Posts Tagged ‘Energy Efficiency’

O’ TVA where art thou?

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016 - posted by Amy Kelly

This is a joint blog between Appalachian Voices and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. It is also the first in a series SACE will publish on recent energy efficiency meetings between TVA and community members all across the Tennessee Valley.

Rural community members ask TVA for energy efficiency programs

Photo by Lou Murrey, with Appalachian Voices

Photo by Lou Murrey, with Appalachian Voices

In the rural reaches of the Tennessee Valley, where farmland bends and dips between hills and rivers, the Tennessee Valley Authority promised in the 1930s to bring a modern era of electricity and jobs. Indeed, the New Deal federal program improved Appalachian and rural life in many ways, making good on those promises.

But it also came with some lasting side effects. With hydro-electricity and dam creation, more than 15,000 families had to move, farms were lost and geographic divisions between families and communities were created. Coal towns boomed and busted, leaving behind strip-mined mountains and stagnant local economies. Here in the rural places that time seems to have forgotten, the local residents have a keen memory for their past.

“History says TVA was there for the public good. If you ask folks now, they would say ‘used to be,’” said Bill McCabe, a resident of Hancock County, Tennessee — which has the second-highest poverty rate in the state.

These days, unaffordable electric bills are having a major impact on countless lives across the Valley. With the arrival of reliable electric service came financial uncertainty for many struggling families, as paying to keep older homes warm or cool that were never designed with energy efficiency in mind has resulted in sky-high and unpredictable power bills in summer and winter months.

Recently, McCabe and a group of other residents joined together around a table with TVA representatives to share their stories and offer suggestions for energy efficiency programs. Thankfully, TVA is currently engaged in discussions through its Energy Efficiency Information Exchange stakeholder planning group about developing new energy efficiency solutions for low-income families. To make sure local communities have a voice in the planning efforts, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy worked with TVA and local partners to help convene five local stakeholder groups across the Valley this month. Appalachian Voices led in organizing the first of these meetings in Claiborne County, Tennessee, on August 12.

The meeting was particularly important because it was the only local stakeholder meeting held in a rural area, and community members who came shared their stories with TVA from a distinctly rural perspective. Their experiences shed light on the unique challenges faced by rural residents and help inform potential new programs that could help reduce energy burdens. As with so many other things in rural Appalachia, there was a general feeling of the community being left behind when it comes to energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, those most in need of help are typically unable to access the home energy efficiency rebate program that TVA now offers, a shortcoming that TVA staff have acknowledged. Currently, customers who want to participate in TVA’s eScore program must first pay for an energy audit and the upfront cost of upgrades, often thousands of dollars. While there are some financing options available, they generally require high credit scores and home ownership.

One solution discussed at the meeting is tariff-based on-bill financing, which doesn’t require credit checks and allows for immediate bill reductions even with a monthly repayment charge added on a bill. Several electric cooperatives in Tennessee are currently considering developing on-bill financing programs, and similar programs have been highly successful in neighboring states such as How$mart Kentucky and Help My House in South Carolina.

Like some at the meeting with TVA, many rural families across the Valley live in older manufactured homes. Often, these homes have little or no insulation, leaky doors and windows, and inefficient space heaters and window air conditioners. And while many have gone to extreme cost-saving measures – a commonly cited practice is to huddle the whole family in one room for heat – families still end up with utility bills costing hundreds of dollars in winter and summer months. That’s a lot of money for most people in Claiborne County, which has a poverty rate of nearly 25%.

Not only are inefficient homes an unnecessary drain on precious financial resources, they are also a serious public health and safety issue. For some meeting participants, respiratory and other illnesses mean that poor indoor air quality and extreme temperatures become a major health risk. For one resident, a broken HVAC unit, which she couldn’t afford to replace, left her husband hospitalized for four days with heat exhaustion. Another resident has to leave her manufactured home during the middle of the day in the summer so her young children won’t get overheated – yet her electric bills are so high she struggles to buy diapers. Some also reported resorting to potentially unsafe methods to heat their homes in the winter, such as using stoves and clothes dryers.

This is an urgent problem that TVA can and should take the lead to solve. In addition to alleviating families’ unaffordable energy bills and potentially unsafe living conditions, new home weatherization programs would bring numerous good-paying jobs to places where they are desperately needed, helping to fulfill TVA’s mission to promote economic development.

As TVA continues working with stakeholders toward new low-income energy efficiency initiatives, it should take care to incorporate the invaluable input from the local communities that are most affected by its decisions. We thank TVA for meeting with these local community members, and we hope that the discussion will help to inform the development of meaningful energy efficiency solutions to serve the entire Tennessee Valley.

At the end of the August 12 meeting, participants were invited to write down their top recommendations for TVA on Post It notes. Here are some of the policy recommendations provided by the meeting participants for TVA to consider:

“Incentives for electric companies to do weatherization programs, pay true value of energy efficiency.”

“Support extreme makeovers for rural homes, send message to distributors to invest in energy efficiency programs, provide funding for LED bulb give away.”

“Implement a community-based committee to set up a program to begin inspection on housing to first find the need within the community. Examine the cost of what it will take to implement this program and then base the cost on the most need.”

“Make the bill the same each month. Make more jobs for the people here in my area. See a need for the people and spend money here on this area. Help companies to move here with jobs.”

“I like the pay-as-you-save project that has been piloted in other states (like Arkansas) where these old houses have been behind the curve, power companies could see long-term benefits in investment. Not just in energy savings but local economies expanding (and new houses, new customers).”

“I think everyone coming together to help as a community and the weatherization program would bring in so much help to a lot of us need, especially low-income families and people living in older homes with large families. God Bless.”

Do-It-Yourself tips for energy efficiency: Heating & Cooling

Friday, August 26th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Adam Sheffield, Appalachian Voices Video and Outreach Assistant

Our new video series offers a variety of easy energy efficiency tips to lower electric bills while reducing energy waste.


When it comes to the weather in Appalachia, we’ve got it all. We have bitter cold winters, soaking wet springs, hot humid summers and chilly autumns. Each of the four seasons comes with gifts as well as a set of energy challenges.

Further south, folks face the challenge of cooling the air in their homes, battling humidity and hot temperatures. For people to the north, heating their homes in the winter is the main goal. But here in Appalachia, our mountain climate has characteristics that require our homes to deal with both heat and cold.

