Posts Tagged ‘rural electric cooperatives’

Two North Carolina counties make energy efficiency history

Saturday, March 25th, 2017 - posted by Lauren


Two counties in western North Carolina — Yancey and Mitchell — are the first in the United States to pass resolutions supporting development of “on-bill financing” by their electric utility for residential energy efficiency improvements.

The counties are served by French Broad Electric Membership Corporation, which serves 34,000 people. The co-op has a successful on-bill financing program for mini-split heat pumps, but has not implemented a more comprehensive and inclusive energy efficiency financing program, despite support from community stakeholders. The resolutions, proposed by Appalachian Voices, call on French Broad to develop a program that offers upfront financing for all residents, including low-income households and renters, to make home energy improvements. According to the Pay-As-You-Save program model, the member would repay the cost on their bill over time, but the energy savings would ensure a reduction in the average monthly bill, not an increase.

The Yancey County Commission was the first to pass the resolution, on February 13.. There is both a great opportunity and a great need for energy efficiency investments in Yancey County. According to the 2010-2014 U.S. Census, 77% of the county’s occupied housing stock is more than 25 years old, accounting for more than 5,700 housing units, of which 1,280 are rental properties.

Additionally, nearly one in every six households in Yancey County live in poverty, and the area median income is nearly 20% lower than the state median income. A study conducted by Accounting Insights found that county residents living below 50% of the poverty line spent an average of 44%of their household income on energy costs in 2015.

The Mitchell County Commission passed its resolution on March 6. The county faces similar housing conditions, poverty rates and energy cost burden as Yancey County.

Together, Yancey and Mitchell counties make up almost half of French Broad’s membership. Madison County, home to another 34% of French Broad’s members, is scheduled to consider the same resolution in April.

On-bill financing for home energy efficiency upgrades has been implemented successfully by other North Carolina electric co-ops. For instance, Roanoke Electric Cooperative in northeastern North Carolina launched its Upgrade to $ave program in 2015. Based on the Pay-As-You-Save model, Upgrade to $ave is accessible to renters and to members with less-than-ideal credit scores who might not qualify for conventional financing.

The on-bill financing program supported by Yancey and Mitchell counties would help relieve the burden of energy costs and improve the quality of living for thousands of French Broad members, while also stimulating local economies. The resolutions show that local leaders in the French Broad region believe that addressing energy costs is an important part of strengthening local economies and improving the lives of local residents, and that French Broad could play a central role in achieving those goals.

If you want to get involved, contact Lauren Essick at (828) 262-1500, or via email.

Rural electric co-ops invest in community solar

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Solar farm

BARC’s solar farm contains 1,750 solar panels and produces 550 kilowatts of energy. Photo courtesy of the BARC Electric Cooperative

Editor’s note: Versions of this story first appeared in the December-January issue of The Appalachian Voice and the December 15 edition of the Mountain Times.

“We’re at an age where we need to start looking at alternative energy,” says Olivia Haney, an electric cooperative member in Virginia since 1989.

Many electric co-ops in the Southeast agree. Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation in North Carolina, BARC Electric Cooperative in Virginia and the Appalachian Electric Cooperative in Tennessee have each recently launched community solar projects to help members save money while reducing carbon emissions.

Community solar is a cooperative alternative to installing solar panels on an individual residence. Instead of dealing with the upfront and maintenance costs of solar panel installation on their house, homeowners can invest in a solar farm, or array of solar panels, provided by the electric cooperative. Community solar also allows co-op members with homes not suitable for solar panel installation due to the shading and positioning of the building to benefit from renewable energy.

Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation recently completed construction of four solar farms located in Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany and Caldwell counties in North Carolina. Each of the solar arrays contains 368 solar panels. Together, the four arrays can produce over 600,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

Co-op members can subscribe to the energy produced by individual solar panels, up to a maximum of 10 panels, for a monthly fee of $4.50 per panel. The energy produced by their share of the solar array will show up as a credit on their electricity bill.

The solar panels went into operation on November 23. Within the first three weeks, 111 members subscribed to a total of over 300 panels.

