Posts Tagged ‘Energy Efficiency’

Crowdfunding Solar in West Virginia

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

In a state known for coal, solar energy emerges through a grassroots effort

By Eliza Laubach
Dan Conant affectionately calls his first successes cutting solar installation costs “barn raisings.” After years of political organizing in college and shortly after, he wanted to use community organizing strategies for solar power.

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“Community-supported solar builds awareness about where electricity comes from,” says Than Hitt, center, holding his daughter Hazel at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sheperdstown Presbyterian Church’s solar array. Photo by Mary Anne Hitt.

Policies that have helped to nurture the solar industry, such as affordable leasing options, tax credits and requirements for utilities to purchase renewable energy credits aren’t offered in his home state of West Virginia.

“I was trying to move back home, but there weren’t any jobs available at that point,” says Conant. He instead worked in Virginia and Vermont, helping pioneer innovative neighborhood-scale methods for going solar. He found ways to lower prohibitive upfront costs, which he describes as an effort to “crack the code for personal financing.”

As he gained a deeper understanding of solar financing, Conant saw how difficult it is for nonprofits and municipal organizations to buy solar panels, especially in West Virginia. Nonprofits don’t receive a tax credit, government entities are unable to take out loans, and commercial buildings receive less compensation than homeowners do for surplus power generated by their solar panels. After researching how to bring solar to these community groups with a model that could be duplicated in any state, he created Solar Holler.

The solar financing project raises funds to place solar panels on nonprofit or municipal buildings. The process mirrors crowdfunding, which depends on donations from interested parties, usually solicited online. But crowdfunding is less practical among small communities and low-income residents, so Conant brainstormed an alternative revenue stream.

He partnered with Mosaic Power, a company that pays homeowners for their hot water heater to be hooked up to Mosaic’s remote system. Creating a smart grid, Mosaic can then turn the hot water heater on and off in response to electricity demand. The utility pays Mosaic Power for helping them use electricity more efficiently, and the profit is transferred back to the homeowner through a $100 yearly payment. Residents can sign up for Mosaic’s program through Solar Holler, pledging their return to help fund a solar installation on a community building.

An investor will buy the solar panels after enough residents of a community pledge their revenue to a Solar Holler project to guarantee the investor a return. The pledged hot water heater payments will cycle to other Solar Holler projects once the initial project is paid off. “We’re using energy efficiency to fund the solar,” Conant says.

Conant launched the pilot project in his hometown at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. The congregation considered solar in the past but could not afford it. Than Hitt, church member and community organizer, spent three years working with the congregation and Shepherdstown community. He provided the initial investment in the solar panels. “Self-reliance is a big thing in West Virginia and we’re tapping into that,” says Hitt.

Pastor Randy Tremba set up a table by the church’s hot water heater for people to sign up for the Mosaic Power program in April. “A trusted community leader is a crucial ally,” he adds. Within three months, enough people signed up for the program to guarantee the solar installation.

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Mountainview Solar crew members install the solar panels. Photo by Dan Conant.

With 100 people signing on to participate, plus the sale of renewable energy credits to various Pennsylvania utilities, the project quickly moved forward. Mountainview Solar, a local solar contractor, installed a 16.2-kilowatt solar array on the church this past August, providing about 40 percent of the church’s electricity. The Shepherdstown Elementary School principal brought the fourth and fifth grade classes to the ribbon-cutting ceremony and pledged to incorporate solar energy into the educational curriculums. “I think it’s the start of something big,” says Conant.

Solar Holler’s goal is to have a project in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties within the next five years. Two more projects are currently underway: the city hall in Lewisburg and the public library in Harpers Ferry, which achieved its quota for Mosaic Power sign-ups in mid-November.

Conant sees the importance in diversifying the economy of a state that has largely been powered by coal extraction. “We can still be an energy state, we just need to stop thinking of ourselves as a coal state,” he says. Ninety-six percent of West Virginia’s energy comes from coal, and mining has a continued legacy of destructive health, environmental and financial impacts. “Solar in West Virginia is more powerful than anywhere else in the country,” says Conant.

Visit SolarHoller.org to learn more.

A schizoid rate case and a climate directive in Virginia

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Virginia ratepayers made their voices heard before important orders by the State Corporation Commission on residential solar fees and electricity rates.

Virginia ratepayers made their voices heard before important orders by the State Corporation Commission on residential solar fees and electricity rates.

