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Great Ideas

July 22nd, 2013

By Michael W. Kahn | ECT Staff Writer
Electric Co-Op Today

Energy efficiency upgrades are great—if you have the money. That’s the stumbling block for a lot of people.

Jones family members

The Jones family, members of Aiken Electric, were among the 125 cooperative homeowners who participated in the Help My House pilot program. (Photo By: ECSC)

But a project in South Carolina proved that electric cooperatives can loan that money to their members, and collect it back through a charge on their monthly bills.

That was the premise of Help My House. Eight distribution co-ops, a transmission co-op, and the statewide teamed up for the pilot on-bill financing project.

Owners of 125 homes received 10-year loans at 2.5 percent interest for energy efficiency improvements. The loans averaged $7,684 with the money coming from the Agriculture Department’s Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program.

"We deliberately went and looked at measures that would pay back quickly," said Lindsey Smith, director of public and member relations at The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. That’s why 91 percent of the homes received attic insulation, and more than 80 percent got HVAC upgrades.

"We were modeling these homes very conservatively so that the savings people gained on an annual basis would more than cover their loan payments. And we wanted, in an ideal scenario, for them to be putting money in their pockets," Smith said.

The average home cut electricity use by a third. Payback time is averaging 6.5 years. With the improvements expected to last at least 15 years, annual savings for the average home once the loan is paid off will rise to more than $1,100 per year.

Cash in hand is great. But Mike Smith, manager of energy programs at Central Electric Power Cooperative, said there’s more to it.

"They’re getting something else out of it besides the money—whether it’s comfort, or control over their energy use," said Smith.

Columbia-based Central Electric pays more for power during peaks, and Help My House helped with that—particularly in the winter.

"There was always benefit," Smith said. "It might have been 27 percent peak reduction in the summertime. In the wintertime our peak reduction was over 40 percent."

While the pilot project is over, four South Carolina co-ops now offer on-bill financing programs. Mike Smith said it’s not just a way to reduce energy use, but "a service to their members to be more in control of their energy consumption."

Help My House was strictly residential. But there’s a school of thought that businesses could also benefit from an on-bill financing program.

In the Touchstone Energy® 2012 National Survey on the Cooperative Difference, commercial members were asked what barriers were keeping them from making energy efficiency changes. One-third cited limited or no finances.

"They really have no access to capital," said Tom Laing, director of market research at TSE Services, which conducts the annual survey.

Though they’re short on cash they’re long on willingness. Eighty-one percent of businesses questioned said they’d be very or somewhat likely to invest in energy efficiency projects if there are no upfront costs.

"The will is there," Laing said, "it’s just the barriers are too high."

South Carolina co-ops based their pilot on the model first proposed in 2010’s Rural Energy Savings Program Act (RESPA), national legislation that would have made nearly $5 billion in low-interest USDA funds available for residential energy efficiency.

RESPA drew bipartisan support and passed the U.S. House in September 2010, but failed to reach the Senate floor. A similar program is contained in legislation being considered this year by the House and Senate.

Related Content

A final summary report on Help My House is available as a PDF here.

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