn for help, she started to feel a little panicky. She began making phone calls to just about everyone who had helped her before in the hope that they might be able to help again. This time she had no luck.

 Rust stains indicate  water damage on the side of the Wilmoths’ home. Photo by Lou Murrey

Rust stains indicate water damage on the side of the Wilmoths’ home. Photo by Lou Murrey

“I was totally freaking out,” says Gerlene. “I called so many people, and they wouldn’t have the resources to be able to help, so they would refer me to someone else, and they wouldn’t have the resources either.”

Having seemingly exhausted all of her resources, it felt like there was nowhere to turn for Gerlene. She remembers the terrifying feeling of helplessness.

“I was almost in disbelief,” she says, recalling her reaction at the time. “Like, how are we gonna pay it? They are gonna cut it off. With him being sick in July is when he had the heat exhaustion, and with that and the power bill being so high, how can we pay this? They are going to turn our power off, and we are going to smother in here.”

High Bills, High Need

Of course, churches and service agencies intend to help as many people as possible. But, according to Terry Ramsey at the Claiborne County East Tennessee Human Resource Agency office, they are struggling to keep up with the demand. ETHRA is a regional agency that serves 12 counties, and Ramsey says, “we try to help as many people we can. We go above and beyond.”

The U.S. Department of Energy defines energy burden as the “ratio of energy expenditures to household income.” According to a 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s study “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low Income and Underserved Communities,” the energy burden for low-income households is nearly three times higher than that of higher income households.

According to economist Roger Colton, an affordable energy burden for any household in the United States should not exceed 6 percent of a household’s gross income. Colton concluded in his 2015 study of the Home Energy Affordability Gap that low-income families were paying far more than that, depending on where they were in the country.

In East Tennessee, households earning 50 percent below the federal poverty line spend around 30 percent of their income on utilities, according to data from Colton’s firm. Gerlene and Ronald’s energy burden was around 50 percent of their household income.

The ACEEE study found that high energy burdens are primarily caused by inefficiencies in the home such as lack of insulation, leaky roofs, inefficient appliances and improper air sealing. But this is exacerbated by a person’s economic situation, high fixed utility rates and insufficient or inaccessible weatherization and bill assistance programs.

Lack of home weatherization is definitely a major factor in causing the Wilmoths’ high energy burden. “Where we don’t have the insulation and weatherization it’s too hot in the summer months and too cold in the winter months,” Gerlene says.

“My feet stay cold more than anything where the air comes up through the floor,” she says, reasoning that there can’t be much insulation under the house. In their bedroom there is a grapefruit-sized hole in the floor. She knows there are multiple roof leaks around their home because when it rains, water runs down the walls. Pointing to the kitchen, Gerlene continues, “when it rains, water blows in from the vent above the stove, and water comes in behind the stove.”

The Wilmoths have replaced all the their incandescent lightbulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents, but the major air leaks in the couple’s home resulting from improper sealing around doors and windows, a leaky roof and poor insulation are likely the greatest contributors to their high electric bill.

Where the Wilmoths live, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program is provided by ETHRA. Gerlene and Ronald are on the waiting list for ETHRA’s Weatherization Assistance Program, but the waiting list for Claiborne County alone is around 280 homes. As of November 2016, 2,709 families were on the waiting list for all 12 counties that ETHRA serves.

Steve Bandy, operations director of housing and energy services at ETHRA, reports that despite the long waiting list, the agency only has funding to complete 41 homes in the 2016-2017 budget year. At that rate it would take approximately 66 years to weatherize all the homes — if no new homes were added to the list.

Finding Relief

Part of the reason for the low number of homes being weatherized in East Tennessee is not enough funding.

“More funding would be great, if it was available, you’d be able to help more families,” says Lisa Condrey, ETHRA’s finance director of housing and energy services. “Because 41 families this year is not a whole lot. We serve 12 counties, so in some counties we are only able to serve two or three families.”

The funding ship may have sailed, though. Since 1976, funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program has been provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and has helped over 7 million families in the United States reduce their energy burden through energy efficiency upgrades to their home. On Jan. 19, the political news website The Hill reported that a blueprint of the Trump Administration’s proposed 2017-2018 budget included massive cuts to a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy. With the new administration threatening to gut the Department of Energy, the future of the Weatherization Assistance Program is uncertain.