Here’s the bad news: Virginia’s State Corporation Commission (SCC) has approved a charge of about $3.50 per kilowatt on Appalachian Power Company customers with solar arrays larger than 10 kilowatts.

But it’s even more disappointing in light of Virginia’s recent explosion in residential solar installations and our state’s opportunity to lead by encouraging efforts that make clean energy affordable.

We’ve covered the “solar standby” charge problem and examined theories about why such “taxes on the sun” are spreading. Regardless of the reasons behind Appalachian Power’s pursuit of the charge, it is now in place and applies to five accounts currently and any customer who installs a new solar system larger than 10 kilowatts in the future. But there’s a more interesting aspect of the SCC’s recent order that’s worth a look.

Elsewhere in the very same ruling, regulators rejected an APCo proposal to raise fixed fees for residential customers that would have had serious consequences for energy use, conservation and renewable energy in the region.

This sort of restructuring spells trouble for advancing technologies like solar, small residential wind and energy efficiency. It’s an issue that’s been popping up recently in rate hearings around the country. In states such as Nevada and Wisconsin, utilities have proposed major changes to the way most customers’ bills are set up in the form of vast increases in fixed monthly fees and cuts to usage-based rates. Imagine being a utility and feeling concerned about how the public views the way you do business. Do you think you might be tempted to announce cuts to rates, while making up the balance from fees that many customers might overlook on their bills? APCo proposed a near doubling of the flat fees their residential basic customers pay from $8.35 to $16.

Public relations aside, it only takes a quick thought exercise to see how these changes would play out for customers in real life: a middle-class family in a mid-size home might not see a difference in their bill at all, with savings on per-unit energy costs negated by higher fixed fees. A family that lives in a large home and uses a lot of electricity each month might see lower bills since the fixed fee makes up a smaller share of their bill. But a small home of a low-income family that uses less energy, perhaps with fewer electronic gadgets and a habit of keeping the thermostat low during colder months, could be stuck with higher bills in spite of lower rates per kilowatt-hour as fixed charges drive up their energy costs.

Appalachian Power spokesperson John Shepelwich speaks to the media about the reasons the  utility pursued a "standby" charge on customers that have gone solar.

Appalachian Power spokesperson John Shepelwich speaks to the media about the reasons the utility pursued a “standby” charge on customers that have gone solar.

Shifting toward higher fees paid by all customers regardless of how much energy they consume and away from usage-based charges has been criticized in other states — not only on grounds of economic injustice but also for the obvious way it undercuts the incentive to conserve energy, and for the less apparent way it can deter investments in clean energy.

Lowering electricity rates fundamentally affects the calculation of whether installing a household solar array makes financial sense, and results in a big reduction in the returns that a solar owner would otherwise expect to receive The SCC found that APCo had not established that the charges were reasonable and rejected the increases, but experts in the region are looking ahead to other methods of rate restructuring utilities might pursue including minimum bills.

The second positive outcome of the APCo case came particularly as a result of representation by the Southern Environmental Law Center and the advocacy of clean energy supporters like you. It is the SCC order on APCo’s long-term resource plan that contains the seeds of future climate progress. In the big picture, it may be the most significant part of all the SCC’s orders from last month: the directive that APCo monitor the development of the EPA standards on carbon from power plants and model different methods to comply.

For regulators to tell a utility with a generation mix that is projected to remain over 80 percent coal-based through 2027 that it must model methods to address carbon pollution is huge. And the way the EPA’s Clean Power Plan is written, options that will truly benefit customers like investing in energy efficiency programs (which are also the lowest-cost options for compliance) should take center stage in the utility’s future plans to reduce its greenhouse gas intensity. It’s due to the engagement of several customers who have gone solar that wrote letters to the SCC, the dozens who commented in favor of a cleaner, more reliable, more affordable energy future for the region, and those who came to Richmond to be heard in person, that our message got through.

Virginians advocate for clean energy outside the state Capitol Building. Photo by Virginia Sierra Club

Virginians advocate for clean energy outside the state Capitol Building. Photo by Virginia Sierra Club

From here, it’s important to do your part to make sure your legislators are aware of these issues. The General Assembly originally approved a bill that authorized solar standby charges because they were portrayed as a tool to right a wrong: utilities used a red herring argument claiming that customers who generate their own solar electricity didn’t pay enough for the services they receive. In other words, in trying to solve a perceived problem presented by the utilities who contend that their freeloading solar customers are being subsidized by the customers who don’t generate clean energy, the legislature and regulators created a weapon to be wielded against a class of customers that by-and-large benefits the system by providing pollution-free energy at some of the year’s peak use times, helping other ratepayers avoid new generation and transmission expenses while cutting pollution.