“A lot of the interest has been driven by a financial interest so far,” says Jon Jacob, Energy Solutions Marketing Manager for Blue Ridge Electric. However, based on the utility’s model, cost savings will only be possible for members who use high amounts of energy. According to Jacob, Blue Ridge Electric is also reaching out to members interested in the environmental benefits of solar energy.

Blue Ridge Electric serves over 70,000 members, providing electricity to the majority of Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany and Caldwell counties, as well as portions of Avery, Wilkes and Alexander counties. Residential and small commercial customers are eligible to participate in the program.

The View from Virginia and Tennessee

BARC Electric Cooperative’s solar farm consists of 1,750 solar panels. The new project provides up to one-fourth of the total energy needs of each of the 220 households that have joined the solar program.

Community members who live in the five rural counties in Virginia that BARC covers can apply to be a part of the program. This co-op covers all of Bath County and parts of Highland, Alleghany, Augusta and Rockbridge counties. BARC member Haney joined the community solar program after learning about the environmental benefits of renewable energy.

Appalachian Electric Cooperative, based in New Market, Tenn., has also recently started a community solar program. According to Mitch Cain, the co-op’s director of member services, the solar array — which consists of 9,471 panels at 145 watts each — is in a test phase and will be fully operational on Jan. 12. Any residential or commercial member of Appalachian Electric can take part in this new initiative.

Subscribers to Appalachian Electric’s solar program can invest in individual solar panels. Members pay $125 per 145-watt panel as an upfront cost. There is a cap at 5,000 watts per residential customer and 10,000 watts for commercial subscriptions. Members begin receiving solar energy credits on their bills the month after they start the program. The time needed to recover a member’s investment is estimated to be about 12 years.

Community Solar’s Effect on Carbon Emissions

Solar panels convert energy from the sun into electricity that can be used in place of other non-renewable sources such as coal and natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change.

According to Blue Ridge Electric, each solar array has offset between three to four tons of carbon dioxide in the first couple weeks of operation. Together, the arrays could offset as much as 375 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

BARC’s calculations state that their solar project will prevent 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.

Appalachian Electric’s program projects that 202 pounds of carbon will be offset per year for each panel installed. Over 20 years, one panel will keep 3,866 pounds of carbon from entering the atmosphere.

“Solar is here. It is something we can harness and use to help us and help the environment,” BARC co-op member Olivia Haney says. “Hopefully we will see more of this, and hopefully we will see more than just the co-ops looking to do this.”

Blue Ridge Electric members interested in the community solar program can visit or contact Jon Jacob, Energy Solutions Marketing Manager, at 828-759-8956 or

BARC Electric Cooperative members interested in the community solar program can visit or call (800) 846-2272.

Appalachian Electric Cooperative members interested in the solar program can visit or call 865-475-2032 ext. 1880.

The Appalachian Voice Editorial Assistant Tristin Van Ord contributed to this story. To read her original piece in The Appalachian Voice, click here.

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.

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:

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.

Home Energy Contest Reveals Pressing Need in Western NC

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015 - posted by cat

Residents spend three times national average on energy bills

Rory McIlmoil, Energy Policy Director, 828-262-1500,
Sarah Kellogg, North Carolina Field Organizer, 828-262-1500,

Boone, N.C. — In announcing the three winners of its “High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest” today, Appalachian Voices said that the need for residential energy efficiency improvements in one of the poorest areas of the state is even greater than originally believed.

Nearly 70 residents of the High Country entered the contest, launched in October by Appalachian Voices, a regional nonprofit conservation organization based in Boone. Key information about household income, energy use and expenses, and basic information about the applicants’ homes was provided. Based on the submitted information, Appalachian Voices found that the average applicant spent more than 8% of his or her monthly income on electricity and gas between November 2013 and October 2014—nearly three times the national average of 2.7% reported by the Federal Energy Information Administration. A preliminary analysis had indicated that people in this area pay an average of 3.9% of their income on their energy bill. In addition, the contest revealed that more than a quarter of applicants spent 15% or more of their income on energy bills.

