Benham residents building community energy | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Benham residents building community energy

Benham solar panels represent a much deeper transition plan (2017)

The mountain community of Benham, Kentucky received a healthy dose of national attention recently when the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum announced it has installed solar panels to save thousands of dollars annually on its power bill. The "solar-keeps-the-lights-on" story was first carried by a regional TV station, WYMT. It was quickly picked up in the Washington Post, GristLexington Herald LeaderCNNFox News and others. Former Vice-President Al Gore even took notice, giving the community a shout-out on social media.

This good news story is the result of a deep partnerships between the Coal Mining Museum, local community college and forward-thinking local leaders. And it's just one part of a larger story about how the Harlan County community, which was build as a coal camp by International Harvester, is now leading the way towards a Just Transition to a clean energy economy in Kentucky.

As retired miner and Benham resident Carl Shoupe says, "I like to think that this little community in Harlan County, Kentucky can be a light shining from the mountaintop, showing the rest of Kentucky and the world what is possible."

This powerful new video tells another piece of Benham's clean energy story: How the town helps residents save money through energy efficiency.

Benham's utility, which serves around 275 customers, was the first municially-owned utility in Kentucky to offer pay-as-you-save financing for residential energy upgrades. The utility pays the upfront costs of home energy retrofits for qualifying customers. Residents pay back that investment over time, using a portion of the monthly savings on their energy bill.

This Benham$aves program is the result of a long-term partnership between the city of Benham, the Benham Power Board, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, COAP, Inc, the Harlan Community Foundation and Appalshop.  

Figuring out ways to help its residents cut energy costs is a priority for the community where so many homes were built back in the 1920s and don't have good insulation. In fact, Benham's residential electricity consumption is the highest of any utility in the state. High energy bills put a big strain on residents and the local utility alike. Programs like Benham$aves helps customers cut their energy bills significantly, and delivers other benefits as well like improving comfort and home values, creating local jobs and keeping money circulating in the local community. 

 The Benham$aves program is a shining example of what's possible, and what it will take, to build a clean energy economy across Kentucky, one that works for all of us. 


Benham Power Board launches innovative residential energy efficiency program (2015)

Residents of the town of Benham in Harlan County, Kentucky will soon benefit from an innovative energy efficiency program, called Benham$aves, which was established today in a special called meeting held by the town’s municipally owned utility, the Benham Power Board. To celebrate the decision, all Benham residents are invited to a Community Pig Roast this evening at the Betty Howard Coal Miner’s Memorial Theater.

“This is something we’ve been working towards for a long time. It is exciting to see it come together,” said Danny Quillen, chair of the Benham Power Board. “This program can help individuals save money on their bills and help the whole community by lowering what the Benham Power Board pays to a wholesale energy provider for peak demand.”

The Benham$aves program will pay the upfront costs of insulation, upgrades to heating and air conditioning units, and other energy efficiency measures for qualifying customers who choose to participate. Residents will repay the investment over a 15-year period, using a portion of the energy savings. The program is designed to ensure that the monthly repayment is no more than 85% of the projected monthly savings, meaning that the retrofits pay for themselves over time and customers start saving money immediately, compared to their previous energy bills.

“We are glad to be able to help the people of Benham save money through energy efficiency,” stated Blake Enlow, the Executive Director of COAP, a local nonprofit organization that provides affordable housing in Harlan, Bell and Leslie counties. As part of the Benham$aves program, COAP will do home energy assessments and make recommended energy improvements in participating homes. “Most of the houses we’ve looked at in Benham have minimal insulation. If we can take care of that and do some air sealing at the same time, people will instantly feel the difference. Their homes will have less warm air going out the roof and won’t suck so much cold air in through the floors.”

“I didn’t even sleep last night I was so excited,” said Harlan County retired coal miner, Carl Shoupe. Shoupe serves as Vice Chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and is a member of the Benham Power Board. "We started working on this project sometime back in 2009 or so, when it was just a dream. It’s finally coming to fruition.”

The resolution passed today by the Power Board states in part:

“WHEREAS, the Benham$aves Program’s purpose is to build a strong and resilient community in Benham through a community-wide energy efficiency program that saves money for residents and the Power Board, create wealth, income and job opportunities for local workers, improve the value of local homes, build local knowledge and relationships and create a hopeful story about what can be accomplished when people pull together; and

WHEREAS, the Benham$aves Program is being designed and implemented as an on-bill financing program that allows residents in the City of Benham to weatherize homes for no money down and pay back the investment on their utility bills, using a portion of the energy savings, and to raise funds for a revolving community investment fund that can, over 15 years, pay the upfront costs for making homes in Benham energy efficient, and can, in later years, be invested in other energy efficiency, renewable energy or sustainable energy infrastructure projects that benefit the community; and

WHEREAS, the Benham$aves Program has been developed with the help and collaboration from many community partners, including COAP, Inc., Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Inc., Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, Inc., Appalshop Inc., and Harlan County Community Foundation, Inc.; and

WHEREAS, the capital for this program, along with some initial administrative costs, will be raised from donations and investments from private foundations, individuals or state and federal grant programs; and,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Directors of Benham Power Board herewith approves the establishment and implementation of the Benham$aves Program....”

