Posts Tagged ‘Energy Efficiency’

French Broad communities broadly support on-bill financing

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

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

The region served by the French Broad Electric Membership Corp. is an old rural area, with towns hanging on the precipice of a post-industrial existence, struggling to reinvent themselves. But the main towns of Marshall, Mars Hill, Burnsville, Bakersville, Spruce Pine and others are in the budding stage of a reinvention, with new locally owned cafes, breweries and other businesses popping up, and local governments exploring new economic development strategies. One of the greatest hurdles for these communities, however, is figuring out how to address the aging housing stock (more than 17,000 homes are more than 25 years old), the high poverty rate and the associated burden of energy costs for families and businesses.

That discussion is now happening, thanks to the efforts of Appalachian Voices and numerous community representatives dedicated to helping improve the lives of residents and supporting local economic development. As an expression of this commitment, last week nearly 60 community members came out to learn about and discuss how “on-bill energy efficiency financing” could improve their lives and their local economies.

The “French Broad Community Energy Forum” brought together residents who are members of the electric co-op, local government and economic development representatives, community service agencies, numerous businesses, and a regional development council. The forum even drew Nelle Hotchkiss, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations for the North Carolina Electric Membership Corp. — the statewide co-op owned by the state’s 26 rural electric cooperatives. The forum was sponsored by the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group, with Appalachian Voices, Community Housing Coalition of Madison County, and Southern Reconciliation House (Yancey County) serving as co-sponsors.

The purpose of the event was to serve as both an informational session and a discussion forum. It was kicked off with a warm welcome by Eliza Laubach, who was serving her last day as Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings Outreach Associate. Eliza spent two years with us as an AmeriCorps and a part-time employee, and helping to organize the forum was her last major contribution to our organization.

Following Eliza, I gave a short presentation to illustrate the extent to which on-bill financing (OBF) investments are needed in the French Broad co-op service area.The high poverty level and the fact that more than 17,200 homes are more than 25 years old suggest a significant potential for reducing energy costs through OBF.

Next to speak were representatives from three community service agencies — Neighbors in Need, Community Housing Coalition and Southern Reconciliation House. Each of the speakers shared their experience with residents facing high energy costs and living in poor housing conditions, and how their respective service agencies assist with housing support and assistance with paying energy bills. Perhaps the key moment in the day came when John Miller of Southern Reconciliation House mentioned that they are only able to help 20 percent of all the families that seek their support with paying their heating and electric bills each winter. All three speakers ended their presentations with strong statements of support for comprehensive financing for home energy improvements available to all French Broad co-op customers.

Sam Hutchins, French Broad’s Member Services Manager, finished out the morning presentations by discussing the structure and operation of electric cooperatives. Notably, Sam shared how the co-op pays Duke Energy $17 per kilowatt of demand, with that price rising to $20 next year. Because of that, Sam said that even installing load management devices on residents’ water heaters could save the co-op, and therefore its members, a substantial amount of money each year. Unfortunately, Sam didn’t say that a comprehensive OBF program that covers all heating systems, appliances, weatherization and other improvements could achieve even greater savings. In fact, perhaps the only “failure” for the event was that, by the end of the day, Sam hadn’t been moved by all of the facts and stories and expressions of support to commit French Broad co-op to even taking steps to explore offering such a program.

Following a delicious lunch by Sweet Monkey Cafe, a local cafe in Marshall, Wesley Holmes of the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (and coordinator of the North Carolina On-Bill Working Group), provided a detailed overview of OBF programs. Then, John Kidda, President of reNew Home Inc. — an energy services provider based out of Boone, discussed how he struggles to grow his business and maintain a dedicated working crew because there isn’t enough financial support available for families to afford his services, especially the families that most need it.

For more than 90 minutes at the end of the forum, community members had the chance to engage each of the speakers to ask questions about other clean energy programs French Broad is exploring or planning to offer, how different service agencies are funded and to what extent they lack sufficient funding for meeting community needs, and how the community can move forward to share and bring more resources to those in need.

Overall, the French Broad Community Energy Forum was a huge success. It showed how strongly knit these communities are, and how hard they work to help residents and even businesses who struggle to pay their energy bills, need help with basic home repairs, or are looking to gain a foothold as a new local business. Most of all, it showed just how strong the public support is across the French Broad co-op area for comprehensive on-bill energy efficiency financing, which could save residents as much as 10 percent on their energy costs while benefiting their electric co-op as well.

Additionally, a strong OBF program would generate new jobs and investment for French Broad communities while improving the local housing stock, raising property values and potentially attracting more people to the region. And while the French Broad co-op has yet to commit to developing such a program, it’s important to keep in mind that the co-op is owned by and accountable to its members and the communities it serves.

The voice of the communities served by French Broad EMC is growing louder, and moving forward, Appalachian Voices is committed to helping that growing collective voice be heard.

If you’d like to join our effort to expand inclusive energy efficiency financing to the French Broad region or to other areas in western North Carolina or East Tennessee, visit our website or contact Rory McIlmoil at (828) 262-1500.

Boone community comes together to tackle energy waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Projects to Save Energy and Money

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Story and photos by Adam Sheffield

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

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


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

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

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

Heating & Cooling

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

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


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

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

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

Insulation & Air Leakage

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

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


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

Water Heaters

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

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


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

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

Gathering Communities in East Tennessee

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Josie Lee Varela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about the WeOwnIt initiative on their website.

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.

energysavings

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 adam.sheffield@appvoices.org.

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.