On-bill loans for energy upgrades: win-win

This guest column by Seth Heald originally appeared in the Rappahannock News on July 18, 2013. 

A little-noticed announcement earlier this month about an energy-efficiency pilot project in South Carolina could mean good news for the hundreds of thousands of Virginians who get their power from electric cooperatives.

Both South Carolina and Virginia have numerous electric cooperatives that provide power to customers in rural areas (and these days some no-longer-rural areas). These co-ops date to the 1930s, when Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to provide loans and establish co-ops to help bring electricity for the first time to people in areas where investor-owned utilities were unwilling to go.

South Carolina’s “Help My House!” program showed that a creative financing measure called on-bill financing can help co-op members pay for efficiency upgrades to their homes that reduce their electricity consumption by more than a third on average.  The program paid for contractors to upgrade heat pumps, add insulation, seal ducts, and take other common-sense measures to make customers’ homes more comfortable and energy-efficient.

With on-bill financing the South Carolina co-op members didn’t have to pay upfront for their home improvements. Instead they pay over time on their electric bills. And because electricity consumption was significantly down, customers’ total electric bills generally went down even with the loan-repayment charges tacked on.  Efficiency contractors benefited too, which can create good local jobs.

That’s about as win-win as you can get—home improvements and lower electric bills, and more jobs, with no sacrifice of convenience or comfort. And once the loans are paid off, electric bills go down even more. The co-ops win too, because reducing customers’ electricity consumption on a broad scale can postpone or eliminate the need to build expensive new generation plants.

Electric co-ops are owned by their customers, so the South Carolina co-op boards and managers deserve great credit for undertaking this new program, which promises so many benefits to their member-owners.

So why can’t we do this here in Virginia? The short answer is we can. And we should. Soon.

But some Virginia co-op managers and board members have been reluctant to move forward aggressively on efficiency programs, preferring the old-fashioned method of building more generation capacity rather than helping members make efficiency upgrades. And some Virginia co-op managers and boards seem to worry more about their total revenues than about helping their customers lower their bills. Some co-op boards apparently are unconvinced that efficiency measures on a broad scale can benefit not only customers but the co-ops themselves.

That’s begun to change in Virginia. My co-op has launched an efficiency pilot program. But Virginia still has a lot of catching up to do to achieve the remarkable results that South Carolina co-ops have now shown are possible.

One thing essential to South Carolina’s success was 2010 state legislation that allowed on-bill financing, including having the loan obligation “stay with the meter” if a customer sells his home before paying off the loan.  The South Carolina co-ops pushed for that change and got it.

Virginia co-op members, and more importantly their influential managers and boards, should press our state legislators and regulators to make the changes needed to allow on-bill financing here. If anything can win bipartisan support in Virginia, it ought to be a simple measure that can help hundreds of thousands of hard-working electricity consumers improve their homes with no upfront costs while also reducing their power bills.

Seth Heald, of Rixeyville, is a lawyer and a member of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, which is one of the Virginia co-ops that co-own Old Dominion Electric Cooperative.

Workshops on renewable energy for Virginia non-profits draw large crowds

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Over 90 people packed the fellowship hall of the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria on the evening of June 23d for a presentation on solar power opportunities for houses of worship and other non-profits. Later in the week, more than 50 people attended a similar workshop at Virginia Union University in Richmond, designed primarily for colleges and universities.

In both places, the audience was there to learn about an opportunity provided by a new law that took effect in Virginia July 1. The law allows non-profits to use what are known as “third-party power purchase agreements,” or PPAs, to finance solar and wind installations. The PPAs let customers use clean, renewable energy for the same price—or even less-–as grid-delivered power produced from dirty fossil fuels. PPAs have been the driving force behind most small solar installations nationwide in recent years, and advocates hope they will now do the same in Virginia.

For-profit entities will also be able to use the new law, but only if they install a project of at least 50 kilowatts in size. Residential systems, which are typically in the 4-8 kilowatt range, are excluded. The law applies only within the territory of Dominion Virginia Power, and projects must be installed within the next two years, unless the program is extended.

The groups that organized the workshops—the Sierra Club, Interfaith Power & Light, National Wildlife Federation and the Virginia Conservation Network—view the new law as an opportunity for Virginia to begin ramping up its tiny solar and wind industries.

The Sierra Club has worked closely with the solar industry nationwide as a way to increase the use of renewable energy in the U.S., largely as a way to combat climate disruption. The club’s Beyond Coal Campaign seeks to ensure that as the dirtiest coal plants are retired, America’s energy needs can be met with clean energy rather than fossil fuels.

For the church workshop, Sierra Club partnered with Interfaith Power & Light (MD.DC.NoVa) because of its experience with congregations in Maryland and DC, helping them to go solar. Interfaith Power & Light has been a vigorous advocate for clean energy within area faith communities. Similarly, Sierra Club chose to partner with National Wildlife Federation for the college workshop because of its ongoing “green campuses” initiative nationwide.

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Photo credit: Corrina Beall

Getting solar projects done in Virginia poses a challenge. Many states have encouraged the growth of solar and wind power through aggressive targets for renewable energy backed up by incentives and utility mandates, but Virginia offers neither. The state’s wind industry is essentially nonexistent, and with less than 10 megawatts (10,000 kilowatts) of solar installed statewide to date, Virginia produces less than one percent of the solar energy that New Jersey does. It also remains far behind neighboring states like Maryland and North Carolina, which both have solar policies and incentives that Virginia lacks.

Yet the price of solar has declined so steeply in recent years that it can now make economic sense in Virginia, especially for nonprofits. Nonprofits often can access low-interest loans or bring in investors from the community to help them prepay some of the PPA, allowing them to achieve greater overall savings. And churches, colleges, schools and other nonprofits typically own their buildings for many decades, so they are able to view energy savings over a longer time horizon than do many residential and commercial building owners.

For communities of faith, payback may not even be the top consideration. More and more congregations see addressing climate change and being better stewards of the earth as part of their core mission.

Educational institutions similarly see benefits beyond energy savings. Putting solar panels in a prominent location can be a symbol of an institution’s commitment to sustainability. When Eastern Mennonite University installed its solar array, enrollment increased ten percent, according to Tony Smith of Secure Futures LLC, the company that financed the system.

Smith, who also represents the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA in Virginia, spoke at both the Alexandria and Richmond workshops. In Richmond he was joined by Jeff Ryan of Abakus Solar and Dave Stets of Richmond BySolar for a panel discussion about how PPAs can benefit nonprofits. A number of other solar and wind providers, as well as leaders from government and academia, also attended and contributed to the discussion.

Attendance at both workshops far exceeded organizers’ expectations. The audiences included a broad cross-section of faiths as well as representatives from eight universities and community colleges. Some attendees have already begun discussions with solar providers as a result of the workshops, leading many to hope that Virginia’s solar industry is at last poised to take off.

Additional workshops will likely be held in September; contact Corrina Beall at Corrina.Beall@sierraclub.org for more information.