“While we are extremely glad that we can help these three families lower their energy costs and make their homes more comfortable this winter, there are thousands of homes in this area that are in dire need of fundamental improvements like insulation and weatherization,” said Rory McIlmoil, Energy Policy Director. “Energy costs can be a huge burden for families and are especially burdensome given the average poverty rate of 23% in this region.”

Appalachian Voices targeted the contest to the service territory of Blue Ridge Electric (BRE) Membership Corp.—generally, Alleghany, Ashe, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and parts of Avery, Alexander and Wilkes counties. BRE is the sixth largest of the 26 electric membership cooperatives in the state. In addition to providing the winners a combined total of $4,850 worth of home improvements to help lower their energy costs, the contest was aimed at generating public support for BRE to offer loans to its members that pay for home energy efficiency upgrades and are paid back by a portion of the money they save each month on their electric bills, with the remainder of the savings benefiting the participating members. Such “on-bill financing” programs have been extremely successful in other places, including in areas of North Carolina served by electric co-ops.

“If BRE offered this financing, and just 1% of its members took out a $7,500 loan, that would translate into roughly $4.7 million in local investment and 70 jobs created for this area,” McIlmoil said. “But more importantly, it would help improve the quality of life and reduce energy costs for people, alleviating the impacts of the high level of poverty we see in the region.”

NOTE TO EDITORS: Contact Sarah Kellogg to arrange interviews with the winners; see here for more information and pictures of the winners.

The grand prize winner, Zachary Dixon of Boone, heats his house with space heaters and chronically struggles to pay his electricity bill. His power has been cut off by BRE twice this winter due to overdrawing his pre-paid account. “I just don’t want to be freezing anymore,” he said. “There’ve been times when I don’t want to get out of bed and be in the cold. I never realized how much heat I’ve been losing.” Mr. Dixon’s prize will cover more than $3,000 in insulation for the floors and attic, and weatherization throughout the house to seal in heat and reduce his electricity use.

Runner-up Vance Woodie and his wife Thelma heat their turn-of-the-century home in West Jefferson with an oil furnace, but the old ducts have not been replaced and draw cold air from the basement, which also causes problems with air quality in their home. “I guess that’s why the dust still comes thick in the house,” Mr. Woodie said. The elderly couple shuts off part of their house in the winter, but they still spend 16% of their income on energy bills. “We needed something, some kind of help, so we took a chance.” They will receive $800 worth of work to remove and seal off the old air ducts, as well as adding insulation where possible.

The other runner-up, Sean Dunlap, lives with his wife and two children in a 1938 farm house in Sugar Grove built by his wife’s great-grandfather. Their $800 prize money will cover adding insulation and weatherization, the lack of which places their plumbing at risk and results in a cold home in the winter. “We are so excited to find out that we won,” said Mr. Dunlap. “Now our work with Appalachian Voices will continue as we upgrade our house. Their professionalism and expertise have already made a huge difference and now we are able to look forward to making our home more efficient, comfortable and livable for our family.”

“An on-bill energy efficiency financing program would allow households in our area to make tremendous reductions in their energy consumption instead of continuing to burn money by heating inefficient homes year after year,” said John Kidda, President of reNew Home, Inc., a Boone-based home energy improvement company. “Such a program would also stimulate the recovering construction and home improvement industries, putting more money in the hands of local tradespeople and creating jobs in the process.”

The work will be performed by one or more of the five local businesses that have sponsored or supported the contest and volunteered their time throughout the process. They include Blue Ridge Energy Works, LLC, High Country Energy Solutions, Inc., HomEfficient, reNew Home, Inc., and Sunny Day Homes, Inc.

The contest was also sponsored by the Blumenthal Foundation, LifeStore Insurance and ResiSpeak. The North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance provided home walk-through assessments and energy audits. Appalachian Voices extends its deepest gratitude to each of the businesses and organizations for their support.

More information about Blue Ridge Electric and the benefits of energy efficiency programs can be found at

John Kidda, reNew Home, Inc., can be reached at (828) 719-5057.