Weatherization improvements such as sealing leaky air ducts, adding insulation and replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems can provide a long-term fix for a high energy burden since they take care of the home inefficiencies that cause high utility bills in the first place.

For people like Gerlene who need help immediately, there is LIHEAP. Funding for LIHEAP comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in Tennessee it is administered by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency through human resource agencies like ETHRA.

When Ronald Wilmoth had his heat exhaustion episode, his cat wouldn’t leave his side until the ambulance arrived.  Photo by Lou Murrey

When Ronald Wilmoth had his heat exhaustion episode, his cat wouldn’t leave his side until the ambulance arrived. Photo by Lou Murrey

LIHEAP is the nation’s largest source of federal funding for utility bill assistance, and it is available to low-income households once in a 12-month period. Kathy Hicks, LIHEAP coordinator for ETHRA, says they receive around 5,500 applications each year from residents in the 12 counties they serve and are able to provide assistance to all of those clients.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that only about 22 percent of people eligible for LIHEAP nationwide apply. Local nonprofit organizations, churches and service agencies are left to fill in the gap, meeting the demand the best they can with the limited resources they have.

In rural areas like Claiborne County, there are only so many places to turn for energy bill payment assistance. In addition, areas served by rural electric cooperatives generally have higher energy burdens due in part to aging homes, higher electricity rates and lower average incomes, according to Rory McIlmoil, energy savings program manager at Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

This means a smaller number of agencies have a large gap to fill. Last year, First Baptist Church in New Tazewell, Tenn., received around 200 calls from people asking for bill assistance.

“We used to provide assistance once every six months but [the demand] was too much. It got to a point that people called every six months, and the church and the team had to come to a decision that we could only do every 12 months, and we only serve people living in Tazewell and New Tazewell,” explains Beverly, the administrative assistant at First Baptist Church, who asked that her last name not be used.

The Wilmoths sealed a door shut to keep air from escaping. Photo by Lou Murrey

The Wilmoths sealed a door shut to keep air from escaping. Photo by Lou Murrey

The demand for utility assistance wasn’t always so high. She explains that the church saw an uptick in demand a couple years ago when the local electric cooperative, Powell Valley Electric, ended their WeCare program, a donation-funded program that paid $50 toward the bill of members in need during the winter months. According to Powell Valley Electric, they ended the program when not enough people were donating to the fund.

Where do people like Gerlene go when they’ve exhausted all the resources available to them? Denise West, director of the Claiborne County Office on Aging, says if someone has already been to First Baptist Church and Manna House, then she sends them back to ETHRA to apply for LIHEAP again. She can also help provide assistance to people over the age of 60 through a client-needs grant from the United Way.

“If we have the resource we’ll help them, but what we can’t do is pay people’s bill month after month after month. You can’t keep doing that, there has to be some kind of change made somewhere,” West says. She worked first-hand with Gerlene to see if they could make that change and find her the help she needed. “When you see people in that shape, first of all you’re angry because it takes so long to get help, and secondly you’re more willing to help them because you know they’ve done everything they can to help themselves,” West says.

Home Improvements

Advocates in the region agree that there does have to be a change made somewhere. While these programs provide emergency assistance, they don’t address the fact that too many people are living in inefficient homes without the money, ability or programs to fix them.

There are programs in Tennessee aside from the Weatherization Assistance Program that can provide energy efficiency upgrades, but the majority of those are in cities. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the federally owned energy generator for most of Tennessee and parts of six other states, funded Extreme Energy Makeover programs in Knoxville, Cleveland and Oak Ridge through a 2011 Clean Air Act violation settlement. Though the funding for these programs will end in September 2017, the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover program will have been able to weatherize 1,200 homes.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In an August 2016 meeting between TVA staff and low-income stakeholders in Claiborne County, Gerlene and the other community members in attendance wondered why TVA couldn’t replicate the program in the more rural areas of its territory. TVA staff member Michael Scalf told community members at the meeting that while TVA “would love to see the Extreme Energy Makeover valley-wide,” there are already state programs, churches, and nonprofits already doing energy efficiency upgrades and TVA is more interested in how these entities can work better together to provide much needed services.

