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Contributed photo by Tennessee Valley Authority / Virtual energy audits use smart phones to help assess household electricity use and energy upgrades

The Tennessee Valley Authority is taking its popular home energy audit program online as the first utility in the Southeast to assess and recommend energy upgrades using virtual visits with smart phones in individual homes.

The pioneering venture, which is being supported by the Memphis-based CLEAResult, is already helping to cut electricity bills and could serve as a model for other utilities around the globe.

"Innovation is in TVA's DNA, and we're using new technology to provide consumers expert energy advice, while maintaining CDC social distancing guidelines," said Frank Rapley, senior manager of TVA's EnergyRight program.

Since its start in 2015, TVA has paid its local power companies such as Chattanooga's EPB to conduct more than 10,000 home energy inspections a year and deliver an "e-score" rating and assessment for every participating home, free of charge. The energy audits give homeowners tips on insulation, lighting, appliances, water heaters and other energy savings equipment and steps they can take to cut their monthly power bills.

But those in-home inspections were halted on March 17 when fears of the COVID-19 virus shut down the in-home energy reviews.

Last month, TVA began a pilot program in Nashville that it is now rolling out across TVA's 7-state region to use smart phone and tablet cameras to conduct energy audits online without having to physically enter anyone's homes. By directing where the phone camera is pointed, auditors can review window caulking, insulation and appliance and heating and air conditioning units through scanning serial numbers.

Bri Moran, a Nashville homeowner who helped guide a home energy inspector through her home last month, said the process was "very easy" and should help her cut her monthly light bill.

"We looked at my appliances, thermostat and heat and air unit, and checked the weather stripping on my doors and windows," he said. "He (the energy auditor) made it simple to find everything, because I wasn't sure where everything was.

TVA President Jeff Lyash said this week he hopes the early success of the program helps cut the energy burden for many TVA ratepayers and also serve as a model for CLEARight to build a national business of conducting such virtual energy audits.

"While TVA has low rates, some customers, especially in low-income areas, often pay a bigger share of their income because their houses are not well insulated, they don't have energy-efficient appliances or lighting and we live in a climate with a relatively high demand for electricity with both summertime and winter peaks," Lyash said.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEE) said low-income Memphians pay the highest energy burden in the country of any major city by paying nearly 25% of their monthly income in power bills to TVA and its local distributor, Memphis Light Gas & Electric. Lyash this week pledged to do more to help boost energy efficiency measures in Memphis, including the new virtual energy audits.

While in-person inspections have historically been done while homeowners wait in their living rooms, virtual inspections allow homeowners to take the inspectors along the journey.

"We get them excited about saving energy in their home, and we can see they're really interested in learning," Rapley said.

TVA virtual home energy evaluations are open to all residential customers – homeowners, landlords, and tenants – of qualifying single-family residences within TVA's service area. In Chattanooga, the audits are offered through EPB and consumers can find out more at Energyright.com.

Brad Wagner, a program manager for EnergyRight for Home, said the audits are even more critical now as hot weather and more at-home activities raise electricity usage.

"A lot of people are opening their power bills and finding them higher because people are at home more, using more lights, computers and other appliances," Wagner said. "So we wanted to fast track the start of these virtual inspections and the early results have been very promising. This allows people to maintain their safety during this pandemic while also hearing directly from our auditors about ways they can reduce their energy use."

Instead of having auditors spend much of their time driving to different homes across TVA's sprawling 7-state region, inspectors can stay behind their own computer screens while directing homeowners through the energy audit process in their homes, Wagner said.

The audits produce a package of recommended upgrades and changes people can make to improve energy efficiency, ranging from changing their thermostat settings to buying entirely new heating and air conditioning units or re-insulating homes.

TVA's distributors such as EPB also partner with lenders to help finance the improvements and TVA maintains a list of certified contractors that meet TVA standards to do any recommended upgrades.

In most instances, TVA no longer subsidizes its energy efficiency upgrades as it did in the past, however.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com

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