Appalachian Voices is a nonprofit organization that brings people together to protect the communities and natural resources of the region by promoting a shift from harmful, polluting energy practices, including mountaintop removal coal mining, to a cleaner, more just and sustainable energy future. With 23 staff in offices in Boone and Raleigh, N.C., and Charlottesville, Va., Appalachian Voices works at the local, state and federal level, focusing on grassroots organizing and policy reform.

Oil and Gas Boom Straining America’s Energy Infrastructure

Friday, August 23rd, 2013 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

The United States is experiencing a natural gas boom largely due to advances in drilling and extraction technologies. And in recent years, some have celebrated the fuel as a bridge to a clean energy and carbon-free future. But according to a report by the Center for American Progress, the other side of the bridge must come before 2030.

The report claims that the use of natural gas, particularly in the electric-power sector, must peak in the next seven to 17 years for the U.S. to meet its climate goals. Additionally, to truly be a bridge fuel, the report argues that the expansion of natural gas should be used to create investments in clean energy development, energy efficiency and the resilience of communities threatened by climate-related extreme weather.

Adding to the challenges of effectively managing America’s natural gas boom is the strain it places on national energy infrastructure. According to Jason Bordoff, a former White House energy adviser, nearly one-third of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is simply flared off — an environmentally harmful and economically wasteful practice of burning off natural gas that cannot be collected because the pipeline system has not kept up with the boom in North American energy production.

Truck and rail are seen as alternatives for transporting crude oil when pipelines are operating at capacity or when a production area lacks pipeline infrastructure. The Energy Information Administration’s latest Refinery Capacity Report shows a 57 percent increase in oil received by refineries by rail, truck, and barge in 2012 over the previous year, increasingly the likelihood of spills and accidents. A decade ago there were less than a dozen accidents from railroad cars carrying crude oil each year; last year there were 88.

S.C. Energy Savings Pilot Program Releases Final Report

South Carolina’s electric cooperatives in July announced the results of their “Help My House” energy efficiency pilot program, which provided loans for energy efficiency upgrades to homes. Through the program, the member-owners of the cooperatives who participated were able to repay the loans through their monthly utility bills. According to the program’s results, participating homeowners reduced their energy usage by 34 percent in the year after the upgrades, saving each participant an average of $288 per home after loan repayments. Over the next 15 years, the Help My House program is expected to save more than $8,500 for the average participating home.

Solar Leasing: Crediting Electric Bills with the Sun

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013 - posted by molly

By Davis Wax

Josh Bills and Steve Boyce at the Berea Solar Farm. Photo courtesy Josh Bills

Josh Bills and Steve Boyce at the Berea Solar Farm. Photo courtesy Josh Bills

Energy distribution for the people, by the people. That was the founding principle of electric cooperatives and municipal utilities as they sprang up in the United States throughout the twentieth century.

Today, any profits made by these member- or city-owned utilities go back into infrastructure, operation, or payments towards their member-investors. Seldom have they veered from the distribution game and tried generating their own energy, but across the country this is beginning to change. It’s a new tide in the energy world driven by the pull of solar power.

In 2009, the city of Berea, Ky., wishing to upgrade its energy infrastructure, applied for the federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which aids the development of energy efficiency and conservation programs for small municipalities. Within a year, Berea was awarded $125,000.

“Most of the money went to lighting upgrades and municipal energy efficiency programs, but twenty-five percent was set aside for Berea Solar Farm,” says Joshua Bills, a program coordinator at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit that promotes energy efficiency in Appalachian Kentucky.

In Berea, the push for solar generation came largely from community members. “One of the main benefits of this utility is that its advisory board is made up of non-staff members,” says Bills, currently the board’s chair. “Lots of different voices have been given avenues.”

The idea for the solar farm itself came about in part due to Steve Boyce, former chair of the Berea Utilities Advisory Board, who was inspired by the success of a similar venture in Colorado.

United Power, a rural electric co-op near Denver, began allowing its customers to not just lease panels that the utility built and maintained on its site, but earn credits directly back on their electric bills as well.

The model at United Power helped shape Berea’s plan, where the cooperative initially allowed leases of up to two of its 240-watt solar panels per customer. “All leases were gone before the initial construction was finished,” says Bills.

