On a humid day in late August in Aulander, North Carolina, Roanoke Electric Cooperative members came together to talk about saving energy. Predominantly populated by economically distressed households, 51 percent with electric bills exceeding $200 a month, Roanoke is especially attuned to the needs of its members to save money wherever there’s an opportunity. That awareness motivated the co-op to complete a 90-day loan application process for federal support from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program (EECLP).
EECLP is a new loan program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. Roanoke’s application was accepted, and the co-op established a program called “Upgrade to $ave.” Upgrade to $ave began at the beginning of 2014 with a goal of alleviating the financial stress of energy bills on its members.
Since its inception, Upgrade to $ave has retrofitted 189 homes, with an additional 200 signed up for assessments. Roanoke is forecasting to complete 1,000 homes over a five-year period, with estimated energy savings equaling of over $2 million for its members. This may seem like a tall order for a relatively small co-op; however, Roanoke’s robust planning and high level of attention are catalyzing success. In an article on Roanoke’s website, CEO Curtis Wynn stated,
“We recognize that the call to serve our membership means more than just providing electricity. Given the economic conditions in this region, we are doing our best to be a part of the solution to the financial challenges some of our members are facing.”
To ensure positive results, Roanoke selected and trained a core team of contractors to perform energy efficiency upgrades. Its team of four Building Performance Institute-certified contractors, each with over 15 years of experience in weatherization, has proved to go above and beyond homeowners’ expectations. Sharing a “Do no harm” motto, the contractors are passionate about their work, have a commitment to quality and show compassion to co-op members. They are truly dedicated to the cause and regularly meet to exchange ideas, discuss best practices and perform assessments of each other’s work.
With the mounting number of homes in the queue for assessments, Roanoke understands the need to develop more quality contractors. An objective of the late summer gathering, entitled Roanoke Electric’s Upgrade to $ave Workforce Development Stakeholder Summit, was to collaborate and provide feedback on ways to tackle this issue by enhancing the program through increasing contractor participation and community support. Advanced Energy’s Kristi Matthews and Liz Clark facilitated the conversation among representatives from local community colleges and churches, economic stakeholders, contractors and homeowners.
To create engagement, Matthews applied the Collaborative Operating System philosophy. This approach emphasizes building a shared understanding between our consultants and our customer and then jointly defines a path forward. Every customer’s situation and needs are unique. By asking a series of questions, Matthews enabled the group to participate in a collective discussion that resulted in one key realization: The workforce development support required to meet the goals of the program was new talent recruitment by the existing contractors.
“The easy solution to Roanoke’s problem would have been to develop and deliver a tailored training series to qualify additional energy assessors for the program,” explained Matthews. “But after listening to the group, it was apparent they already had four extremely qualified energy assessors that could provide services across the entire Roanoke Electric service area. These qualified assessors needed help growing their own companies so the program could leverage their years of experience and leadership. They needed help hiring the right people. Then we could provide training for their new hires. Retrofit work is not an easy job, it’s intensive labor and on top of that, these contractors were looking for people demonstrating passion for their work. That’s even harder to find.”
Roanoke also partnered with Jennifer Weiss of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Environmental Finance Center. She facilitated a discussion with contractors to explore their financial needs. “As we look to expand the energy efficiency on-bill tariff model at Roanoke and other North Carolina rural electric cooperative utilities, it is important to understand the educational needs of the contractors, particularly from a financial perspective,” said Weiss. “Building a financially-savvy contractor network will result in economically strong businesses, a financially literate community and energy smart customers.”
By keeping members’ goals top of mind and actively listening to the reflections of contractors and participating members, the group was able to agree on constructing a workforce development strategy plan. The plan’s focus is to provide existing contractors with the resources to grow in parallel with the program.
Based on the current environment of the Upgrade to $ave program, the first step is to provide the contractors with recruitment assistance. The second step is to implement a robust training series for the newly acquired talent that covers a breadth of areas, including blower door and duct blaster performance testing training, air sealing process training, insulation training, LED installation resources, mobile home weatherization training and duct sealing training. The program growth forecast underscores the need for nurturing qualified candidates.
Coupling training with the mentorship of the existing core team of contractors is a win-win for the co-op. The three months of preparation to apply for the EECLP are proving to have a huge payback for Roanoke and its members. The Upgrade to $ave program will impact generations to come by creating jobs and stimulating the local economy.