Increasingly, inclusive on-bill financing for energy efficiency upgrades is being adopted by rural electric cooperatives across the Southeast. An example of an inclusive model for on-bill financing is Pay As You Save, which is tied to the electric meter and would allow people living in rental and multi-family homes to receive energy efficiency upgrades and pay for them through low-interest monthly payments on their electric bill. The energy upgrades not only benefit people by reducing their energy burden and making their home more comfortable, they also lower costs for the utility.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative in Eastern North Carolina launched an on-bill finance program called Upgrade to $ave in early 2015. According to Roanoke, the first 175 participants received an average of more than $6,000 per home in efficiency improvements, including weatherization and new heating and cooling systems. Those homes are saving nearly $500 a year on their electric bills, even after accounting for repaying the utility for the initial investment. Unfortunately, Roanoke’s program is the only one available in the Southeast, outside of Kentucky.

Before the Wilmoths’ electricity could be cut off, they received Ronald’s first disability payment and were able to pay July’s $225 electric bill. Since he started getting disability the couple has not sought help for their electric bills, but they have not had any weatherization done on their home either. Their electric bill has not gone down — in December their bill was $263.

That is money Gerlene has better uses for. “I need tires for my car and can’t get ‘em because the utilities are too high,” she contends. The Wilmoths still find themselves having to decide between being comfortable in their home and having enough money for food and medical bills. “We usually try to keep the heat at 65 in the winter, but where he’s on the blood thinner he freezes to death so we have to turn it up,” she explains, referring to her husband.

While she is glad Ronald got his disability money, she is frustrated that their food assistance got reduced to just $15 a month as a result. In January, rains flooded the Wilmoths’ bathroom and bedroom, and they learned that Ronald will be needing heart surgery. Gerlene sighs, “You just can’t get ahead.”

Lou Murrey serves as the OSMRE/VISTA Tennessee Outreach Associate with Appalachian Voices. Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ energy efficiency work at appvoices.org/energysavings

Serving residents by saving energy

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017 - posted by Katie Kienbaum

LightBulb

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.

MLK Challenge 2017

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.

Materials for these projects were donated by Watauga Building Supply, which had also donated materials to an Appalachian Voices service project in 2015, and by Lowe’s Home Improvement of Lenoir.

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.

Read more about the MLK Challenge and our work!

Lighting up the night with the Daylight Savings Challenge

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Watauga County resident Lydia Head with volunteers Sarah Merlotte and Hannah Emery (not pictured: Taylor Petty) Photo: Katie Kienbaum

Watauga County resident Lydia Head with volunteers Sarah Merlotte and Hannah Emery (not pictured: Taylor Petty)
Photo: Katie Kienbaum

To get through the dark evenings since Daylight Saving Time ended on November 6, people are turning on more lights for longer periods of time. Unfortunately, this means that their energy use and electricity bills go up.

Winter heating costs already place a great burden on many Appalachian families, with energy bills sometimes amounting to more than 20% of total family income. High bills are often the result of leaky, inefficient homes, but, making energy efficiency improvements are prohibitively expensive for those struggling the most with their electricity bills.

To make this winter a little easier for folks facing high energy bills, Appalachian Voices devised the Daylight Savings Challenge. We challenged students at Appalachian State University to help us replace as many lights as we could with energy-efficient LED light bulbs by the Daylight Saving time change on November 6.

Volunteer Kaytlin Hester-Newnam installs an energy efficient LED light bulb. Photo: Ridge Graham

Volunteer Kaytlin Hester-Newnam installs an energy efficient LED light bulb.
Photo: Ridge Graham

The new LED bulbs, donated to Appalachian Voices by Hospitality House, use 75% less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs. Replacing a single, frequently used incandescent bulb with an LED could save up to $15 a year. LEDs also last longer (sometimes up to 25,000 hours or 25 years) and do not contain potentially hazardous material, such as the mercury found in compact fluorescent light bulbs. With lower prices and more bulb and color options than ever before, now is the time to switch to LED lighting.

For the Daylight Savings Challenge, five student volunteers helped us distribute almost 100 energy efficient LED light bulbs to seniors across Watauga County, N.C. By the extended end date of November 15, we replaced nearly all of the light bulbs in six homes at no cost to the residents. To locate participants, we partnered with Watauga County Project on Aging, which provides services to senior citizens, many of whom live on fixed incomes which makes it hard to afford energy efficiency upgrades.

Some seniors also have limited mobility and face difficulties replacing burned out bulbs. Installing the longer-lasting LED light bulbs extends the amount of time before the bulb will have to be replaced again. “I couldn’t even go down [to the basement] to see how many were burned out,” said Lydia Head of Boone, N.C. “We are very thankful.”

