Student Interns Julia Bullock and Tsering Dhonden Work in the Office of Sustainability on the Report from the South Fork Medical Clinic Audit.
On a sunny Tuesday morning in June, students Julia Bullock ’19 and Tsering Dhonden ’18 arrive at the South Fork Medical Clinic in Whitley City, Kentucky, excited and a little nervous. After several weeks of learning about energy issues, researching energy efficiency grants, and computer practice, today is their first day to perform an on-site energy audit as part of the team.
The two have much sought-after internships with the Berea Center for Energy, a College Office of Sustainability initiative that provides energy audits to small businesses in eastern Kentucky. The Center is a unique partnership between the College, a Certified Energy Manager, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). Berea College received a REAP Energy Audit Grant in January 2016 that covers 75 percent of the cost of the audits for business owners, making the audits an affordable proposition for rural small businesses like South Fork.
When the energy audit team arrives at the clinic, owners Tank and Monica Lawson offer a warm and genuine welcome. Dr. Terry “Tank” Lawson grew up in Whitley City and was happily working at the University of Kentucky when he was recruited to return to his hometown to run the clinic. “It is hard to recruit doctors who are not from here,” he says ruefully. McCreary County is rural, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is home to less than 20,000 people; the median household income is a little above $19,000; and over 40 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
Owning a small business in a place with the economic realities of this area of eastern Kentucky is a challenge. Many of these small businesses provide important and scarce services in their rural locations as well as jobs that keep money in the local economy. The economic savings these small businesses realize through the Center’s audit can keep them as a flourishing and stable part of their communities.
South Fork provides vital services in McCreary County. When driving up to the low-slung building, one notices a blocked off parking space and a door marked “Ambulance Entrance Only.” The nearest hospital is 29 miles away in Somerset, and local urgent care is available only in this clinic. In addition, South Fork employs 22 local people.
The Lawsons hope for significant operational savings through their energy audit and recommended improvements. Their 1970s-era structure shows hints of its former life—the worn wood floors once saw birthday parties and family outings as the community skating rink. Their 40-year-old facility has never been evaluated for energy efficiency. “Money is always tight, and the savings will free us up to purchase updated medical equipment and keep up with necessary supplies,” Dr. Lawson said.
The Rural Energy for America Program
• Energy efficiency grants awarded since 2007: 324
• Total investment (nationally): $8.9 million
• Amount awarded to Berea College for energy audits: $40,000
• Combined annual savings from Berea Center for Energy audits: $89,000
Certified Energy Manager Jason Delambre leads the audit process for the center. He has extensive experience working with other REAP grantee audits and with Berea College on campus sustainability-related energy projects. He also has a proven track record of assisting small business owners to secure funding for the efficiency improvements.
When asked about his experience with Berea College, Delambre said, “The staff is high caliber and passionate, and students pick up on that. The interns this summer are up for anything I throw at them. They are so enthusiastic that I am having to keep up with them.”
Both interns are motivated by their passion for environmental sustainability. “The government is in the process of tearing down environmental protections,” said Bullock. “The resulting damage is something money can’t fix. I am excited to learn an actual skill I can use right now to help the environment—something besides protesting!”
Dhonden’s passion for energy issues was sparked during his freshman labor position in the Office of Sustainability. He remembers determining the potential savings if the College provided refrigerators in dorm rooms on campus. By providing the fridges, the school could choose ENERGY STAR® models and ensure only one fridge per room (roommates often each bring one to school). The results left an impression—a savings of about $40,000 long term. The hands-on audit experience will provide an important perspective for his future career in the energy sector.
The Audit and Follow-up
Before the Center staff begins the audit, while Delambre discusses the process with the Lawsons, his eyes drift upward. He is evaluating one of his “slam dunk” efficiency projects: lighting. Lights are on almost all of the time, and few businesses have the most efficient option. Delambre states that switching to LEDs often has a payback of only a few months, depending on the current lighting source.
Delambre, Dhonden, and Bullock also evaluated the heating and cooling system and insulation, performed a solar analysis, and examined the current X-ray machine to determine energy usage.
Completing the on-site audit evaluation is only the beginning of the Center’s work. The staff utilizes a very practical approach in developing the audit reports. Many of the potential efficiency projects in a facility do not have the rapid return on investment to make them worthwhile. The goal is to find savings these businesses can use to improve their viability, so the Center focuses on projects that will see a payback in one to five years. Strategically, the reports also focus on “moments of transition.” For example, equipment that needs to be replaced anyway is a good place to look for energy savings. Delambre emphasizes with clients that investments in efficiency are the most secure because the savings drop to the company’s bottom line.
In addition, the Center assists with the crucial step of funding the efficiency projects, bringing possible financiers to the table from the beginning. Bullock and Dhonden investigated the possibility of energy-efficient incentives for South Fork through their electricity provider. The Center will work with the Lawsons to apply for a Renewable Energy Assistance Grant through REAP that helps businesses fund efficiency projects. Several community development nonprofits that work in eastern Kentucky offer small business loans with good terms and business support; the Lawsons already have a relationship with the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation. The REAP program can also guarantee a loan with a traditional bank.
Moving the Center Forward
For this first two-year grant cycle, 2016 and 2017, the Center had no problem completing its requisite four on-site audits and 10 desktop audits. In the simpler desktop audits, the business owners transmit the requested information to the audit team in the office rather than the auditors gathering it on-site.
The next grant cycle begins in January 2018. Now that word about the Center is spreading among small business owners, the goal for the next two years will be 24 audits, impacting almost twice as many business owners and communities in eastern Kentucky.
Annette Dangerfield ’16 is serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the Center for Energy. While a student, she had a breadth of experience in sustainability issues, working with Kentucky Environmental Foundation, Sustainable Berea, the College Office of Sustainability, and the Sustainability and Environmental Studies house in the Berea College Ecovillage. Her main task is building capacity for the Center, creating the program structure for the interns, and getting the word out to potential small business clients.