Meanwhile, last month’s legislative committee hearing on the Clean Power Plan reminds us that most members of the legislature are in the dark about the effects of the fees they approve and the risks that these new charges will change the calculation for constituents in their districts who might otherwise see a much better deal and likely choose a local installer to outfit their home with a solar array. For instance, the infamous hybrid car fee passed in 2013 only to be hurriedly repealed in 2014 — with popular outrage, swift policy reform is impressively easy. And while the SCC has a certain degree of discretion, it’s bound to follow the letter of the law, which we, with help from our legislators, have the power to rewrite.

Virginia utilities expand their menus with new energy-saving offerings

Monday, December 1st, 2014 - posted by hannah

Advocates for energy efficiency often, and rightly, call it “the first fuel,” and Virginia is now creeping ahead toward gains in this lowest-cost power source.

New programs could help Virginians harness the "first fuel" -- energy efficiency.

New programs could help Virginians harness the “first fuel” — energy efficiency.

As some of Virginia’s foremost energy efficiency leaders will tell you, Virginians are coming to a consensus that we need concerted energy efficiency improvements, and judging by our recent rank of 35 in a state efficiency scorecard, this sense of urgency comes not a moment too soon!

Utilities are responding with new programs that they will run over the next few years. For climate activists, affordable energy supporters and regular customers alike, these programs represent steps in the right direction.

Virginia’s largest utility, Dominion Power, serves dense population centers in the northern, eastern and central regions of the Commonwealth and already administers a handful of opt-in energy-saving programs. The intent behind these demand side programs is to invest in energy-saving home improvements in much the same way utilities invest in a generating facility, with a bonus rebate to help offset the initial cost for the energy user.

Dominion is now looking to add two new demand-reduction programs to its portfolio, with a regulatory hearing scheduled for March. One program is intended to be restricted to those who would need it most, open only to those living in poverty, the other would target some of the most woefully old, power-guzzling appliances that customers may still be plugging in (see chart). Dominion is also proposing a Qualifying Small Business Improvement Program, and the utility’s many other commercial programs are listed online.

Dominion Power's current and proposed energy efficiency programs in Virginia.

Dominion Power’s current and proposed energy efficiency programs in Virginia. Click to enlarge.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s other investor-owned utility, Appalachian Power, has announced a suite of programs it estimates will save energy equivalent to the annual usage of 3,000 homes. The company, which serves much of Virginia’s mountain, valley and piedmont residents, has just been granted approval for an air-conditioner on/off cycling option (which saves on system congestion and expensive summer-peak energy during high-use times) and a low-income weatherization program to kick-off its energy saving portfolio. The company is also seeking approval for programs that will provide for customers to save money on wealth-building measures like a home check-up and vastly cost-effective LED bulbs (again, see chart).

Descriptions of energy efficiency programs proposed by Appalachian Power Company in Virginia.

Descriptions of energy efficiency programs proposed by Appalachian Power Company in Virginia. Click to enlarge.

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce the carbon intensity of our power sector allows states to count efficiency improvements toward reductions in overall emissions, meaning we can pursue the plan’s goals while creating jobs in the home assessment and efficiency retrofitting fields. It is the first time that the EPA has created a standard that allows for offsets in emissions from outside the walls of a power plant. We can take advantage of the EPA’s action to drive expansion of more ambitious efficiency programs.

The more we ask of our utilities in this regard the more we can expect Virginia’s rank on those national charts to climb, and the more we’ll see our neighbors finding work as home energy contractors doctoring our houses and looking after our leaky, energy-inefficient buildings.

Dominion customers can apply to and enroll in existing programs through dom.com. Stay tuned for news on APCo’s new programs which will soon be available for applications and enrollment.

We won’t stop until we’ve won in Virginia

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by hannah
Virginia Sierra Club

Virginia Sierra Club

As he called the Joint Commerce and Labor Committee to order Wednesday in Richmond, state Sen. John Watkins told the the audience of more than 200 citizens that the purpose of the meeting was to allow legislators to better grasp the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and its likely effects on Virginia’s economy and energy prices.