All together, the replaced bulbs should save the participants at least $280 (about 3,390 kWh) a year. That translates to about 1.75 tons of coal that won’t get burned and more than four tons of carbon dioxide pollution that won’t contribute to climate change. And since these LED bulbs last approximately five years, the participants will save energy year after year.

It’s not too late to switch! Replace the light bulbs in your home with energy efficient LEDs to save your pocketbook and the planet.

Daylight Savings Challenge

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

volunteer installing lightbulb

ASU student Kaytlin Hester-Newmann installs an LED light bulb.


To get through the dark evenings since Daylight Savings Time ended on November 6, people are turning on more lights for longer periods of time. Unfortunately, this means that their energy use and electricity bills go up. Winter heating costs combined with increased lighting use can make it even harder for some families to afford their electricity bills.

To make this winter a little easier, Appalachian Voices devised the Daylight Savings Challenge. Our Energy Savings team partnered with student volunteers from Appalachian State University to distribute almost 100 energy efficient LED light bulbs to six seniors across Watauga County, N.C. The new LED bulbs, donated by Hospitality House, last longer than traditional incandescents and use 75 percent less energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. All together, the participants should save at least $280 a year on their energy bills, which is equivalent to about 1.75 tons of coal. Over five years, that amounts to a savings of approximately $1,400 and almost nine tons of coal!

French Broad Energy Forum is a Success

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne
forum attendees

Attendees at the French Broad Energy Forum listen to a presentation on energy efficiency.

On Nov. 16, nearly 60 citizens attended an energy efficiency information session for members of the French Broad Electric Membership Corp., an electric cooperative that serves six rural counties in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee.

They came out to learn about and discuss how on-bill financing — a method that makes paying for home energy efficiency improvements more affordable — could improve their lives and local economies.

The forum brought together members of the co-op, local government and economic development representatives, community service agencies, numerous businesses and a regional development council. It 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.

Speakers included: Eliza Laubach, who was serving her last day as our Energy Savings Outreach Associate; Rory McIlmoil, our Energy Policy Director; representatives from Neighbors in Need, Community Housing Coalition and Southern Reconciliation House; Wesley Holmes of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance; John Kidda, President of reNew Home Inc.; and Sam Hutchins, French Broad’s Member Services Manager.

The forum showed how hard these communities work to assist residents and 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.

French Broad communities broadly support on-bill financing

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016 - posted by rory
Community members in the French Broad electric co-op service area in western NC attend a forum on energy efficiency.

Community members in the French Broad electric co-op service area in western NC attend a forum on energy efficiency.

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.

Boone community comes together to tackle energy waste

Thursday, October 20th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Last week, the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting brought together stakeholders from across Boone, N.C., to discuss the problem of energy waste in the town and explore possible solutions.

Attendees included Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz, Karla Rusch from Appalachian State University, Phil Trew from the High Country Council of Governments, Jeremy Barnes from Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Tommy Brown from F.A.R.M. Cafe and Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Energy Savings team.

One of the biggest challenges identified by the stakeholders was the quality of Boone’s existing housing stock. Properties that were built quickly to house Boone’s growing population and Appalachian State University’s students often prioritized expedience and profit over energy efficiency. The design of some properties even encourages energy waste.

Several stakeholders shared stories of students and ASU staff having to open their apartment or office windows during winter to control the room temperature because there was only one thermostat for the entire building. Boone resident Barbara Talman also pointed out that many homes in the area were originally built for summer use only and were therefore not properly insulated. Now, those homes are being lived in all year round, and the residents are stuck with high energy bills in the winter.

Weatherizing and retrofitting these inefficient buildings is a challenge. The high upfront costs of upgrades are a barrier to improving home energy efficiency, not only in Boone but across the nation. Boone also has a high proportion of renters. Owner-occupied housing accounts for just 20.2 percent of housing units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Landlords for rental properties are less likely than homeowners to invest in energy efficiency because they don’t pay the electricity bills, or otherwise lack incentive to invest thousands of dollars to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The programs that do exist to help finance home energy upgrades are often not available to renters. This includes Blue Ridge Electric’s new Energy SAVER Loan Program and the housing rehabilitation programs administered by the High Country Council of Governments.