Many mountain homes don’t have air conditioning units due to Appalachia’s milder summers, although some newer homes are being built with AC while others install window units. In the winter, it’s difficult to survive the season here without a good heating source. Heating methods vary from home to home, from wood-burning stoves, to propane furnaces, kerosene monitors, or electric baseboard heaters, to central HVAC units.

Regardless of the type of heating system, winter heating costs are a financial burden for many families. Some systems are more expensive than others, and older systems are more costly to use than newer, more energy-efficient models. The point is that we all want to be comfortable during the cold winter months, but we also want to save on our energy costs.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia promotes programs that help Appalachian residents lower their energy costs. Our goal is to create a widespread network of support for energy efficiency financing programs through the rural electric cooperatives. We’re working in western North Carolina and East Tennessee, but we are part of a larger regional and national movement to expand access to affordable home energy efficiency financing for residents of all income levels. Education is a key part of our work to help residents lower their energy costs, so we’ve created a set of short Do-It-Yourself videos.

This short video features John Kidda, founder and president of reNew Homes, Inc., in Boone, N.C. In the video, John discusses using programmable thermostats as a way to save on heating and cooling, and the benefits of using one in an Appalachian home. John points out that lower temperature settings — and lower energy use — during the colder winter season are easier to achieve when the home is properly insulated and air leakage is minimized.

Programmable thermostats allow residents to set the temperature in their home to operate around a schedule. There’s no need to leave the air conditioner or heat running while you’re away at work or school all day. The same goes for winter settings and for the nighttime when you’re asleep. Why run the heat on high when you don’t need to? Program your thermostat to turn the heat on right before your normal wakeup time. Then, set the thermostat to a lower temperature while you’re away from home or headed to bed. Some thermostats can even be adjusted from a mobile device.

Prices range from as low as $50 to over $300. Many programmable thermostats now include instant rebates. By switching to a programmable thermostat, you can lower your energy cost by 10 percent in the first year.

Watch our heating and cooling video and let us know what you think! We will be releasing additional videos in the coming months. If you are interested in learning more, contact me at (828) 262-1500, or by email at

Energy bill acrobatics

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 - posted by Lou Murrey

Balancing the Family Budget with High Electric Bills

Click the arrows to scroll through the slide show. The Schmidts of Tazewell, Tenn. have to keep their home carefully temperature controlled for the health of their son, C.J., who has Down syndrome.

For the Schmidt family of Tazewell, Tennessee, managing their budget is a delicate balancing act, and one they have become very good at. But high electric bills can make that balance tricky to maintain, sometimes leaving very little in the way of emergency funds, much less for the home repairs they need that could actually lower their energy use.

Liana Schmidt says her electric bills can reach up to $300 in the winter, and fluctuate between $100 and $200 the rest of the year. For Liana, a full-time dietary technician at the Claiborne Medical Center, and her husband Carl, having to pay those bills on such a tight budget can be hard.

“I have kids,” she says. “It’s hard to do and get things for them ‘cause I have to worry about my bills first. You know? Like clothes… or you know things that they need or whatnot. That’s the hardest part.”

The tension between getting by and financial emergency became that much tighter last month when the transmission in her car went out and the brand new well pump in their home broke again. “I have four kids; two of them live with me, and he has Down syndrome,” says Liana nodding her head at 8-year-old C.J. who has abandoned a puzzle to play with a plastic fire truck on the floor of their sunlit kitchen. He is the light of her life, she says, adding quickly that she loves all her children, but a hug from C.J. when she walks in the door can turn her entire day around.

C.J. is susceptible to infection, so regulating temperature in their home is a matter of keeping her son healthy. “I have to make sure that he doesn’t get overheated or too cold or whatever the case may be ‘cause he can get sick very quickly and he is allergic to just about everything. So it’s a struggle.” Just in the last year, C.J. has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia.

When every bit of money saved counts, medical expenses, even with insurance, can add up. Liana’s husband Carl served in the Navy for 20 years, and was exposed to asbestos sometime in the 1980s, which has significantly impacted his health and makes it difficult for him to work full-time. All this has been made much more difficult since the Schmidts were informed in July by their insurance that all of their doctors and their hospital are now out-of-network. They will have to drive almost an hour to receive medical care.

The Schmidts could benefit tremendously from having a more energy-efficient home, to save money on their electric bill and to ensure healthy conditions for C.J. But having the time and money to make the initial investment seems impossible. “If I could just save a little more, just replacing my windows would be a huge huge deal… that would be awesome,” says Liana.

Liana and Carl have done some energy efficiency improvements in their 23-year old house, like replacing all the lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and hanging heavy light-blocking curtains in the living room. “We’ve been trying to do little things here and there,” says Liana. “Even our dishwasher is eco-friendly and our refrigerator is, just about everything that we have is energy efficient. I don’t have a dryer because I like to hang my clothes out and in the wintertime I have a rack so I put everything on a rack.”

Still, Liana knows that to really lower their electric bill, they are going to have to do some more significant upgrades. She points to her kitchen windows saying, “I would love to be able to change these windows but they’re a little expensive right now for us.” Moving over to the windows, Liana says “If you look, you actually can see it,” and pushes her hand against the window to reveal a sizeable gap between the pane and the frame.

Liana heads outside. It’s 92 degrees and the midday sun has no mercy, even the plants in her well-tended garden are drooping as if to say “too much!” It’s clear from the landscaping, which includes a small fruit orchard in the backyard, that the Schmidts put a good deal of time and energy into making their house feel like home.

“We own the land and the house. We have four acres,” says Liana. Gesturing to the wide open space and empty road surrounding their property, she laughs, “It’s awesome back here. My neighbors are cows.” Around the side of the house, she points to a spot close to the roof where some of the siding has come off, revealing a hole a little larger than a softball. It looks like an animal might have created it, but it’s hard to tell. Liana is smiling, but there is exasperation and worry behind her smile when she explains how her husband’s health keeps him from fixing it.

Liana continues to the back of the house, where she opens the door to the crawlspace It’s clear why the Schmidts can feel cold air coming through the floor in the wintertime. Insulation is hanging like pink curtains, rather than being packed tightly in between the joists. Homes can lose up to ten percent of their heating and cooling through uninsulated floors.

Back inside the cool respite of her house, Liana looks up from removing her shoes. “The two biggest things right now is my roof and my windows because I got shingles that are coming off my roof from the wind and whatnot.”