That is all well and good, but for the fact that the the slate of presenters was stacked by the likes of the industry-biased Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research and coal-heavy electric provider Appalachian Power. Aside from a lone environmental advocate, representatives from the electric utilities and entities friendly to polluters dominated the three-hour hearing, repeating the myths and misinformation that the EPA plan would increase costs for ratepayers and trigger job losses.

But the General Assembly members could not fail to notice just how many Virginians took the time to be there to watch and listen, and how passionately they care about shifting to clean energy. A large group activists and clean energy supporters rallied outside the Capitol to make our voices heard: there is no time to lose for Virginia to harness renewable energy and energy efficiency. They cheered the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution limits as a historic opportunity to adopt the policies that will turn the commonwealth to a cleaner energy future.

Virginia Sierra Club

Virginia Sierra Club

Amid the spirited and diverse groups at the rally were moms and kids having a play-in for the earth, Green Grannies leading the crowd in song, and students who waved model wind turbines aloft in the wintry breeze. The point was clear. Rejecting the biased and flawed assessments that industry presenters made in the committee room, speakers at the rally heralded the benefits to public health and the obligation that Virginia has to be part of climate solutions. These sentiments are reflected in the more than 200,000 petition signatures from Virginians support of strong EPA climate action.

The speakers highlighted how the option to offset power plant emissions with clean sources and efficiency will drive job creation and eliminate the need for new natural gas plants, and stressed that costly nuclear power investments are not needed if Virginia can take advantage of offshore wind and ramp up programs to make homes and businesses energy-efficient. Virginia has enough wind and solar energy to power hundreds of thousands of homes in the next decade — IF the legislature and McAuliffe administration act now and incorporate EPA’s Clean Power Plan as part of a statewide strategy.

Virginia Sierra Club

Virginia Sierra Club

Wednesday’s events brought Virginia activists together around a shared vision of Virginia 15 years in the future that is less reliant on fossil fuels, a vision that the EPA plan can help bring to life. Others voiced concern at the rally that the two large natural gas pipelines proposed for Virginia are not the way to go, given the dangers to clean air and water and the impacts of carbon dioxide and methane on the climate.

Our movement spanning Virginia is strong in its diversity and united by a desire for a clean energy future. Until the EPA’s rule is made final in June of 2015 and far beyond it, we’re fighting for clean power. As we chanted Wednesday at the Capitol, “There’s no stopping us until we’ve won.”

Upgrade to Save? Sounds like a good idea to us!

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by rory

Roanoke Electric Cooperative receives first federal loan for energy efficiency financing

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“Now we can open access to low cost capital for all cost-effective energy efficiency improvements sought by members with sound bill payment history, regardless of income, credit score, or status as renters or home owners.”

With that simple statement, Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC) in eastern North Carolina, perfectly summarized the benefit and accessibility that well-structured on-bill energy efficiency financing programs can offer. Wynn’s statement was part of yesterday’s announcement that REC had been approved for one of the first loans provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program.

The $6 million loan from USDA will fund REC’s new Upgrade to $ave on-bill finance program, which was modeled on the Pay-As-You-Save (PAYS) program developed in 1999 by the Energy Efficiency Institute of Vermont. We have written before about other on-bill finance programs that have also used the PAYS model, most notably the How$martKY program developed by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. This is also the model that Appalachian Voices is promoting to rural electric cooperatives in the region through our Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

The most important part of Curtis Wynn’s statement is the reference to the fact that the Upgrade to $ave program is available to all of REC’s members who have a demonstrated history of paying their electric bills. It doesn’t matter if the member owns or rents their home, what their credit score is, or what income bracket they fall under. This is a key aspect of on-bill finance programs because it means that financial support is available for the people who need it the most, but cannot pay for the upgrades themselves and may not be qualified to receive a loan from a traditional bank or credit union. And given that REC serves an area with an average poverty rate of more than 28 percent, there is undoubtedly a substantial number of residents that need such support.