Even if financing is available for retrofits, finding qualified workers to complete the upgrades can be a headache. Tommy Brown, the volunteer coordinator at F.A.R.M. Cafe and a participant in the Energy SAVER Loan Program, pointed out the lack of local contractors, especially in the heating and cooling sector. Brown received the loan in June, but he is still waiting for work on his home to begin because no contractors are available.

Meeting participants came up with several ways to expand the number of qualified contractors, including improving communication of workforce needs and increasing funding for workforce training. In addition, developing affordable housing in the town of Boone would ensure that the newly trained workforce stays in the region and can help make the town more energy efficient.

The issue of energy efficiency is just one piece of a larger affordable housing puzzle here in Boone. According to Mayor Rennie Brantz, only two town employees live within town limits because the high demand for housing makes finding an affordable place to live nearly impossible. For the same reason, many of the employees at ASU commute to work from outside of Boone. The creation of affordable, non-student housing in town would cut down on energy waste from long commutes and contribute to the development of a sustainable economy.

Another solution proposed at the stakeholder meeting would be for the town government to actively promote energy efficiency. Officials could create something similar to the town’s successful water conservation program that would target energy waste in Boone. Housing ordinances could also be used to mandate certain efficiency measures.

Several participants noted ASU’s longstanding commitment to sustainability and pointed out that there’s an opportunity for the university to collaborate with the Town of Boone to develop efficiency solutions. The students at ASU are also a useful resource. Many students care about environmental issues and could be leveraged to demand energy efficiency upgrades from rental companies. The student rental market is very competitive due to an excess in supply of at least 2,000, so the rental companies would likely respond to student pressure. ASU could even develop a system to rank student rental properties based on how efficient they are to encourage companies to invest in energy upgrades.

Overall, while some key local stakeholders were unable to attend the meeting, Appalachian Voices and the stakeholders who attended agreed that it was a good first step toward identifying comprehensive solutions that could help tackle the problem of energy waste for the Town of Boone. To continue the conversation, Appalachian Voices will be organizing a second meeting in early December to further discuss these solutions.

Do you know someone that should be at these meetings, or are you interested in attending yourself? Contact Rory McIlmoil at 828-262-1500 or rory@appvoices.org to let us know.

Home Projects to Save Energy and Money

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Story and photos by Adam Sheffield

Harper Robinson of Conservation Pros connects a water heater blanket by applying insulation tape.

Harper Robinson of Conservation Pros connects a water heater blanket by applying insulation tape.


The inevitable colder temperatures of winter can lead to rising energy costs — is your home ready? To help you prepare, Appalachian Voices recently produced several short videos where energy efficiency experts demonstrate ways to lower your home’s energy use. These straightforward upgrades can lower your energy bill as well as help you protect the environment by consuming less energy.

Below are several tips and energy-saving projects from the “Heating and Cooling” and “Water Heating” videos that you can do yourself.

To watch instructional videos about these and other home energy efficiency projects, visit appvoices.org/energy-diy

Heating & Cooling

Turning down your thermostat in the winter uses less energy and saves money.

Turning down your thermostat in the winter uses less energy and saves money.


John Kidda of reNew Homes, Inc., in Boone, N.C., discusses the energy saving benefits of using programmable thermostats as a way to save on heating and cooling bills.

Programmable thermostats allow residents to set the temperature in their home based on their schedule, removing the need to leave the air conditioner or heat running on high while away at work or asleep. During winter, set the thermostat to a lower temperature while you’re away from home or in bed, and program your thermostat to increase the heat right before you normally come home or wake up. Some thermostats can even be adjusted from a mobile device.

Kidda points out that when a home is properly insulated and air leakage is minimized, the thermostat can be set to lower temperatures because heat is not being lost. “One interesting thing is that once you better insulate a house and make it less drafty, you actually will feel more comfortable at a lower temperature,” Kidda says.

Insulation & Air Leakage

Caulking cracks and crevices reduces air leakage to unfinished areas of your home.

Caulking cracks and crevices reduces air leakage to unfinished areas of your home.


Harper Robinson, project manager with Conservation Pros in Asheville, N.C., demonstrates proper installation of crawl space insulation and sealing of attic drafts in this video. According to Robinson, insulation should be positioned with the paper side facing the direction you want to keep warm. Insulation can be held in place by using short metal rods between joists in the crawl space. Robinson also applies a spray foam sealant to an attic’s gaps and crevices, inhibiting air from escaping the finished areas of the home.

