EPB helps homeowners cut power use with Home Energy Upgrade program

Hazel Benford, a homeowner on Fairleigh Street, speaks about the benefits the Home Energy Upgrade program has provided her during a press conference Wednesday, June 12, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Benford's home is one of 250 homes that have undergone energy efficiency renovations through the Home Energy Upgrade program.

After struggling to pay a $700 electricity bill last October on East Chattanooga home, Hazel Benford was eager to find a way to cut her monthly utility bills.

The 71-year-old home was damaged in a tornado in 2011 and, even with its upstairs attic cut off, the monthly electric bill usually topped $200 a month to heat or cool the 1,144-square-structure.

When she heard about EPB's Home Energy Upgrade program from a friend at church, Benford said she jumped at the chance to sign up for the assistance even though she wasn't sure she would qualify to get any help. In March, work crews from EPB showed up to install new attic and window insulation, heating ducts and a new heating and air conditioning unit as part of a $9,400 improvement of the Fairleigh Street house.

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Green Spaces will conduct a free workshop on ways to cut energy use and bills at 10 a.m. Friday at the The Bethlehem Center, 200 W. 38th Street.

"I can already see a big difference and I feel a lot healthier also," Benford said Wednesday. "Last month, my light bill was only $125."

When she got her last power bill following the upgrade of her home, Benford had a quick four-word response - "Hallelujah, Thank you Jesus."

Benford's house was the 250th to participate in the Home Energy Upgrade in Chattanooga since EPB launched the program in 2015 with the assistance of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Green Spaces, United Way, the Salvation Army, Causeway, Habitat for Humanity and the Benwood, Footprint and Lyndhurst foundations. EPB's energy upgrades and Green Spaces' Empower programs have collectively invested $3 million in education and installation of energy efficiency measures to help cut electricity bills for thousands of local residents in low-income neighborhoods where homes are often poorly insulated and heating and cooling devices are inefficient.

"I would encourage anyone to look at these programs and apply for this assistance because it really makes a tremendous difference," Benford told those gathered at her home Wednesday.

Across the Tennessee Valley, TVA has spent about $9.7 million over the past four years to help upgrade about 3,900 households in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Huntsville, Chattanooga and rural areas of Western Kentucky and around Columbus, Mississippi.

"We try to leverage our money by having the community match TVA's investment," said Cindy Herron, vice president of Energy Right Solutions. "We are looking to grow this program to around $10 million (a year) and that money would be leveraged to do much more."

In Chattanooga, EPB is continuing its Home Energy Upgrade program for about 100 more houses in the next year with additional support from TVA, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati and Pinnacle Bank.

"We are proud of the opportunities we have with our partners to help neighbors who would otherwise not be able to afford these renovations that make their homes more energy efficient and improve indoor health quality," EPB President David Wade said.

The program had an initial goal of cutting energy use by 20%, but so far the upgrades have cut power bills by an average of 26%.

Green Spaces, which helped do the initial 14 home energy upgrades in the first year of the program in 2015, quickly noticed that the home improvements not only cut utility bills but helped many homeowners struggling with asthma or other breathing problems by improving indoor air quality.

"We saw substantial health improvements in the houses we worked on and we saw a significant opportunity there to help pay for more of these projects from the health care side," said Michael Walton, executive director for Green Space. "If you look at how much we spend treating asthma or on emergency room visits where the root cause is the condition of these homes, wouldn't it make more sense to take some of that money and invest in improving these homes."

Empower, Building Green Healthy Homes, Home Energy Upgrade and other similar programs have collectively raised $3 million over the past five years to help find ways for Chattanooga homeowners to reduce their monthly energy bills. Although TVA power rates are below the national average, the climate of the Tennessee Valley and the lower household income for most residents mean that many homeowners pay a bigger share of their income for electricity than in much of the country.

TVA has reduced some of the universally available energy investment incentives it once provided for installing energy efficiency measures or putting up solar or wind generation at homes in the Tennessee Valley. But TVA officials said the agency is still looking for ways to expand its help for low-income homeowners faced with high utility bills.

Jeff Lyash, president and CEO of TVA, came to Benford's home Wednesday to promote the Home Energy Upgrade program and pledged that the federal utility will do more in the future to help with energy efficiency assistance for low-income families.

"We're not just in the business of selling power," Lyash said. "Our mission is energy, the environment and economic development so you have to think about how we are using electricity to improve people's lives. I can't think of an end user of our product who I would rather help than someone at the lower end of the income spectrum whose power bill is a significant part of their monthly household expenses."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340