One of the greatest things about on-bill finance programs modeled after the PAYS program is that they offer “debt-free financing” for households to pay for improving the efficiency of their home, which results in significant reductions in their energy bills. If the homeowner or renter moves away, they don’t have to pay off any remaining debt, and it doesn’t follow them around. Instead, the “debt” remains with the electric meter, and the next owner or tenant continues the payments through the monthly fee.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative's new Upgrade to $ave program.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s new Upgrade to $ave program.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these programs, however, is that the monthly payments made by the member/customer end up being less than the savings achieved as a result of the upgrades! In other words, even though the resident is paying a new fee on their monthly utility bill, their energy costs still go DOWN! That’s the brilliance of REC’s simple title for their program: Upgrade to $ave. And for REC’s part, the way they’ve structured the program allows the cooperative to fully recover their own costs for offering the energy efficiency service, meaning that other customers don’t have to share any of the costs associated with the program. This is a true and elegant example of an “everybody wins” situation.

Based on information provided in REC’s press statement, the cooperative will be able to provide approximately 800 energy efficiency “loans” using the $6 million being guaranteed by USDA. That represents around 6 percent of the cooperative’s total membership, which is pretty outstanding, and this is likely just the first USDA loan that REC will apply for. Further, the savings potential of the Upgrade to $ave program is substantial. With an average savings of 25 percent per home, as much as 4 million kilowatt-hours or more will be saved each year as a result of the program. For an individual households that could amount to around $650 saved each year (of which 75-90 percent would be used to pay the monthly fee).

On-bill finance programs like Upgrade to $ave are a commonsense approach to achieving significant reductions in the amount of energy and natural resources we use; alleviating the impacts of poverty and high energy costs; and, promoting the development of local jobs in communities that need them. The term “commonsense” doesn’t even capture just how much of a no-brainer developing these programs should be for all electric utilities, especially rural electric cooperatives because they serve some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished communities across the United States.

As REC’s press statement notes, “As an electric cooperative, Roanoke EMC is committed to cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, and concern for community.”

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association describes “concern for community” as “working for the sustainable development of [the cooperatives’] communities through policies accepted by their members.” On-bill finance programs can go a long way toward contributing to the sustainable development of communities served by electric cooperatives such as REC.

It is notable that, partially as a result of our own efforts, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with many of its member cooperatives and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, is currently in the process of designing its own on-bill finance program and is expected to submit a loan application to USDA in the near future. Appalachian Voices is also promoting on-bill energy efficiency finance programs to electric cooperatives in western North Carolina, and we hope that REC’s example moves some of them toward developing their own program.

Appalachian Voices wholeheartedly applauds Roanoke Electric Cooperative for taking this important step, showing in practice what “concern for community” really means, and for being the first cooperative in the U.S. to receive an EECLP loan for the funding of an on-bill finance program!

Community members gather for Blue Ridge energy efficiency kick-off

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by Eliza Laubach
Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Did you miss the party? Last Thursday, Energy Savings for Appalachia hosted a launch party for our new campaign focusing on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

Energy efficiency advocates and residents facing high energy costs gathered in our downtown Boone office to hear about the campaign and how they can get involved in our outreach efforts. Local business owners, students, farmers and families spilled out of the conference room as we brainstormed different ways to educate the community about our exciting High Country Home Energy Makeover contest and to gather signatures for our petition calling on Blue Ridge Electric to provide more energy efficiency programs.

What are we asking for? Blue Ridge Electric provides electricity to Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and some of Wilkes and Avery counties, excluding the town of Boone. Last winter, thousands of people served by Blue Ridge Electric could not afford to pay their bills and their electricity service was shut off. This is of particular concern given that 23 percent of Blue Ridge Electric members live at or below the poverty line, and we want to help families find solutions to their high electric bills.

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

That is where on-bill energy efficiency financing comes in. As Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, said at the party, most people do not have the disposable income to make large-scale home energy upgrades but would greatly benefit from them. With on-bill financing, the cooperative utility provides a loan for members to pay for home energy retrofits, and the loan is repaid on the member’s electric bill. Because so much energy is saved through the efficiency upgrades, the member’s electric bill is always lower than it was, even while they pay back the loan! By providing on-bill financing, utilities can help a wider range of homeowners and even renters make improvements to their home that would lower their energy use and electric bill.

So far, Blue Ridge Electric has rejected the idea of offering an on-bill financing program, citing lack of substantial member support as one of their primary reasons. This came as a surprise to Blue Ridge Electric members at the launch party. We are working to demonstrate that there actually is significant member support by circulating a petition, presenting to community groups and going door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Additionally, the Home Energy Makeover contest will not only help a few families whose homes could use efficiency upgrades now, it will also highlight a need for an on-bill finance program.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Chatter filled the room as large sheets of paper were filled with names of local businesses, community organizations, churches and other places where we can reach community members. Volunteers came up with innovative methods of outreach, such as utilizing technology or using church signboards, and signed up to help us with our ongoing canvassing project.