Water Heaters

Slight turns of the dial adjust the tank’s temperature.

Slight turns of the dial adjust the tank’s temperature.


Keeping a home’s water heater at an appropriate temperature is a simple way to save energy. Remove the tank’s small access panel and locate the temperature dial. Adjust the dial up or down with a small coin or screwdriver. Optimal temperature settings release shower and tap water that is hot to the touch without having to be diluted with cold water. When temperatures are too high, the tank uses more energy to maintain consistently hot water and risks scalding skin. But water heaters should be set to at least 120 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid bacterial growth inside the tank.

Robinson explains that wrapping your tank with an insulation blanket can maintain heat within. Another way to retain warm water is to wrap the first few feet of pipe coming out of the tank with pipe-specific insulating material, such as foam tubing or insulation strips.

Gathering Communities in East Tennessee

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

In East Tennessee, residents view the Tennessee Valley Authority’s original purpose of providing electricity while also serving the “common good” as a relic of the past. Bill McCabe, a resident of Hancock County, which has the second-highest poverty rate in the state, expressed this sentiment at a meeting in August organized by Appalachian Voices. Other community members and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy were also present to offer suggestions for energy efficiency programs with TVA representatives.

Also in August was the annual TVA board meeting, where the Tennessee team worked on generating public comments and organizing local voices to speak to the need for stronger investments in energy efficiency improvements for low-income residents.

Meanwhile, our VISTA Tennessee Outreach Associate Lou Murrey continues to document families who struggle with high energy bills. In her recent blog, “Energy Bill Acrobatics,” Lou profiled the Schmidt family of Tazewell, who find themselves in a budgeting balancing act with needed home repair and a son with disabilities. Lou has been sharing energy efficiency information with community members who have few resources, by setting up an educational table at food banks.

What do electric co-ops have to do with economic justice?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Josie Lee Varela

WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build the foundation for a fair and just economic system.

WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build the foundation for a fair and just economic system.

As a graduate student living in Boone, N.C., working two jobs while keeping up with school work is not out of the norm for me. And I know I am not alone. Working one or more jobs is not out of the norm for most people I know.

Why is it that so many of our friends and family members work multiple jobs to provide for themselves and their families? Could it be due to an economic system that has failed to generate equitable benefits for all citizens? Possibly. Drew DeSilver, a senior writer for the Pew Research Center, published an informative article of the data behind wage and income inequality in the United States. The numbers are eye opening to say the least.

As DeSilver’s article notes, income inequality in the United States is at its highest since 1928, according to researcher and professor Emmanual Saez at The University of California-Berkeley. Additionally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found in a 2011 study that after accounting for taxes and transfers on national market incomes, the United States ranked second for income inequality in the 31 nations of the OECD, with Chile in first. According to DeSilver’s research, “median black household income was 59 percent of median white income in 2011” while in the 1960s, black household income was 55 percent of median white household income. In other words, the disparity has remained virtually the same for the past five decades.

Income inequality exists across income classes as well. The Appalachian region, for instance, has been characterized by pervasive economic distress for those who fall in the “lower-income” category. High energy costs and a lack of economic opportunity for folks in Appalachia are linked to income and wealth gaps seen across the country. What can be done to turn the problem of economic disparity around?

Our current economic system, though it may seem like it, is not set in stone. More cooperative economies are our chance to adapt and overcome the current failures of our system. The International Co-operative Alliance describes a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” Electric, consumer and worker co-ops, employee-owned companies and credit unions have been examples of new building blocks for an economic system that works for a majority of the people. While many cooperatives and advocates for cooperative economies exist in communities throughout the country, one new organization is taking that effort national.

The nonprofit WeOwnIt initiative was created in 2015. The initiative is meant to create a national network for cooperative members of all sectors to have the rights, education and tools to implement organizing practices. WeOwnIt is aiming for economic reform through the support and membership of organizations and individuals in order to reach communities’ common economic, social, and cultural needs.

Through strategies that combine planning expertise, organizational networking, targeted outreach and online organizing tools, WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build a new foundation for a fair economic system. This year, WeOwnIt is concentrating its efforts towards electric co-ops. Credit unions and the food co-op sector will also be a focus. To address social, economic, and environmental disparities, the WeOwnIt initiative has begun taking the first crucial steps toward a just and sustainable world, where members’ voices are heard loud and clear.

Learn more about the WeOwnIt initiative on their website.