Solar project targets struggling households

Jordan Travis
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — Brenda Roblero-Gomez watches her power bill like a hawk, and she’s hoping an energy cooperative’s community solar project can help her save.

She lives with her mother, Ruby Ogemagegedo, in a Carlisle Road home where the eldest has lived for 32 years. The two have struggled to get by for years, so anything they can do to trim their $190-per-month power bill is a welcome change.

“We’re really excited that they’ve accepted us on this program,” Roblero-Gomez said. “We’re fortunate, real fortunate.”

Ogemagegedo and Roblero-Gomez’s household is one of 50 in a pilot program aimed at spreading the benefits of renewable energy to low-income households. Cherryland Electric Cooperative is partnering with the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency on the year-long trial, co-op Member Relations Manager Rachel Johnson said.

Most renewable energy or energy efficiency programs are based on the assumption that participants can foot an up-front investment, and then get repaid over time through savings on their bills, Johnson said. That’s not the case for customers with limited financial means.

“So they get left behind as we see an increased move toward energy efficiency and distributed renewable energy,” she said.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports that the energy utility is helping households that took part in the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency’s energy efficiency improvements program, Johnson said. These households in the pilot project each get nine shares’ worth of the utility’s community solar array credited to their bills. That’s about $350 per year at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Judy Palnau, a Michigan Agency for Energy spokeswoman, said Cherryland Electric Co-op’s program is the first of its kind in the state. It’s part of the state agency’s goal of reducing energy waste, promoting renewables and helping people who struggle to pay their energy bills.

“Low-income households pay dramatically more in terms of a share of their income for energy, so any time that that bill can be reduced, it’s a good thing,” she said.

The pilot is also part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Energy for Low Income Communities Accelerator program, Johnson said. The federal department granted the co-op $80,000 toward a project that’ll cost the co-op $270,000 — ratepayers won’t be impacted by the costs, Johnson said.

Participating households must earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less — $32,920 for a two-person household in 2018 — said Steve Taylor, Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency’s home improvement programs manager. These homes already got improvements like added insulation, new doors and windows or weather stripping, and air quality improvements through the agency’s program.

Energy auditors first looked at each house to see where heat is leaking and whether furnaces and water heaters are operating safely and efficiently, Taylor said. They input the results into software that suggested fixes based on predicted energy savings.

“It’s really up to the individual home as to what work is done on that home,” he said.

Roblero-Gomez said her mother’s home got blow-in insulation in the attic, plastic wrap and caulk for the windows and high-efficiency light bulbs. These improvements helped a lot, especially as her mother’s oxygen equipment puts a strain on the electric bill. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, to which both women belong, referred them to the program.

The Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency’s weatherization program predates the partnership with Cherryland Electric Co-op, Taylor said. Working together on the pilot project is a good fit for the agency’s mission to help people become self-sufficient so they don’t have to rely on assistance programs.

“If we can save them 40 percent on their utility bill through weatherization and then another 30 to 40 percent of their electric bills through this program, that goes a long ways to them either being able to pay their utility bills on their own or freeing up money that they were spending on utilities to use for food, clothing, medicine, transportation costs, et cetera,” he said.

Cherryland Electric Cooperative will collect data on participants’ energy usage, bill cost and whether they’re keeping up on their accounts, Johnson said. The idea is to show at the end of the year whether the project helped the households that took part. Other utilities can then replicate what worked and leave out what didn’t.

The co-op also wants to expand the program after the trial run, Johnson said. Participants can keep their community solar program shares, which are good for 15 years. But the hope is they’ll no longer need them so these shares can rotate back into the pool.

“We will assess that on a case-by-case basis after the year is over,” she said.

Roblero-Gomez and Ogemagegedo both look forward to seeing what those shares do for their power bill. It’s been higher than usual lately, and their struggle to make ends meet has only gotten worse as costs rise and Ogemagegedo deals with health issues.

“We’ve just got to get over this hump, and we’re really fortunate to have programs that can help us,” Roblero-Gomez said.