West Point council learns about Groundswell SOUL program

Published 9:02 pm Sunday, March 28, 2021

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The City of West Point heard from Groundswell CEO Michelle Moore on Tuesday on how the city can benefit from their SOUL (Save On Utilities Long term) program that prioritizes serving low and moderate income residents with higher than average utility bills by improving energy efficiency.

Groundswell is a 501c(3) nonprofit organization that works with local partners to implement clean energy and efficiency programs that improve affordability and quality of life. Moore said Groundswell currently operates in six states with offices in LaGrange.

“We serve more than 3800 low and moderate income households with annual savings of more than $500 each. So it comes out to about $1.85 million a year in energy savings,” Moore said.

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Moore said what they have found is lower-income residents have a higher energy burden. “What is true in LaGrange and Hogansville, who we talked to last, and I imagine it’s probably true for West Point as well, is that lower income residents tend to have much higher utility bills,” Moore said.

That information will be substantiated once Groundswell has the opportunity to review West Point’s utility data.

Moore said energy burden is the percentage of household income that gets spent on electricity and is higher in lower-income households because their homes are older, less efficient and use more energy.

SOUL focuses on improving home energy efficiency and then uses the resulting energy savings to immediately reduce utility bills and also pay back the cost of installation over time.

“So, the whole program is paid for through savings,” Moore said.

Working with the city, Groundswell will identify residents that have the highest energy usage and perform an initial assessment that determines if the home is ready for SOUL. The assessment looks for various issues in the home such as roof leaks and mold. From there, a full energy assessment will take place using a duct blaster test. A duct blaster test is used to directly pressure test the duct system for air leaks — similar to the way a plumber pressure tests water pipes for leaks — and provides a good understanding of what initial improvements will be needed. Working with utility partners, Groundswell determines what improvements can be completed and paid for using the savings and presents the plan to the resident.

Moore said everyone who signs up will receive a direct install.

“Everyone who signs up receives what we call a direct install,” Moore said. “So, its energy efficient light bulbs, LED light bulbs, hot water heater, blankets, faucet aerators and other simple measures that really do have a measurable impact on your utility bill.”

SOUL was launched in LaGrange in 2020 and to date Moore says there are 50 homes in progress with eight energy retrofits completed and 17 in progress.

“The average investment for a home has been a little north of $4,700,” Moore said.

In many cases, she said they are installing new heating and cooling systems.

“The aggregate savings is over $4,400 per year. So, that comes down to an average savings per household of about $555 per year,” Moore said.

If the council approves the creation of a West Point SOUL plan, Groundswell will perform a data analysis to determine which residences need the assistance, how many households they would be able to serve, and how much their work would reduce utility bills.

Groundswell will apply for funding through USDA from the RESP (Rural Energy Savings Program) which is a 20-year financing at zero percent interest and no city funds would be needed.

SOUL is open for both homeowners and renters Moore said.

“As a part of the SOUL program, landlords are engaged in two ways,” Moore added. “One, we ask all landlords to sign a public pledge that commits them to leaving the savings with residents. So, if the SOUL program comes in and installs a new HVAC unit, the landlord can’t increase the rent on that basis,” she said. “Then, landlords also have to sign off on the improvements that are being made on the property they own.”

Mayor Steve Tramell asked if landlord approval was required prior to any improvements being made.

“The landlord has to approve the improvement to their property, so they have to approve the installation and at the same token, whoever pays the utility bill, so the renter is ultimately the person who decides about moving forward or not moving forward,” Moore said.

Councilwoman DeeDee Williams asked Moore if there was a formula for determining low income. Moore said, like LaGrange, Groundswell will utilize census tracts and identify the tracts that are considered low or moderate income.

The council will discuss this opportunity again at the next work session on Thursday, April 8 at 5:30 p.m.