In the past two years, the Mountain Association has helped with a series of solar projects in Letcher County, which is deep in the coalfields of far southeastern Kentucky. What started with a dream to add solar to three non-profits has since led to a total of eight projects in the county within a one-year period. The Mountain Association has worked with communities across Eastern Kentucky to install solar on businesses and organizations, including the Kentucky Coal Museum, the Campton Baptist Church, and the city governments of Lynch, Livingston and Mt. Vernon. But the work in Letcher County is a more coordinated demonstration of the possibilities of broad community support for solar.
The County is home to a number of non-profits and groups who have been creating new opportunities in the region for decades. Several community organizers started the Letcher County Culture Hub in recent years, to be a county-wide network of grassroots groups committed to economic development through collaboration, cooperation and cultural celebration.
Among its 18 members are the Hemphill Community Center, located in a former coal camp, which operates a wood-fired bakery to supplement its income, provide jobs, and bolster its community programming; Appalshop, a 50-year-old media, arts and cultural center; and, HOMES Inc., which builds quality energy efficient affordable housing, and contributes to tourism by building scenic overlooks and improving the walkability of downtowns. There are more than a dozen additional members including other community centers, business associations, artist and artisan organizations, volunteer fire departments (some of which go beyond the firefighting mission to address issues such as the opioid epidemic), public and educational institutions, and for- and non-profit corporations in the agriculture, tech, media, housing and health sectors.
When member organizations of the Hub found themselves at risk of shutting their doors because of rising energy costs and new demand-charge rates from Kentucky Power, they turned to the Mountain Association for support. Solar looked an achievable way to reduce energy costs, support a growing regional industry, and generate long-term employment opportunities as the local economy continues to diversify.
Three Hub members were chosen to pilot solar at their buildings to test how it worked for them: Hemphill Community Center, HOMES, Inc., and Appalshop. The Mountain Association worked with them to lower overall energy use through efficiency measures first. For instance, HOMES invested in new energy-efficient water heaters and Wi-Fi thermostats with guidance from our team. With these investments alone, HOMES will save about $1,900 per year (paying for the new thermostats in two years, and the water heaters in five).
In Summer 2019, all three organizations added rooftop solar to their buildings. With interest rates at 4 percent over 20 years, the Mountain Association’s solar loans were a main reason the non-profits were able to go solar.
HOMES Director Seth Long said most commercial loans he’s seen are 10-15 year contracts. “That wouldn’t have cash-flowed for us and it wouldn’t have been as likely for us to move forward with it because we wouldn’t have been cash positive,” he said. “Having the Mountain Association to provide financing that would cash flow was a real benefit to us.”
In addition to low-interest financing, Mountain Association provided technical assistance, facilitating system design support, review of bids from potential installers, final installations, and more to the three organizations. We also provided several Eastern Kentuckians with training in renewable energy design and installation during the process through our New Energy Intern program and through the support of our installer partners.
Working with Wilderness Trace Solar for guidance, HOMES completed most of their installation and the installation at Hemphill using their own crew. This provided an opportunity for their employees to gain solar installation skills. HOMES electrician Fuzz Johnson is now working through Mountain Association’s intern program to gain a Solar Energy International Solar Professional certification and take the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners Photovoltaic (PV) exam. This will allow HOMES to generate revenue by providing solar services.
Overall, the Letcher County projects reflect more than $500,000 of long-term investment by Mountain Association in critical community institutions. These installations help offset rising utility rates, allowing the organizations to stay focused on providing critical resources for the individuals, communities and region they serve.
With each solar investment we help finance, we see businesses and non-profits reduce operating expenses and level out their seasonal electric bills. We see monthly cost for investments in solar exceeded by monthly electric bill savings. We see that, together, we are transforming the way we make energy in the region.
“We hope through our projects in Letcher County that we can be an example in the mountains and in our communities of what other organizations and businesses can do,” Seth Long said.
And, indeed, they did. After these projects were completed, it sparked great interest in solar in the greater Letcher County area. The Mountain Association has since facilitated solar installations for five businesses in the county, including Annie’s Frugal Finery and SouthDown Farm in 2019, and Mountain Truck Parts, Breeding’s Plumbing & Electric, and Isom IGA in 2020.