Rural Appalachia has a high concentration of aging and manufactured homes — like the Schmidts’ home — which often lack proper insulation, or their structures have settled allowing air to escape. The culmination of all these factors is that Carl and Liana aren’t the only ones facing high electric bills with little to no resources or access to upfront financing that might provide some relief.

Some utilities have a program called “on-bill financing” which offers people like the Schmidts financing to cover the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades and pay back the money on their monthly bill, using the savings. When asked what it would mean her family to have access to this kind of program, Liana replies, “What would it mean to me? It’d mean a whole lot! Having a Down’s kid, I could do a whole lot more with him. If I could save more money and with my older son, I’d be able to do stuff with him as well. Right now we can’t do a whole lot. That would save us so much more, our bill would definitely drop, and we would be able to do a whole lot more with our kids. Family means everything to us, at this point in time, family is everything. You just never know when your time is up.”

Visit our Energy Savings web page for information on how to start this conversation with your utility.

Federal Support for Clean Energy Financing and other shorts

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 - posted by interns

Federal Support for Clean Energy Financing

A June ruling from the Federal Electric Regulatory Commission affirmed the right of rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities to buy cost-competitive power from independent generators instead of conventional utilities. This bolsters the prospects of decentralized energy production — often solar power— in rural areas, says Utility Dive.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made available a new low-cost energy efficiency financing program. The Rural Energy Savings Program provides funding to rural electric cooperatives to back loans to electric co-op members for weatherization upgrades.

— Eliza Laubach

Mine Drainage Emits Higher Level of Carbon Dioxide

More carbon dioxide is being released from coal mine drainage than expected.

In June, a West Virginia University study found that 140 coal mines across Pennsylvania are collectively releasing carbon dioxide equal to that of a small power plant. The greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere when mine waters reach the land’s surface, a WVU press release explains.

Using a meter designed for measuring carbon dioxide in beverages, the research team discovered there is more carbon dioxide in the water than was measured using previous testing methods.

Coal mine drainage contaminates drinking water, disrupts ecosystems and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the university.

— Otto Solberg

New Pollution Controls for Virginia Natural Gas Plant

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality imposed precedent-setting protections against air pollutants by requiring that Dominion Power employ the best available control technology in its proposed gas-fired power plant in Greensville County, Va. The move comes in response to extensive comments from citizens and organizations such as Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Appalachian Voices and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. The department also decreased allowable carbon dioxide emission limits by more than 10 percent compared to the original proposal, according to a press release from the organizations.

— Hannah Petersen

$30 Million for Pennsylvania Abandoned Mine Projects

In July, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf awarded $30 million for 14 projects to reclaim abandoned mine lands that were selected based on their potential to create long-term economic benefits. Funding for the projects comes from a federal pilot program passed by Congress in December. The program is structured similar to the RECLAIM Act, bipartisan legislation that, if passed, would distribute $1 billion over five years to support land restoration and economic development in communities across the country impacted by the coal industry’s decline.

— Brian Sewell

Pipeline Would Cross Hazardous Landscape

If constructed as proposed, the Mountain Valley Pipeline would encounter many geologic hazards as it carries natural gas from wellheads in West Virginia to Virginia, according to a recent study commissioned by Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights (The POWHR Coalition). Because of its weak soil structure, the possibility of surface collapse and potential for seismic activity, the karst landscape along the West Virginia-Virginia state line makes this area a “‘no-build’ zone for the project,” according to Dr. Ernst H. Kastning, the study’s author.

Karst topography is formed when soluble rock layers such as limestone are dissolved, leaving behind underground caves and sinkholes.

— Elizabeth E. Payne

Renewable Energy Growing

Renewable energy sources supplied an estimated 23.7 percent of the world’s electricity in 2015, and that number is expected to rise as better funding enters the competitive market, according to a report from the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.

The world added more renewable power capacity than fossil fuel capacity in 2015. Hydroelectric power added a trillion watts, wind added 63 billion watts and solar added 50 billion watts.

— Otto Solberg

Coal Production Drops

The first quarter of 2016 saw the lowest level of coal produced since 1981 and the largest quarter-over-quarter decline in coal production since 1984, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The EIA report shows that weaker demand due to above-normal winter temperatures, alongside complying with environmental regulations and competing with renewables and natural gas, have caused production to decline.

— Hannah Petersen

The importance of being earnest — about energy efficiency

Monday, July 11th, 2016 - posted by interns
Mary Ruble, a Blue Ridge Electric member, discusses efficiency with stakeholders at a community meeting.

Mary Ruble, a Blue Ridge Electric member, discusses efficiency with stakeholders at a community meeting.

The Social, Environmental, and Economic Importance of Energy Efficiency in Appalachia

By Josie Lee Varela

While in the Appalachian region, you may be privileged to see mountains that go on forever, float down winding rivers, feel strong winds that take your breath away, and be awed by the leaves that change from green to gold before the snowfall.

With the changing seasons, what you may not witness is the great increases in energy consumption, in hot or cold weather, that result in high utility costs for Appalachian residents. From Pennsylvania to “sweet home” Alabama, folks are experiencing high utility costs due to seasonal increases in energy demand as well as significant energy waste.

Energy waste can be seen in aging homes or homes that are lacking modern energy efficient appliances. From poor insulation to the type of light bulb used, you can see that energy inefficiency becomes expensive for low- to moderate-income households when, for instance, as much as 40% of household income goes towards paying utility bills in the wintertime as it does for many residing in Appalachia.

Energy use and costs are higher in Appalachia than the national average, so when a high proportion of family income goes towards paying the utility bill, something needs to be done in order to reduce people’s electricity bills through improved home energy efficiency. Investing in energy efficiency can also stimulate economic growth for rural communities, spur networking and relationship building between consumers and electricity providers, and support a clean energy transition while reducing our footprint on the natural resources that keep the wheels of society spinning.

Electric co-ops are helping to drive a new American energy future where consumers and utilities work together to improve and expand the services the utilities are providing to Appalachian community members. In 1914, the first electric co-op was established in Tacoma, Washington, a time when rural areas lacked access to electricity. In the 1930’s the federal government financially supported the development of electric co-ops. In turn, community members were encouraged to get involved and many electric co-ops were born, allowing energy equity for more consumers. Availability and support of such programs have been key in improving public well-being and energy savings improvements.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, today there are more than 900 electric co-ops serving 42 million people in 47 states. Large coal, gas, and nuclear power plants are the primary energy sources used by most co-ops to provide their customers with electricity. However, more electric co-ops are adapting to a new business model by providing energy efficiency and renewable programs to their members.