It was exciting to see folks be so enthused about our campaign, to hear a homeowner’s personal story detailing how much energy efficiency programs could help, and to strive for inclusion in the process of organizing a community around an issue.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings team has followed viable pathways of outreach, but the power of people coming together to focus their hands and hearts on helping us, which in turn helps them, enhances the benefit of our outreach, as involvement sparks meaning within concerned community members.

October is National Energy Action Month and National Cooperative Month, and there is no better time than now to focus on our local electric cooperative to provide services that will help members lower their energy use. Sign our Blue Ridge Electric petition or send a letter to your utility. Send us an email at energysavings@appvoices.org for volunteer opportunities, and, if you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric and are in need of support for reducing your energy costs, apply for the contest!

Energy Savings Advances in Tennessee and North Carolina

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign has made great strides since our kickoff 18 months ago, but we’re only just getting started!

This September in Tennessee, Appalachian Voices participated in an energy efficiency “retreat” that brought the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and six of its member cooperatives together with a number of state agencies and numerous experts in energy efficiency finance. The purpose was to begin designing a statewide on-bill energy efficiency finance program that will help low-income residents reduce their electricity bills. Appalachian Voices not only helped make the retreat happen, we are also playing a key role in determining how the program will be funded and implemented.

While we are energized by Tennessee’s progress, North Carolina’s electric co-ops have yet to commit to providing energy efficiency finance options. Because of this, on October 9 we launched a new campaign focused on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. in the High Country of western North Carolina. Our goal is to generate strong member support to encourage the electric co-op to develop an on-bill energy efficiency financing program, one that primarily helps low-income households.

The poverty rate among Blue Ridge Electric members is 23%, meaning that many households in the High Country struggle to pay their electricity bills each winter. As one of North Carolina’s largest electric co-ops, however, Blue Ridge Electric should be offering financial support that helps reduce their members’ electricity bills. Six other co-ops in North Carolina offer on-bill finance options, and it is time that Blue Ridge Electric step up and do the same. To support the campaign, we are also launching a High Country Home Energy Makeover contest. See page 6 for more information.

To learn more or get involved, call (828) 262-1500 or email Rory McIlmoil at rory@appvoices.org

Winter Weatherization: Stay snug and save

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Eliza Laubach

As falling leaves signal approaching winter winds, autumn is an ideal time to “bundle up” your home. Over time, building materials shift, which forces heating and cooling systems to work harder. And since many houses were built without complete insulation or sealing, that is the best place to start when weatherizing.

Making your home more energy efficient is a hands-on approach to reducing your carbon footprint. Installing significant upgrades could lower utility bills by 15 to 30 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and financial support is often available. Contact your utility, local community action agency or the U.S. Department of Energy and ask about rebates, grants or loan programs to retrofit your house.

Become a Leak Geek

Hazel poses with a CFL lightbulb.

Hazel Adams poses with an energy-efficient CFL lightbulb. Photo by Sarah Kellogg.

Air-sealing your home involves plugging leaks that allow outside air into your home and conditioned air to escape. A professional energy contractor can pinpoint small, subtle leaks using specialized technology while also ensuring that carbon monoxide can escape your house. But anyone can find and seal larger leaks by following these steps:

1. Tightly close all windows and doors to block airflow.

2. Use exhaust fans above the stove and in the bathroom to create lower pressure inside the house.

3. Locate areas most likely to leak air. Windows, doors and the meeting of different building materials—such as wood, metal and stone—are all suspect.

4. Hold a lit incense stick around the edges of suspected leaks. If the smoke begins to flutter, airflow is present and an air leakage is occurring.

5. Use weatherstripping tape and foam caulking to seal leaks. Always apply in dry weather and remove old caulk or strips first. Beware that some foam caulking will triple in size and can split open stone!

Insulation Station

weatherization_toby_cmyk

Toby MacDermott replaces a drafty window with an insulated wall. Photo by Sarah Kellogg.

We all know heat rises, but may forget that attics are an easy escape for heat in winter. All your home’s conditioned air can leave through your attic twice an hour, according to Marcus Renner, founder of Conservation Pros, a home energy contractor in Asheville. In fact, houses built before 1978 did not require insulation. There are several ways you or a professional energy contractor can prevent your attic from becoming an energy drain, depending on how big a project you decide to tackle.

