“I’ve helped folks with $1,400 electric bills, and we’ve cut their bills in half,” Woolery said, twisting his tall frame inside the packed shoebox to get closer to the state representative from Lexington.
Electricity rates are going up here, and the rising energy costs have grabbed the attention of grass-roots organizers like Woolery in a state where 93 percent of power generation comes from burning coal.
Woolery, a soft-spoken 43-year-old efficiency contractor and former builder, let his stories land softly as he folded a message about energy savings inside a more palatable pitch for legislation to spur job creation in rural Kentucky.
“We go in and finance it on their electric bills,” Woolery explained. “Now they’re paying for upgrades instead of kilowatt-hours. That creates economic development if we can get it to scale.”
The doors chimed open. “It’s exciting and a blessing to help people,” he told the legislator.
Through the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED, Woolery helps run a small program that partners with rural electric cooperatives to finance energy efficiency retrofits for poor and moderate-income people. MACED, based in the small college town of Berea, aims to stimulate economic growth in ways that support sustainable energy development.
The virtue of a coal-based economy is still gospel in Frankfort. But organizers here say efforts to wall off the state’s coal-dependent utilities from competing sources such as natural gas and distributed solar power are leading to higher costs for Kentucky’s poorest communities.
In homes across rural Kentucky, air poured in through poorly sealed ducts this winter, driving up utility bills during peak hours.
“The leakage rate is close to the square-footage of the house,” Woolery said, explaining how a large Georgian-style house in northern Kentucky could amass a $1,400 electric-heating bill during the 2014 polar vortex, his most extreme example of inefficient housing.
Woolery grew up visiting his grandparents in eastern Kentucky’s coal country, which for decades has been a focus of anti-poverty campaigns aimed at improving conditions in rural Appalachia.
(Energy and Environment News is a subscription-only, non-ideological service that is widely read by people around the country and has made this story available for free.)