One such program is on-bill energy efficiency finance, which, put simply, is a program where the electric service provider pays the upfront costs to improve your home’s energy efficiency. The improvements may include weatherization, insulation, more efficient heating and cooling systems, and potentially solar energy installations. After the upfront costs are paid by the utility, consumers begin to pay a new monthly charge to repay the utility for the efficiency investment.

In some programs, the customer keeps as much as 25% of the energy cost savings while the remaining goes to pay the utility for the financing they provided. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program has been aiming to benefit rural areas by guaranteeing $60 million in new loans allotted to electric co-ops. The funding should become an incentive to build strong, better on-bill energy efficiency finance and community solar programs.

In a recent article in The Appalachian Voice article, “The Changing Nature of Rural Electric Cooperatives in the 21st Century,” author Rory McIlmoil, Energy Policy Director at Appalachian Voices, talked to Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, a Boone-based energy efficiency contractor about on-bill financing for energy efficiency.

“Brought to scale, this program would demonstrate that what helps the environment sometimes helps the economy even more,” Zimmerman said. This economic development is spurred on multiple levels because of increased demand for energy efficiency upgrades and renewable energy installation. This results in more job creation and in more consumer dollars being spent in the local economy.

There has never been a silver bullet in addressing issues that cause environmental, social, and economic degradation. Yet, giving a voice to the people who are being impacted the most seems to be a good start. For example, when Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. (BRE) said it wanted to hear from members to know if they were truly interested in an energy efficiency on-bill financing program, over 1,000 members signed a letter asking for the program.

BRE recently implemented its Energy Saver Loan Program pilot in response.When electric cooperatives become more aware of their members’ needs as well as becoming more environmentally conscience, positive outcomes will follow once action is taken and programs are jump started.

Does your electricity provider offer on-bill financing or other incentives for energy efficiency? If not, but you’d like a change or you would like to know more about our work, please contact Appalachian Voices at 828-262-1500 or email us.

Speaking up for energy savings

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: This post by Michael Goldberg originally appeared on the website of We Own It, a national network to help electric cooperative members rediscover their role as owners of a democratically-controlled enterprise. The piece focused on the efforts of Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for the High Country campaign.

How members of Blue Ridge Electric got their co-op’s attention, and action, on energy efficiency.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to "on-bill" financing.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to “on-bill” financing.

“Oh, I don’t think we can do that.”

Mary Ruble says that was the initial response from her electric co-op — Blue Ridge Electric in western North Carolina — to the idea of an “on-bill financing” program to help more members afford home improvements that reduce electricity use and lower bills.

A year later now, Blue Ridge has launched just such a program, called the Energy SAVER loan program. As an on-bill financing program, it aims to better serve co-op members who don’t have the up-front money for weatherization and other efficiency upgrades for their homes, especially those who may not be able to get a traditional bank loan. Members who qualify for the program get a loan for upgrades such as better insulation, air and duct sealing, and improved HVAC systems – with no upfront costs – and then repay over time through a charge on their utility bill. The goal is that the electricity savings generated through the improvements will be greater than the annual repayment, so that there’s a net savings for members.

So how was Blue Ridge convinced?

“Blue Ridge kept telling us they needed to hear from the members,” explains Ruble, a retired librarian and Blue Ridge Electric co-op member in Boone, North Carolina. “So we got over 1,000 signatures from co-op members on a petition. We got publicity. We went to board meetings. We made sure they heard from members.”

A lot of effort, but rewarding

Ruble is careful to explain that convincing the executives at her co-op took a lot of work. Members of other electric co-ops may find that the challenges she describes sound familiar: “In the old days our electric co-op used to have big meetings with festivities and music, and food and door prizes,” Ruble says. “Now voting is by proxy. The board meetings are in the middle of the week in the middle of the day, so they’re hard for people to attend. You get three minutes to speak. It can feel intimidating. It can feel like they don’t really want people there.”

Another challenge is that many people don’t think much about electricity. Ruble says that showing the cost of wasted electricity gets people’s attention. “You have to pull people in based on their interests,” Ruble says. “We had a graphic of a house with very few words, just showing the loss of energy – dollars flowing out the window. That gets people’s attention. I went to that first workshop myself to see how I could save.”

In addition to workshops, staff and volunteers with Appalachian Voices talked with co-op members and gathered over 1,000 signatures from members in support of an energy efficiency loan program with on-bill financing. Appalachian Voices also organized a “Home Energy Makeover Contest,” which awarded free home energy upgrades to several residents, as well as public events to raise awareness.

The Blue Ridge program is similar to a no-debt investment program called Upgrade to $ave offered by another NC cooperative, Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which provides on-bill financing through an opt-in tariff rather than a loan. While both of these approaches are opening the doors of opportunity for members, the tariffed terms allow renters to also benefit from a utility’s cost effective investments in energy upgrades. For more information on no-debt energy efficiency, see “How Electric Co-ops Can Save Money for their Members.”

Ruble says that at first she wasn’t sure how she could best help on the effort, but realized that as a retiree she had time to spare to help with tabling at grocery stores and local fairs, and had local connections and contacts she could call on. “It’s inspiring to be involved,” she reflects. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, like extending the program to renters, which is really needed but Blue Ridge hasn’t done so far. But it’s a start. We made progress, and we can make more going forward. An electric co-op is still member-owned,” Ruble adds. “You just have to be tenacious, and stay nice.”

The Changing Nature of Rural Electric Cooperatives in the 21st Century

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director

When people think of their electric utility, they don’t usually think about how it operates, or whether it invests in clean energy or could help reduce their energy costs. But this is changing as people struggle to pay their electric bill and as residents grow more concerned about their health, the environment and their local economies.

Larry and Deborah Freeman (left) are Roanoke Electric members who benefited from the Upgrade to $ave program. Photo courtesy of Roanoke Electric Cooperative.

Larry and Deborah Freeman are Roanoke Electric members who benefited from the Upgrade to $ave program. Photo courtesy of Roanoke Electric Cooperative.

After more than a century of primarily generating and selling electricity, many utilities are exploring new business models that better respond to customer needs and the changing electricity market. Rural electric cooperatives, which account for 10 percent of all electricity sales in the United States, are leading the pack in changing how they do business.

