Free energy 

In Camden, an innovative program is helping electric customers get expensive, energy-efficient upgrades, without feeling the pinch on their bill.

click to enlarge BEATING THE METER: Two hundred and sixty residences, including 80 apartments, have had energy audits.
  • BEATING THE METER: Two hundred and sixty residences, including 80 apartments, have had energy audits.

There's no such thing in this world as a free lunch, but Ouachita Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Camden, may have found the next best thing for its customers: an innovative program that uses the savings from energy-efficient upgrades to customers' homes — including big-ticket items like air conditioner replacement — to offset the cost of those upgrades, with the cooperative financing the cost of improvements through the customer's electric bill.

The program is called HELP Pay As You Save; HELP is an acronym for "Home Energy Lending Program." Under the plan, residents can get thousands of dollars in improvements to their homes at no upfront cost to them, while seeing their monthly bill go down. It might sound too good to be true, but it's just swapping the expense of energy inefficiency for the expense of energy-efficient upgrades.

Under the program, which was instituted last spring and has since upgraded 260 residences in the Ouachita Electric service area, including around 80 apartments, customers request an "energy audit" of their homes from the co-op. Through a series of tests and inspection of ductwork, the heat/AC unit, insulation and windows, crews come up with an estimate of how much a customer could potentially save on his monthly electric bill if he were to make improvements. If there are enough savings to be had and the customer is in good standing with Ouachita Electric, the customer can then have all the work completed at no upfront cost to him. Payments for the work are folded into the customer's monthly payment, and are calculated to be slightly less than the amount the customer saved due to the upgrades. That means most customers see a savings on their monthly bill, even after expensive work is done.

Unlike loan-based programs for energy efficiency upgrades offered by electric companies, payment for the upgrades under the HELP Pays program is connected to the location where the work was done, not the resident who lived there at the time. If a homeowner or renter moves from a location upgraded under HELP Pays, they inform the next resident, who continues to pay for the upgrades at the location through his electric bill. (The program is available to both homeowners and renters, though renters must seek their landlord's permission.)

Because the payments in the HELP Pays program are included in the monthly electric bill, financed through the co-op and tagged to the location, there is no required credit check to participate in the program, meaning any resident — including low-income residents or those with poor credit — can take advantage of the program.

Norma Beaver is member services manager for Ouachita Electric Cooperative. Beaver said she had the home she shares with her husband audited and uncovered a number of problems, including ductwork leaking 21 percent of the air output into the attic. In addition, her aging air conditioning unit was on its last legs.

"In our case, we were having to put $300 to $400 a year into [the AC unit] just to keep it revved up," she said. "It was 25 years old, so it had lived its life." Under the program, Beaver said, they were able to get the unit replaced and other work done while seeing a reduction in their bill, even though Beaver said she keeps her home cooler since the new unit was installed.

Beaver said the program pays for itself and requires no grants or supplemental funding to operate. Financing is handled through the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp., at low interest rates. "No other member is subsidizing your work or my work," she said. "We're both paying for our own, but our savings should pay for the work to be done." Beaver said that occasionally the estimated savings don't equal the amount it would take to make the upgrades. In those cases, customers might see their monthly bill go up slightly, what Beaver called a "co-pay."

"It's not often," she said, "but I have seen a few of those." She said the program has also helped local contractors, keeping them busy doing home upgrades for residents, and has been beneficial to landlords in the area as a way of getting their properties upgraded at no cost to them.

"[Renters are] lowering their electric bill and improving the landlord's property," she said. "Then if they leave, the next tenant picks up. Maybe it's six months that the property is vacant. When the next tenant comes in, they just pick up where the previous tenant left off."

Linda Hodges, an Ouachita Electric customer from the small town of Louann in Ouachita County, said she learned about the program last July after her family received an electric bill for over $600. Though her house was built in the early 2000s, she said her air conditioner was working so poorly that it was too hot in the house during the summer to cook. In winter, she said, the house was so cold that they were forced to install an auxiliary butane heater.

After the audit, she learned that the combined air leaks in her home were the equivalent of having a 4-foot-by-4-foot hole in one wall. Through the program, crews added insulation, new weather stripping and a new and larger air conditioning unit. Her bill this July, she said, was half of what she paid last year, averaging $310 per month for the summer, while the house stayed much cooler than before. Last winter, they never had to use the butane heater.

"What people don't realize is that it doesn't just affect your utility bills and your personal comfort," Hodges said. "You save money in other ways. It had gotten so hot last July that I couldn't cook for my family in the house. We were grilling or having to eat out. That's been totally cut out, as far as eating out, because we cook at home a lot."

While stories like that are surely satisfying to Ouachita Electric, Beaver said the program is also helping the cooperative bring down its own bills, which was why the program was instituted in the first place. "It's actually lowering our demand," she said. "We pay an electric bill just like our members pay an electric bill to us. We pay to Arkansas Electric [Cooperative] for the kilowatt hours we have sold, and we pay a demand charge as well. By our members participating, they are helping to lower our demand charge."

Though Ouachita Electric Cooperative's program is unique in the state, other electric co-ops in Arkansas are considering adopting the model, including South Central Arkansas Electric Cooperative, based in Arkadelphia.


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