The program quickly doubled to 120 panels and now customers can lease as many as they like, with each costing $750 for 25 years. While Berea Utilities maintains and owns the panels, leasing customers own the energy produced.

Those who lease don’t have to worry about maintenance and they get a fair price on solar, a deal of about $3.15 per installed watt. According to the Department of Energy, as early as 2011 the median cost of installing residential solar panels similar to Berea’s panels was $6.13 per watt.

Berea’s solar program is looking to expand. A new batch of 132 panels is currently being installed on the wastewater treatment site. More panels are planned in upcoming phases and will eventually allow an opportunity for customers to completely offset their electricity use with solar. This new construction should be completed in the next couple of months, says Bills.

While the complete turnover of the utility’s energy distribution to purely solar is a long way off, customers applying today for leases can potentially achieve a full solar-offset in the future.

Organizational Round-Up

Friday, October 19th, 2012 - posted by molly

Showing Some Clean Water Love

On October 18, shortly after we go to press, the Clean Water Act will turn 40 years old.
In conjunction with that anniversary, our Red, White & Water team is putting together a report on the successes of the long-standing program, complete with personal stories of residents and communities who have benefited from the protections it affords.
Also included will be an outline of the recent political threats to the legislation’s very existence. Watch the virtual birthday party video and find out how you can join the movement to protect America’s waterways at

Accolades for an Amazing Advocate

Appalachian Voices has had more than our share of passionate and dedicated volunteers over the years, and one person’s energetic devotion shines like a solar-powered LED light bulb. .

Sheila Ostroff, a student at Appalachian State University focusing on Sustainable Development, Appropriate Technology, Communications and Non-Profit Organization Management, has championed Appalachian Voices as a volunteer, intern, unofficial university liaison, cheerleader, and most recently as a paid administrative assistant. She has tabled at events, given guest presentations, and spoken with strangers in coffee shops with a fervent passion to educate people about our mission and encourage them to take action.

Her enthusiasm and commitment to achieving social and environmental justice never ceases to amaze us. Besides her work with Appalachian Voices, she was one of 300 selected from 127 different countries to attend the Oxfam International Youth Project in 2010.
During her time with Appalachian Voices, Sheila took the lead on planning an event for more than 50 children during the 2011 Summer Adventure Camp, and this summer engaged local businesses to display Appalachian Voices brochures and sell the very popular I Heart Mountains bumperstickers.

Our deepest gratitude for everything this amazing young woman has accomplished for us so far. If all the world were filled with environmental advocates like Sheila, there would be no need for environmental advocacy.

An Efficient Proposition

Appalachian Voices recently joined with other regional and national organizations to support a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that would open the door to low-interest loans for energy efficiency upgrades for residential and commercial customers of rural electric cooperatives. Our technical comments in support of the rule encouraged a focus on tools like on-bill financing, flexibility for borrowers and an increase in the amount of money put towards the program.

Rooting for Clean Energy

Appalachian Voices joined forces with nearly thirty organizations to urge Congress to continue tax incentives for onshore and offshore wind development on the East Coast. Set to expire at the end of this year, the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit and the Investment Tax Credit both offer financial incentives to companies seeking to develop wind in resource-rich areas. A letter to congressional leadership from the groups — including National Audubon, Oceana, Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility — noted that the incentives provide an economic boost through job creation and also provide a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels. Congress is scheduled to review the measure when legislators return for their final session in December.

A “Degree” in Eco-Literacy, the Alliance for Appalachia website administered by Appalachian Voices, was recently highlighted as a “recommended teaching tool” in a new book published by the Center for Ecoliteracy. Co-authored with bestselling author Daniel Goleman, Ecoliterate tells the stories of activists, educators and young people from across the nation who are creatively addressing issues related to coal, oil, food and water. THe book provides instruction on how we can advance academic achievement while protecting the natural world on which we depend.’s My Connection tool was highlighted in the book as a useful application to help students understand their personal stake in the seemingly remote issue of mountaintop removal coal mining. For more information visit: