WHEELING – A focus on energy efficiency can dramatically improve life for many, whether it be heating and cooling costs for the family home, or a reversal of fortunes for an entire county.
Increasing energy efficiency was the focus of an “energy freedom” event held Thursday at the Ohio County Public Library, attended by a crowd of about two dozen people. Representatives from Energy Efficient West Virginia, Solar United Neighbors and the Ohio River Valley Institute spoke for about an hour on topics ranging from resources available to families to optimize their home’s energy usage, to how a coal town turned its resources to better using the energy it already had.
The Thursday meeting came the day after the West Virginia Public Service Commission held a public comment hearing in Wheeling regarding a proposed rate increase requested by two American Electric Power subsidiaries. Emmett Pepper, policy director with Energy Efficient West Virginia, said that despite rising bills, actively pursuing energy efficiency can far outpace the increase.
Additionally, Pepper said, such efforts directly create jobs locally, stimulating the economy as an additional benefit.
“It’s important to know that, even when bills are going up, there are things you can do to either make your buildings, homes, businesses more efficient, or produce your own energy,” Pepper said. “Doing those things helps diversify and grow our economy locally – you can’t export a job to some other country when it’s putting something on your own building.
“It’s way beyond just turning off the lights – there’s a science to it, and people should seek out the expertise. A lot of us think we know the right thing to do, but … there are people who can do that. Everybody’s home and building is different.”
Pepper spoke alongside Energy Efficient West Virginia Executive Director Robin Blakeman, both providing numerous resources available for little to no cost for homeowners and small business owners. Among the most important processes they identified for residential homes was weatherization, which is free for households that meet income requirements, and for which Energy Efficient West Virginia offers assistance in applying. AEP also offers home energy audits, as well.
“If your bill is more than $155 a month, you probably need to do some weatherization, making sure the building … isn’t leaking, that you have adequate insulation, that your heat pump or furnace or air conditioner are energy efficient,” Pepper said. “These are all things that there’s federal funding for. That can make a huge difference, cutting bills in half or even lower.”
Sean O’Leary, representing the Ohio River Valley Institute, spoke about how energy efficient policies can change the trajectory of an entire area. O’Leary presented a chart comparing Belmont County and Lewis County, Wash. He said Lewis County, centered around the coal town of Centralia, had similar employment statistics to Belmont County until 2016, when it was offered the choice to spend $100 million to retrofit the coal-fired power plant in the area.
Instead, the county invested that money into energy saving installations and policies. The chart showed Belmont County employment continuing into a downward slide, while Lewis County’s surged higher than either county had ever reached.
“They had $55 million in funding, and in 2016 they started handing out grants, and something frankly miraculous happened,” O’Leary said. “… The number of jobs started growing. In four years, that community added 2,800 jobs – 12 percent. Imagine what could happen, and how we’d feel, if we added 2,800 new jobs. It is a model that appears to be replicable.
“The community took its $55 million in economic transition to set up a weatherization fund. … They set up an energy technology fund … and they had an economic development fund, which had most of its money sent into those other two funds, because they proved to be so effective at generating jobs and economic growth.”
Also speaking Thursday was Leah Barbor, representing Solar United Neighbors, a group which helps organize and distribute solar energy installations to individuals or groups, such as neighborhoods or other community organizations.
Barbor said that while solar energy had historically been seen as prohibitively costly, plummeting costs, increasing returns on investment and substantial federal tax credits have made for an enticing time to begin looking into embracing solar power.
“It’s kind of a sweet spot of a time to go solar if you want to realize those benefits. … It still has a bit of a reputation of being outside the average person’s price range, but costs have been dropping rapidly over recent years, and especially over the last ten years or so,” Barbor said. “Panels are more efficient than they ever have been before here in West Virginia.”