“Co-ops are looking at the best way to serve their consumers and provide them with a variety of services,” said Nelle Hotchkiss of the North Carolina Electric Membership Corp. “It’s not just about providing electrons anymore.”

That mindset is the driving force behind new energy efficiency and renewable energy programs being developed by electric co-ops across the country. Many of the most prominent examples have been developed in Appalachia and the Southeast. However, co-ops will have to work closely with the communities they serve if these programs are to reach the scale required to have a significant impact on local economies and the environment. Fortunately, that spirit of cooperation lies at the core of the co-op mission.

Electric Co-ops and America’s Energy Future

Rural electric co-ops are not-for-profit electric utilities owned by their customers, who are considered co-op members. Each member owns an equal vote in electing the Board of Directors — the primary decision-making body of the co-op — and therefore have a strong voice in how their utility is operated.

The nation’s first rural electric co-op was established in Tacoma, Washington in 1914. Over the next two decades, only eight more electric co-ops were developed, and by the mid-1930s only 10 percent of rural homes had electricity, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

 John Kidda, owner of reNew Home Inc , performs an energy audit as part of Appalachian Voices’ home energy makeover contest in 2015.

John Kidda, owner of reNew Home Inc , performs an energy audit as part of Appalachian Voices’ home energy makeover contest in 2015.

Recognizing the need to extend power into rural areas, the federal government encouraged the growth of electric co-ops through a series of initiatives launched in the 1930s. These programs expanded access to the financial resources needed to electrify rural communities, and residents came together and formed their own rural electric co-ops, building the electrical lines and constructing the power plants themselves in some cases.

Today, there are more than 900 electric co-ops serving 42 million people in 47 states. Most co-ops still obtain most of their electricity from large coal, gas and nuclear power plants, which accounts for a lot of the country’s carbon emissions and other energy-related pollution. Rural co-op areas also have a higher concentration of older, drafty homes, meaning that more energy is wasted per customer than is for customers of other electric utilities.

Reducing that waste through increasing energy efficiency and developing more renewable energy would have substantial environmental benefits, eliminating millions of tons of carbon emissions each year and cutting down on other air and water pollution. But it would also have a profound impact on families and local economies.

The average poverty rate in co-op service areas, particularly in Appalachia and the Southeast, is often higher than the national average. With costs for electricity higher in rural areas, co-op members ultimately spend a disproportionate amount of their income on their energy bills. This poses a significant burden on low-to-moderate income residents, exacerbating poverty and diverting money away from local economies.

All this means that there is an opportunity for co-ops to rethink how they provide power to rural areas and manage energy demand. Yet not many co-ops have addressed these issues — until recently.

The Changing Electricity Market

“Would you believe that the people in this room, the people in the electrical industry, are a stubborn group of people?” asked Harold DePriest, CEO of the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga and former Chair of the Tennessee Valley Public Power Authority. “We don’t like to change.” DePriest was speaking at a meeting with representatives from approximately 155 municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives in 2013, arguing that the utilities should be doing more for their members and communities. His point was that by offering programs that improve the lives of their customers, the utilities would discover a new way of doing business.

The U.S. electricity market is evolving from the traditional system of large, centralized power plants to a more efficient, distributed, customer-owned model at a pace much quicker than utilities are comfortable with. Following decades of rising electricity demand, sales are now shrinking due to energy efficiency, conservation and consumer-owned renewable energy. But this means that electric utility revenues are also declining.

In response, many rural electric co-ops are exploring new business models that meet the needs of their members while still generating the revenues they need to operate. “Co-ops by their very nature, because they are locally governed and responsive to their members, have the flexibility to be responsive [to new challenges],” Hotchkiss explains. “There is an evolution going on and we’re not immune to that, nor should we be. Embracing new opportunities is important.”

Many rural electric co-ops in Appalachia and across the Southeast are pursuing renewable energy and energy efficiency programs for their members. A handful of these co-ops are even going beyond energy and playing a more comprehensive role in economic development for their communities.

A Holistic Approach

Marshall Cherry, a native of Bertie County, N.C., has worked with Roanoke Electric Cooperative for 23 years and currently serves as the chief operating officer. “If I’m out in the community and people know me, and know that I work for the co-op, somewhere along the line the conversation does come up about electric bills,” he says.

Federal Financing

In early 2014 the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program. So far, the program has announced more than $60 million in new loan guarantees to electric cooperatives and other utilities to implement on-bill energy efficiency finance and community solar programs to benefit rural areas.

Another new federal program will allow USDA to provide zero-interest loans to rural electric utilities for the utilities to offer on-bill financing to their customers. The Rural Energy Savings Program is expected to be available summer 2016.

According to Cherry, nearly 7 percent of the average household income in Roanoke Electric’s service area is spent on energy costs. This is roughly three times the national average, in an area where many members fall below the poverty line. “So when a member has an electric bill of $1,000 [for a single month], that is close to or above 40 percent of their income in many situations,” Cherry says. To address this problem, the co-op launched Upgrade to $ave, an on-bill energy efficiency finance program, in June 2015.

With on-bill financing, the electric utility pays for a contractor to make improvements, such as weatherization or more efficient heating and cooling systems, to a customer’s home. The resident then repays the utility through a new charge on their bill which is more than offset by the amount they save on their energy bill from the improvements. With Upgrade to $ave, the customer keeps at least 25 percent of the savings. The remainder goes to Roanoke Electric to repay the cost of the improvements.

In other words, despite an added charge on their bill, nearly all customers start to see an immediate reduction in their electricity costs as a result of the efficiency improvements. Once the utility has been reimbursed, 100 percent of the savings are kept by the customer.

Under this model, eligibility for financing is determined by a customer’s bill payment history, not a credit check, and the repayment is attached to the property and not the individual. This allows all residents with good utility bill payment history, including residents of low-income and rental properties to access financing they couldn’t obtain elsewhere.

The results expected by Roanoke Electric are impressive. The first group of retrofitted homes are projected to save nearly $600 a year on their electric bills, even after factoring in the new charge for the upgrades. To fund the program, the co-op received a $6 million federal loan guarantee to help finance energy improvements on as many as 1,000 homes over four years.

The co-op also saves money by not having to purchase as much power during peak hours when electricity is most expensive. “There is a business case for us because we’re more than able to recapture the costs and losses through the financial benefits we receive,” says Cherry.

