Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation is a rural electric cooperative in western North Carolina serving 74,000 members. In March 2016, the co-op launched Energy SAVER, a program that provides co-op members a loan to pay for energy efficiency retrofits in their homes. Participating members repay the loan over time as part of their monthly electric bills (a process known as ‘on-bill financing’). The program’s objectives are to provide cost-effective energy savings for co-op members at no upfront cost and to spur local economic development.
According to Blue Ridge Electric, the Energy SAVER loan program benefits both the participating members and the cooperative. Jon Jacobs, energy manager at Blue Ridge Electric, explains, “It is important to increase the comfort level and service for the member and make their household more energy efficient and reduce their energy bill.” He adds, “Putting dollars back into the local economy and to the local contractors, instead of going to paying high electric bills, is important to Blue Ridge,” Jacobs said. This hopefully will lead to a beneficial cycle of economic development, as well as job and wealth creation. Additionally, the co-op benefits by lowering peak hour electricity usage and reducing demand during summer peak operating hours, resulting in a decrease in wholesale power costs.
Blue Ridge Electric has set up a pilot Energy SAVER loan program using $100,000 of its own resources. The co-op’s goal is to retrofit 20-22 homes at an average cost of $5,000 per project. Co-op members may apply for up to $7,500 for cost-effective whole-house energy improvements, such as attic insulation, air sealing, duct sealing, upgraded HVAC systems, and heat pump replacement. The program charges 5.5 percent interest on the loans, with up to seven years for repayment. Program participants sign a promissory loan note in the form of a debt obligation. Unlike some on-bill programs, the loan is not attached to the participant’s electric meter.
Currently, only homeowners are eligible for the program. Applicants also must have good utility bill payment history, with no more than two late utility bill payments in the last year. By using bill payment history instead of credit scores, the co-op is able to broaden access to the on-bill loan program without increasing the risk of defaults.
Working with the North Carolina Building Professional Association, Blue Ridge Electric personnel assist co-op members throughout the entire Energy SAVER loan process. After passing an initial screening process, interested members’ homes receive a professional energy audit, complete with a blower door test, to determine energy inefficiencies in the home. The energy audit produces a potential work plan for the home, ranked by the projected cost-effectiveness of each measure. Blue Ridge Electric staff sit down with the member to review the work plan and the member’s options. Once the co-op and the member come to an agreement, the co-op develops a loan repayment schedule that aims to align with the savings generated by the home improvement. The co-op’s goal is for the member’s average electric bill to stay the same or go down, even after including the loan payment.
Since the announcement of the Energy SAVER program, it has garnered great attention and demand. According to Jacobs, “When the word got out there about the on-bill loan program, by being featured in rural electric cooperative magazines and through the work done by Appalachian Voices, a local non-profit, it produced a great response from the public in general.” This positive response surprised Jacobs, who had planned to initially market the program only to co-op members with a relatively high energy use.
Blue Ridge Electric places a high value on expanding eligibility to the on-bill loan program for all income levels. The cooperative has partnered with a local community action agency to provide energy assistance to those members who do not qualify for the Energy SAVER program, but do meet income qualifications for a weatherization assistance program. In addition, Blue Ridge Electric has reserved up to 20 percent of program funds for members with a subpar payment history and low household incomes (not more than 300 percent of the poverty line).
Blue Ridge Electric created its on-bill loan program with help from local non-profit Appalachian Voices and statewide trade association The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, both of which are long-time EESI partners. South Carolina co-ops launched their own on-bill program, Help My House, in 2011—with help from EESI.
Learn more about EESI's on-bill financing project at www.eesi.org/obf.
Author: Miguel Yanez
Editor: John-Michael Cross