By Heather Mullinix
A recent study by Appalachian Voices, which mapped the correlation between poverty in the Southeast and the burden of electric bills, has proposed new programs that can help electric customers reduce their costs.
But those proposals aren't without challenges, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, says, noting no federal legislation has been enacted to allow such programs.
VEC reminds customers it does have resources available to help homeowners shore up their home's efficiency.
"We currently offer several programs to assist our customers with energy efficiency improvements and to provide properly secured heat pump financing," said Rody Blevins, VEC president and CEO, in a statement on the study.
The study pointed to average annual electric bills of customers of rural electric cooperatives, municipal utilities and investor-owned utilities across the Southeast. The rural electric customers spent a greater percentage of household income on electricity costs, the study found, than customers of the other types of utility systems. The study only looked at electric costs, not other types of energy, such as natural gas or propane.
"Much of this burden is due to the fact that many homes lack proper insulation, are poorly weatherized and use old, inefficient appliances, resulting in significant energy waste," wrote Rory McIlmoil, energy policy director for Appalachian Voices, in the report.
Often, the report states, the cost of weatherization upgrades or appliance upgrades prevents low-income customers from making improvements that would provide long-term savings on electric use and costs. Appalachian Voices has proposed On-Bill Home Energy Loan and Tariff Programs, or "on-bill financing." With on-bill financing, utilities finance the full cost of home energy efficiency improvements and the customer repays the utility through an extra charge on the monthly electric bill, using all or a portion of the savings that are achieved by the upgrades.
Only a few such programs exist in the Southeast, the report states, and many are in need of additional funding to be fully developed.
"Fortunately, new federal loan programs are developing that will provide funding to public power utilities for the purpose of developing residential energy efficiency programs," the report states.
This includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program. However, each utility is responsible for taking advantage of this program.
Blevins said in his statement, "As the program has been presented to us, however, we have some serious reservations. Our primary concern is that currently there is no provisions that are allowable under Tennessee state law for us to properly secure these loans and protect all of our ratepayers from having to foot the bill for any of these loans that go into default."
VEC offers a free in-home energy evaluation program, which helped more than 600 VEC customers make energy efficiency upgrades in 2013 alone.
Under the program, customers call VEC to request a free in-home energy evaluation. A trained energy evaluator will complete the inspection. The homeowner decides which improvements will be made and selects a TVA/VEC-qualified weatherization contractor to complete the work. The homeowner will pay for the work, though some weatherization projects can be completed by the homeowner. A follow-up inspection is completed and receipts are submitted to VEC for reimbursement. The program allows for reimbursement of up to 50 percent of qualifying expenses, with a maximum rebate of $500.
Time limits do apply. Improvements based on the evaluation need to be completed within 90 days of the initial evaluation. The program is available to those who have had permanent VEC electric service for at least one year and the residence must be a manufactured or stick-built permanent home. Homeowners and owners of rental properties are eligible.
Examples of projects that are eligible for rebates include replacement of windows, adding attic insulation, air sealing and HVAC tune up or repair. Homeowner-installed improvements such as caulk or weather stripping are also eligible. The cooperative does not offer rebates or financing of other appliances, such as water heaters or refrigerators, or for installation of storm doors or insulated garage doors.
The cooperative also has $6 million in outstanding, secured heat pump loans that help VEC customers improve energy efficiency in their home and pay lower electric bills.
To learn more about the in-home energy evaluation, call VEC at 484-3527 in Crossville or the department of marketing and economic development at (423) 334-7053.
Appalachian Voices is an environmental non-profit organization committed to protecting the natural resources of central and southern Appalachia headquartered in Boone, NC, with offices in Charlottesville, VA, Knoxville, TN, and Washington, DC.