Roanoke Electric is becoming more service-oriented for their members, offering new opportunities like a community solar program, high-speed internet and a workforce training program for energy efficiency contractors, among other programs.

“We’re now able to offer a package of services that holistically improves the quality of life for our members,” concludes Cherry.

A New Model in Tennessee

Thousands of U.S. residents struggle to pay their electric bills each year, especially in the winter months when heating costs skyrocket. Many residents have to apply for federal funds through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to keep the electricity on. LIHEAP funding is limited, however, so residents are often competing for assistance.

One resident from Tazewell, Tenn., a member of Powell Valley Electric Cooperative, shared her experience with applying for LIHEAP funding. “For years, to get assistance with our electric bills we sat out [by the weatherization assistance agency’s building] all night,” she recalled. “You had to get there the night before because they only had enough [funding] for so many applications. I would sit there and I would doze off and when I woke I had snow on my blanket.”

“The line would go all the way out around the food stamp office and back down the highway.” she said.

Amy Kelly of Appalachian Voices, speaks with a volunteer at a hunger ministry about the burden of high energy costs in Tazewell, Tenn..

Amy Kelly of Appalachian Voices, speaks with a volunteer at a hunger ministry about the burden of high energy costs in Tazewell, Tenn.

And while the LIHEAP program helps families pay their energy bills, it doesn’t address the underlying problems of poverty and energy waste in homes. The only other source of funding available, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, provides just enough funding to weatherize about 800 homes a year in Tennessee — a drop in the bucket compared to what the U.S. Census Bureau identifies as more than 700,000 homes in poverty and 1.2 million homes that are over 35 years old in the state. Even though most Tennessee co-ops and municipal utilities offer energy efficiency loan programs, many residents aren’t eligible because they don’t own their home or fail to meet the credit requirements.

But thanks to the leadership of a handful of co-ops, a new opportunity is launching this year that will be available for residents of all income levels, as well as renters.
“We see members every month who do not qualify for current energy efficiency programs due to their credit score, yet they are good electric bill payers,” says Greg Williams, general manager of Appalachian Electric Cooperative. “We also see every winter members who simply struggle to pay high bills. Helping our members to improve their quality of life is foundational to who we are and that includes helping them lower their electric bill.”

A new statewide on-bill finance program — expected to be launched this fall — is a direct result of the efforts of Appalachian Voices, which is the publisher of this newspaper, and of Appalachian Electric Cooperative’s commitment to finding new energy solutions for its members. The conversation began three years ago, and generated additional interest from the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association as well as support from the state Department of Environment and Conservation, the program is expected to launch this fall.

While only Appalachian Electric has committed to the program thus far, as many as 10 of the state’s co-ops are expected to participate. Williams hopes to see the program expand even further. “If we could get every co-op in the state to adopt this program, that would be amazing and would create an enormous impact across the state for energy efficiency,” he says.

Responding to growing member interest in solar energy, Appalachian Electric is also developing a community solar program that allows members to lease solar panels and earn a credit on their electric bill for the power generated by the panels. In total, the project will cover the energy needs of more than 100 homes. While this is a significant achievement, it represents less than a half percent of the co-op’s total membership.

A number of factors are working together to limit the amount of solar that co-ops can develop. As demand for solar from co-op members grows and the price continues to fall, co-ops that want to meet that demand and keep up with the changing market will need to develop new solutions.

“The Utility of Today”

In 2013, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. was one of the first co-ops Appalachian Voices reached out to when advocating for on-bill financing. Blue Ridge Electric is one of the largest electric co-ops serving Appalachia. Following a number of meetings with co-op executives, it became clear that there was only one way they would consider creating such a program.

Mary Ruble, a Blue Ridge Electric member, discusses efficiency with stakeholders at a community meeting.

Mary Ruble, a Blue Ridge Electric member, discusses efficiency with stakeholders at a community meeting.

“They kept telling us they needed to hear from the members,” Ashe County, N.C., resident Mary Ruble said in an interview with the national nonprofit WeOwnIt. “So we got over 1,000 signatures from co-op members on a petition,” she said. “We got publicity. We went to the annual meeting. We made sure they heard from members.”

Partnering with Appalachian Voices, Ruble and other community stakeholders expressed their support for an on-bill finance program, and in April of this year Blue Ridge Electric launched the Energy SAVER Loan Program. While renters are not eligible to apply, the program offers affordable loans for member homeowners to pay for energy efficiency improvements such as insulation and new heating systems.

Sean Dunlap — Story of Success

Blue Ridge Electric member Sean Dunlap lives with his wife and two children in a 1938 farm house built by his wife’s great-grandfather. Two years ago, the family was struggling with high heating bills and staying warm in the winter. “It was frustrating and expensive,” said Dunlap. “Having an infant in a house that gets really, really cold in the wintertime is stressful.”

In late 2014, the Dunlap family applied for Appalachian Voices’ Home Energy Makeover Contest and won $800 worth of insulation and air sealing. According to an analysis by the consulting firm ResiSpeak, those improvements saved the Dunlap’s nearly 10 percent on their energy bills in 2015. “We are so thankful for all of the work that was done on our house. We immediately began noticing an improvement in the comfort of our home and saved quite a bit on our heating costs last winter,” said Dunlap.

The current pilot program will finance $100,000 in energy retrofits during the first phase. If the program is successful, the co-op plans to expand it after the first year.

“We’re making life better for our members by offering a way for them to be able to afford a more comfortable and efficient home,” says Blue Ridge Electric’s Energy Efficiency Marketing Manager Jon Jacob. “Even those who don’t participate benefit because energy efficiency is integral to helping us keep our rates from going up.”

The program isn’t the first of its kind to be developed in western North Carolina. French Broad Electric Membership Corp. launched an on-bill financing program in 2013 and has financed nearly $1 million in new energy efficient heat pumps for its members.

French Broad’s Director of Member Services Sam Hutchins got the idea for the program from his own experience with high energy bills. “Several years ago, I received a $500 December power bill for my double wide [manufactured home] that had an old electric furnace,” he says. “I knew I could not afford to continue heating that way. Through internet research I found [high efficiency] heat pumps. If that was the answer for me, I knew it could help others.”

