Over the summer months of 2019, one by one, three non-profits in Letcher County, Kentucky, flipped their switches to go solar. After 12 months, their energy bills have been reduced by a combined $18,603. Hearing about their savings, five businesses and several private homes in the county have joined them, creating a hot-bed for solar energy deep in the Eastern Kentucky coalfield. In fact, Isom, a small town in Letcher County with a population of 1,078, now has 419 solar panels – almost one panel for every two people.
Concerned about having to close their doors due to ever-increasing energy rates, the three organizations, Appalshop, Hemphill Community Center, and HOMES, Inc. led the way.
Our energy and lending experts came in to make recommendations on energy savings and support them through the process – from getting bids from potential installers, figuring out financing options, and executing projects. Because we know that many non-profits and businesses in our region struggle with cash flow, we committed to creating a new four percent interest loan to finance solar projects in Eastern Kentucky. To date, we have invested more than $875,000 in solar loans in Letcher County alone, and have helped county businesses gain thousands in grant funding for energy projects.
Many businesses and organizations in the county have also completed major efficiency upgrades, which have only added to their cash flow from solar. Hemphill Community Center, located in a former coal camp, has provided a safe, inclusive gathering place by hosting music, dancing and arts workshops for the Letcher County area since 1968. Their solar, combined with efficiency upgrades, like LED lighting, is now saving them $748 each month on their utility bills. With these savings, they are able to sustain the jobs at the center’s bakery that support those recovering from addiction.
HOMES Inc., a non-profit building energy efficient affordable housing and supporting local revitalization efforts, is saving an average of $618 each month, putting them on track to recover their investment within 10 years. They have become such believers in solar that one of their employees, electrician Fuzz Johnson, has worked with us throughout summer 2020 to gain certifications that will allow the non-profit to generate revenue by providing solar services. The training is supported by Wilderness Trace Solar, Inc., who has installed most of the systems in Letcher County, hiring local HOMES employees to complete much of the work.
Another important example is Isom IGA, a grocery store in at a key crossroads in the county. Over the years, we’ve worked with the owner, Gwen Christon, to bring her electric bills down from more than $122,000 to less than $84,000 per year. Those savings have come despite Kentucky Power increasing rates by more than 30 percent in recent years. In the spring of 2020, we worked with Gwen to make another investment in LED lighting. This update will bring her store an estimated $7,000 in additional savings each year, and a new solar installation installed in July 2020 will bring even more savings.
Margins are incredibly tight in the grocery industry, so these savings have allowed her to hire more employees, stock a variety of local produce and healthy items, and most importantly, stay open in a community that wouldn’t have a grocery store otherwise.
These projects are creating important savings for organizations and businesses that are providing vital services, like affordable housing, community arts, and essential groceries. Through solar and efficiency work throughout our last fiscal year from May 2019 to April 2020, we found $115,000 in annual savings for 60 businesses, organizations, and homes. This work has allowed us to prevent 489 metric tons of carbon from being emitted, equivalent to offsetting 1.2 million miles of driving.
Any non-profit or business in Eastern Kentucky who is interested in saving money on their bills can contact the Mountain Association for free or low-cost assessments of their buildings, or go ahead and apply here.