1. Air-sealing is a crucial first step. On average, insulation retains just 60 percent of its effectiveness without air-sealing.

2. Insulate the attic floor. Some hardware stores will lend customers the machine to install insulation bought from the store.

3. Seal air duct joints on your heating and cooling system, even if it is in the crawlspace. Renner does not recommend heat-resistant tape, which he says fails after a few years. Apply mastic paint to joints nearest the HVAC unit, where air pressure is highest, and cover gaps wider than one-quarter inch with sheet metal.

4. Seal the edges of the attic entrance with foam weatherstripping. Don’t forget to insulate the attic door!

Thrifty Upgrades

These simple changes offer a quick turnaround to winterize your home on a tight budget.

  • With just an afternoon and a hairdryer, you can insulate old windows with plastic as a temporary fix.
  • Lower the thermostat while gone and wear warm sweaters indoors.
  • Allow sunlight in during the day, and keep heat from escaping at night with closed heavy shades or curtains.
  • Open your oven after baking your winter squash or pumpkin pie and relish in the extra heat!
  • Reverse the direction of your ceiling fans to move warm air down when in room.
  • Insulate metal water heater pipes with foam coverings.
  • Cover bare floors with rugs to add heat retention, especially if there is little floor insulation in the house.
  • Ensure that air vents are not covered by furniture or drapes, and rearrange if necessary.
  • Energy efficiency at the forefront of cooperative principles in Tennessee

    Wednesday, September 17th, 2014 - posted by rory
    Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA's Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

    Frank Rapley, General Manager of TVA’s Energy Efficiency Programs, presents on the new EE programs that TVA will be offering in 2015. Photo credit: Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

    Rural electric cooperatives, which serve millions of families across Appalachia, operate on seven principles, the most important of which (at least to us) is principle number seven: “Concern for Community.”

    The seventh principle commits electric co-ops to “the sustainable development of their communities through policies accepted by their members.” As we described in a blog series on the need for and benefits on “on-bill” financing programs supporting home energy improvements in Appalachia, the sustainable development of the Appalachian region relies on the ability of residents to invest in their communities. But first and foremost, they must be able to afford their electric bills. The clear first step to achieving this vision is expanding energy efficiency, and this is something that Tennessee’s electric cooperatives have taken to heart.

    On September 5, thanks to a generous grant from the National Governor’s Association (NGA), the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA), in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), sponsored a statewide energy efficiency “retreat.” The goal of the day-long policy retreat was to hash through the details of what will hopefully become a statewide program to finance home energy efficiency improvements, especially for low-income residents. Such programs have proven to reduce home energy costs substantially, and are primarily intended to help families that can’t afford to pay for the upfront cost of needed improvements. Below is a testimonial from one family that participated in South Carolina’s pilot on-bill financing program known as “Help My House.”

    The retreat featured a number of experts in energy efficiency finance and program design as well as co-op and government administration, including numerous representatives from federal organizations and government agencies, Tennessee state government agencies and various experts and clean energy advocates such as Appalachian Voices and a handful of our partner organizations.

    Most importantly, the retreat was attended by six of Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives. Included among them was Appalachian Electric, which has proven to be a statewide leader in expanding energy efficiency opportunities not only for their own members, but for all of Tennessee’s rural co-op members. Unfortunately, of the six co-ops that participated in the retreat only two co-ops were from the Appalachian region, although we were told by TECA that a handful of others couldn’t attend but were interested in participating in the process. We hope that more co-ops with service territories in East Tennessee will sign on to the process, because as the energy cost maps we generated earlier this year show, members of Appalachian co-ops are most in need of support for reducing their electric bills.

    The efforts of Appalachian Voices’ staff, through concerted outreach to Tennessee’s Appalachian electric co-ops and local stakeholders, played a key part in making the energy efficiency retreat happen, and as a result we were invited to participate as an expert stakeholder. We are extremely encouraged by the outstanding leadership that NGA, TECA, TDEC and Appalachian Electric are showing, and we admire their dedication to helping the families who need it most.

    The prospect of a statewide on-bill financing program in Tennessee is exciting, and we remain committed to doing everything we can to seeing it through. Further, we appreciate everything you do to support our work. If you live in western North Carolina, get in touch, because we have a lot going on in your neighborhood too!