These two programs are having an immediate economic impact, not only through saving co-op members money, but by hiring local contractors to make the improvements and install the heating systems.
“On-bill financing for energy efficiency improvements represents our best chance to provide good local jobs and reduce our energy consumption,” says Sam Zimmerman, president of Sunny Day Homes and one of Blue Ridge Electric’s program contractors as well as an Appalachian Voices supporter. “Brought to scale this program would demonstrate that what helps the environment sometimes helps the economy even more.”

A High Country Energy Solutions employee weatherizes Sean Dunlap’s home.

A High Country Energy Solutions employee weatherizes Sean Dunlap’s home.

Due to rising demand from their members, Blue Ridge Electric is also in the process of developing a community solar project that will generate enough electricity at the start to power about 50 homes. The co-op is also exploring services like integrating battery storage into their grid, providing a rooftop solar option and selling home energy management technologies.

“As part of our changing business model, we have to find ways to fund clean energy projects through other revenue sources,” says Jacob. When asked whether Blue Ridge Electric was becoming a “utility of the future,” he responded, “It’s no longer ‘of the future,’ but rather ‘utility of today.’ It’s happening now.”

Cooperation is the key

Despite the progress made by Appalachian co-ops, the programs are still relatively new and have yet to make a significant dent in reducing energy waste and driving local economic development. Less than one-third of the co-ops serving central Appalachian communities have developed or committed to on-bill finance programs. Even where the programs exist, achieving the level of investment and participation that is possible in the region is proving to be a challenge.

Chris Woolery of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development coordinates the How$mart Kentucky on-bill finance program, which launched in 2010 and currently has six participating co-ops. Yet in six years fewer than 500 homes have benefitted. But Woolery has an idea of what’s needed to expand that impact. “We want to see energy efficiency as an economic driver in the region,” he says. “That requires bringing the community together and creating advocates for this kind of program one household at a time.”

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign is promoting on-bill energy efficiency financing through rural electric cooperatives serving western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. To learn more visit:

Survey says … energy efficiency financing needed in western NC

Monday, June 13th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

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Want to learn how to lower your electric bill and make your home more comfortable? Turns out, lots of folks do. Appalachian Voices, in partnership with Resource Media, conducted a Facebook survey last month in parts of Western North Carolina and the results from 300 respondents shed light on values and needs when it comes to energy efficiency in the region.

Respondents included members of four western North Carolina co-ops (Energy United, Surry-Yadkin, French Broad, and Blue Ridge electric cooperatives) and customers of Duke Energy. The vast majority, 89%, reported that they have trouble paying their energy bills.

We know from data available in these areas that tens of thousands of homes are older and drafty, with outdated appliances and heating and cooling systems. Inefficient homes lead to unnecessarily high utility bills and huge energy waste, which has a negative impact on pocket books, health and comfort and our environment.

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Poverty rates in the counties surveyed range from 17% to 23%. But even a family of four earning up to $47,700 a year (twice the poverty level) would struggle to pay high electric bills, and that constitutes almost half of the population in the survey area. So it’s no surprise that 69% said that being able to afford the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades was the biggest challenge to improving their homes. Another one-third said taking on debt to make upgrades would be a challenge.

This survey is just one of many indicators of the tremendous unmet demand for financing for energy efficiency upgrades, which would lower bills and make homes more comfortable. Fortunately, a program model exists which would help overcome barriers for families so that they could access financing without taking on personal debt and make much needed improvements on their homes.

Comprehensive on-bill financing is a tool that some electric cooperatives in the South have already implemented with great success. With this type of program, the electric utility pays the upfront costs for home improvements which result in energy savings for most members. The member then repays the utility each month on their bill using a portion of the savings that result from the efficiency improvements. When respondents were asked whether they’d be interested in learning more about this type of opportunity, 80% reported some level of interest.

There are some no-cost and low-cost measures that residents can do on their own to improve home efficiency, and there is help available from social service organizations to assist with home weatherization for some who can’t afford it. But unfortunately, the need far outweighs the resources available.

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On-bill energy efficiency financing is a program that can help meet that need and it’s a win for everyone involved — our environment benefits from reduced reliance on fossil fuels due to a reduction in energy use, residents benefit from more comfortable homes and lower electric bills, and the community benefits from increased economic opportunity with the addition of more jobs to do the home upgrades.

Appalachian Voices continues to work to educate communities about ways to implement energy efficiency measures, and to help electric cooperatives implement comprehensive on-bill financing in Tennessee and North Carolina. If you’d like to send a letter to your utility to ask them to provide energy efficiency financing visit our Energy Savings Action Center.

Keeping energy through the generations

Friday, June 10th, 2016 - posted by Lou Murrey
Barbara and Paul Cochran, pictured in their very energy efficient home in east Tennessee. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Barbara and Paul Cochran, pictured in their very energy efficient home in east Tennessee. Photo by Lou Murrey.

“We do everything we can to keep energy,” Barbara Taylor says as she heads down the stairs to the basement of the home she has shared with her husband, Paul, in New Tazewell, Tennessee since 1980. Outside it’s a humid 78 degrees, but in the narrow basement room that houses the Taylors’ heat pump it’s cool and dry.

Standing next to a wall of canned fruits and vegetables, Barbara points to the individual pieces of rigid board insulation she has neatly cut to fit between the ceiling joists and chuckles. “See where the pipe is, I put some caulking in and put some insulation ‘round where I finally cut the hole too big.”

The duct that runs along the ceiling from the gas heat pump in the corner of the room is tightly wrapped and sealed with thick insulation and was installed with the original electric heat pump. The Taylors switched to a gas heat pump two years ago when their electric heat pump quit working. Barbara and Paul both maintain that gas was just the more affordable option, even with Powell Valley Electric’s (PVEC) heat pump financing program.

Barbara Cochran points out her energy-efficiency handiwork in her east Tennessee home. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Barbara Cochran points out her energy-efficiency handiwork in her east Tennessee home. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Barbara recalls that in the 80’s when their electric heat pump was installed they did participate in PVEC’s heat pump financing program. The interest was at 8% and the co-op asked the homeowner to do the weatherization improvements themselves before installation. When asked if they would have chosen an electric heat pump had it been more affordable, both of them said yes. “We loved our electric pump,” Barbara says.

Heading back up the stairs to where Paul is waiting on the couch in the living room, Barbara mentions that she and her son installed all the insulation behind the cedar paneling in the basement.

Before they returned to Claiborne County in the 80’s, the Taylors lived in Michigan where Paul was a millwright for the Ford Motor Company. In 1978, he suffered a fall on the job and broke his back and crushed both of his heels, so aside from the installation of the heat pump, Barbara has done the majority of the weatherization in their home. In addition to the joist and duct insulation, she has sealed the windows with caulk, put up heavy curtains on all of the windows, weatherstripped the door so well it hardly opens, and she has still found time to replace the air filter each month.

Together, Paul and Barbara have an extensive knowledge of weatherization, and without hesitation they both profess that they learned it when they were kids. “We were poor when we grew up. He comes from a family of thirteen, and I come from a family of nine,” Barbara says.

“At one time,” Paul picks up the story, “there was twelve of us living in a three room house and a lot of times when they built houses back then they would use green wood and as the wood dried out you’d have cracks in the floor where air would get in.” Thriftiness and a keen understanding of how a home performs most efficiently were just a way of life for their families.

Barbara and Paul both grew up in Claiborne County and just like how they learned to grow and process the food from the garden from their parents, it was from their parents they learned about insulating a home to save money and stay warm. Barbara describes how her mother would use old clothes and newspapers to insulate their home. Paul goes on to explain how his folks used a paste made from flour and water to plaster newspapers to the walls and prevent air leaks. “They put it [the paste] on the wood to let it stick to keep the air from coming into the house.”

The methods behind energy efficiency may have changed but the science behind those methods remain the same. You could say weatherization has become a tradition in the Taylor family, as Paul and Barbara have passed along their skills and sensible approach to using energy efficiently to their own children and grandchildren. Speaking of her children, Barbara proudly reports that in the wintertime they put heavier curtains up. Adds Paul: “They put plastic over their windows that keeps the air that seeps underneath windows, that’ll keep it from coming through.”

If anyone was wondering whether the Taylors’ weatherization efforts have paid off, it seems they have. Their electric bill is barely more than $100 a month, and has been as low as $50 in the winter and that their electric bill and gas bill combined have never been more than $200. An electric bill as low as $50 is not the norm for many people in Claiborne County acknowledges Paul. “I’ll put it this way. Our electric bill is the cheapest one in this community.”

It’s likely true that using gas as a heat source is a factor in their low electric bills, but the weatherization they have done is not only about saving money, it is also about living in a comfortable home. Paul proudly states that if they added any more insulation their ceiling would fall down. The couple recognizes that not everyone has the physical ability, knowledge or money to make weatherization improvements to their home.

Powell Valley Electric Cooperative has an opportunity to participate in a state-wide program that would make energy efficiency improvements such as those the Taylors made accessible to people of any income. The Taylors believe that this “pay-as-you save” on-bill financing program would relieve the energy burden of many people in their community.

To start a conversation with your electric cooperative about the potential for them to offer this program, call them today.

Reports show need for energy efficiency financing in western NC

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016 - posted by cat

Rory McIlmoil, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500,
Amber Moodie-Dyer, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500,
Daniel Kauffman, ResiSpeak, 919-812-5657,

John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit on the a local home as part of the "High Country Home Energy Contest."

John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit on the a local home as part of the “High Country Home Energy Contest.”

BOONE, N.C. — Two reports released today by Appalachian Voices show how effective home energy efficiency improvements can be for saving families money and the tremendous customer demand in western North Carolina for accessible, upfront financing to make such improvements.

The first report details the energy savings achieved after one year for the three winners of the “High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest” launched in late 2014 by Appalachian Voices. A total of $5,300 was spent on insulation, air sealing and other improvements for the three families, which are served by the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

The report found a direct correlation between the amount of money invested and resulting energy cost savings. Importantly, the contest winners immediately benefitted from more comfortable and healthier homes. Zack Dixon of Boone and Vance Woodie of West Jefferson each saved 15% on their energy bills: Dixon had $3,200 worth of improvements and saved $181 for the year, and Woodie had $1,300 worth of improvements and saved $125. The Dunlap family of Sugar Grove had $800 of improvements and saved 8%, amounting to annual savings of more than $80 even though their home is heated primarily with wood.

“We are so thankful for all of the work that was done on our house. We immediately began noticing an improvement in the comfort of our home and saved quite a bit on our heating costs last winter,” Sean Dunlap says.

The three families won the improvements in the contest and do not have to pay back the costs, but for a utility-financed program, the energy savings from the upgrades on the three homes would pay off the cost, on average, in 13 years, and the savings would continue after that. “Based on the results from these homes, it is clear that a modest investment in insulating, air sealing and fixing air ducts can save significant amounts of energy and provide a decent return on investment,” says Daniel Kauffman, President of ResiSpeak, which produced the report.

Appalachian Voices conducted the contest in part as a way to raise awareness of the opportunity for rural electric cooperatives to help pay the upfront costs for their members to invest in energy efficiency and enable them to pay off the cost on their monthly bills over time, a financing tool called “on-bill financing.” In April, Blue Ridge EMC announced its pilot Energy SAVER Loan Program, which is providing $100,000 in loans to as many as 30 homeowners to pay for weatherization, insulation and heating system improvements.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil hopes to see the pilot expand to a permanent, larger-scale program and says other co-ops in the region could offer comprehensive energy efficiency financing as well.

“In the region served by Blue Ridge, Surry-Yadkin and French Broad electric cooperatives, there are 24,000 families living in poverty and 72,000 homes that are more than 30 years old,” says McIlmoil. “These numbers suggest that what’s needed to fully tackle the problem of high energy costs is millions of dollars a year that is made available to help residents of all income levels afford energy efficiency improvements. That level of investment would also provide a significant boost to local economies.”

Also released today are the results of a regional Facebook survey conducted for Appalachian Voices by Resource Media that further illustrate the need for accessible financing for home energy improvements. Of the 300 survey respondents, which include customers of four western North Carolina co-ops and of Duke Energy, 89% said they have trouble paying their energy bills sometimes, often or always. Additionally, 69% said being able to afford the upfront cost of improvements was one of the biggest challenges, and 40% said they would apply for on-bill financing from their electric utility if such a program were offered.

“We know that there are still many unmet needs when it comes to achieving the region’s energy efficiency potential,” says Amber Moodie-Dyer, North Carolina Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator at Appalachian Voices. “We continue to partner with the community and electric co-ops to expand access to energy upgrades that improve home comfort, help residents save money, provide local jobs and business opportunities, and help protect our water, air and other natural resources.”

Visit Energy Savings for Appalachia for more information.