    Greening the Ivory Tower: Smart institutions find smart ways to save energy

    Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

    By Rachel Ellen Simon

    Energy efficiency is a smart investment, so it makes sense that some of our smartest institutions –– colleges and universities –– are actively pursuing it. Schools across the nation are building “deep green” residence halls, updating old campus buildings, and implementing innovative heating and electrical systems to slash their carbon emissions and environmental impact. Read on to learn more about the greening efforts at five such colleges in Appalachia.

    Berea College (Berea, Ky.)

    In August 2013, Good Housekeeping magazine dubbed Berea the sixth greenest college in America, and for good reason. That same month, Berea opened the Deep Green Residence Hall. From its 100-percent recycled brick exterior to the student-built, sustainably harvested wood furniture, the new student dormitory is “deep green” inside and out. The site also features a series of rain gardens, trees for increased shade and energy efficiency, and a permeable parking lot to decrease stormwater runoff.

    Berea students also live in Ecovillage, a five-acre housing complex designed to consume 75 percent less energy and water than more traditional housing. Featuring passive solar design, high-insulation walls and windows, and rooftop solar panels, the intentional housing community is the first of its kind in the state.

    Warren Wilson College (Swannanoa, N.C.)

    Warren Wilson College is home to one of the top 10 greenest dormitories in the world, according to Mother Nature Network.

    Open since 2003, EcoDorm was the first building on a college campus to earn LEED Platinum certification, the highest rating possible from the U.S. Green Building Council. Home to 36 students, EcoDorm features photovoltaic panels, solar hot water panels, high-efficiency boilers, and window overhangs for summer shade and winter sun. The building doesn’t use air conditioning, and certain appliances are prohibited, including hair dryers and mini-refrigerators. All permitted appliances are EnergyStar rated for efficiency. A 10,000-gallon salvaged train tanker car collects rainwater, which is then used to irrigate the surrounding permaculture landscape or pressurized for flushing –– for the toilets that require water, that is. This pioneering residence hall features two composting toilets.

    Hocking College (Nelsonville, Ohio)

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    The grounds surrounding the Hocking College Energy Institute in Nelsonville, Ohio, are planted with native grasses that only need to be mowed once per year, and the vegetated roof provides insulation and reduces stormwater flow. Photo courtesy Hocking College

    Located in Appalachian Ohio, Hocking College is the state’s only two-year college that offers degrees in alternative energy technologies. Students in these programs engage in hands-on learning at the LEED Platinum-certified Hocking College Energy Institute. Open since 2009, the institute uses 60 percent less energy than conventional structures of the same size and 15 percent of its electricity is supplied by photovoltaic panels. Students can see for themselves; the building’s mechanical workings were left exposed to serve as a learning tool. The site also features electric vehicle recharging stations, stormwater detention ponds, and a 4,000 square-foot green roof planted with native Ohio vegetation.

    In 2012, Hocking received a $440,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to upgrade its heating and cooling systems campuswide, resulting in a reduction of carbon emissions by more than 600 metric tons per year.

    Maryville College (Maryville, Tenn.)

    In early 2013, Maryville was selected to participate in the EnergyRight Solutions for Higher Education program. Sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the program provides funding to four Tennessee schools for energy efficiency projects and consulting, energy audit training, and stipends for student interns to implement the initiatives.

    Maryville College previously teamed up with the TVA in 1982 when, along with the U.S. Department of Energy, they piloted a new wood waste steam heating system, which was showcased during the 1982 World’s Fair in nearby Knoxville. Today, the plant provides heating across campus, including in Maryville’s oldest building, Anderson Hall, which is currently under renovation. When complete, the building will feature custom-made double-coated windows for increased insulation and air handling units that use outside air to help regulate interior temperatures, reducing the load of the heating and cooling plants.

    Ferrum College (Ferrum, Va.)

    Nestled in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Ferrum College is all about going green. This commitment is on prominent display at its English Biomass Energy and Research Complex.

    The combined heat and power facility provides approximately 65 percent of on-campus heat and hot water, primarily through its main 1.0 megawatt boiler, which burns lumber industry by-products to produce steam for hot water. Excess steam from the boiler is diverted to an electric turbine that generates approximately 800 kilowatts of electricity for campus use. A smaller biomass boiler at the facility is used as a research and teaching tool for students to encourage continued innovation in alternative energy technologies.