After the vote, Power Board chairman Danny Quillen reflected, “The way our Power Board has come together around this project really shows we are looking towards the future instead of just sitting and living in today. We are appreciative of the founders of this Power Board and all the members who have served in the past who have given us this opportunity to keep power in our community and make important and innovative decisions like this. I’m proud that our Power Board can sit and discuss and decide and come to agreement without splitting everybody. That’s part of looking toward the future.”

The Benham$aves program was inspired by an on-bill financing program pioneered by several of Kentucky’s rural electric co-ops and MACED. In December 2013, MACED also provided funds to do one energy assessment and retrofit in Benham as a demonstration project. In the first month after completion of that job, average energy use in the town as a whole increased by 42% over the year before, due to cold weather. However, energy use in the newly insulated home decreased by 56% in that same month!

Initial funding for the Benham$aves project was provided by the Blue Moon Fund. A campaign to raise the capital for Benham$aves energy retrofits will get underway soon. For now, contributions to this project may be made to the Kentucky Coalition, PO Box 1450, London, KY 40743 with “Benham” in the memo line.

As Carl Shoupe explained, the Benham$aves program is part of a larger story of efforts to shape a just economic transition in eastern Kentucky. “This is one way we can improve our economy here in the mountains. When we invest in energy efficiency, right away people feel better in their homes and have more money in their pockets, money that can circulate in our community. This program can also generate new jobs and income for local businesses and workers. And the whole thing has come about because people are working together.”


Benham Power Project -- March 2014

Shining a light on Benham Power (2014)

On March 4 the city of Benham in Harlan County took a big step forward in charting its energy future. KFTC, along with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) and MIT, presented research and proposals on how the municipally-owned electric utility in the town can save money on their power bills to their wholesale power provider, as well as help local residents and businesses save energy and money, and help stabilize the town's distribution grid.

After the presentations, the town leaders were asked if they were interested in continuing forward with the design and implementation of the project and the response was an overwhelming "yes," with lots of great questions and suggestions shared that evening.

Benham Power Project -- March 2014KFTC leaders in Benham, including Carl Shoupe, Roy Silver and others, have been working for years to bring new energy to this small town at the base of Black Mountain, the highest mountain in the state. The most recent phase of their work began when KFTC members learned that Kentucky Utilities (KU) did not plan to renew its wholesale power contract with the Benham Power Board, starting in 2016.

The KFTC members saw this potential crisis as an opportunity, and in the fall convened a meeting of nonprofits and researchers and others to begin thinking about ways the town could save energy, and produce some of its own energy, as the utility entered into negotiations with new wholesale providers of power. 

While Benham's electricity rate is about average in the state, it has the highest per capita electricity usage of any Kentucky utility. Again, this crisis became an opportunity for designing a program that could help residents and the utility itself save significant amounts of energy.
"If Benham can implement this power project in Harlan County, it can be a candle lighting the way for the region, and other towns across the country, to do the same."At the meeting on March 4, Josh Bills of MACED presented research he conducted which showed how much the city was paying for its wholesale power during peak usage – those times, often the very coldest mornings, when the utility is "demanding" power from KU at the highest rate. The utility pays not only for the total amount of energy it consumes (KWh) during the month, but also pays an additional cost each month for its peak demand (KW). If the utility and residents and businesses can find a way to reduce the energy consumed during those peak times each month, the utility could save thousands of dollars each month on their power bills to KU.

Chris Woolery of MACED and Ryan Cook and Brian Bowen, both of MIT, presented strategies for helping to reduce those demand peaks and for helping local residents, businesses, and the city itself save energy and money.

Woolery updated the group on the energy efficiency upgrades performed on local resident Lacey Griffey's home. From January 2013 to January 2014, while the rest of the town's energy costs went up 42%, Griffey's bill declined 56%! While this is an extraordinary example due to the extreme cold of the polar vortex, it shows the impact that a widespread energy efficiency program could have on the town, and how it could help keep money in the pockets of local residents.

Woolery discussed how an on-bill financing program from energy upgrades – similar to MACED's How$martKY program – could do just that: help the town do energy upgrades that pay for themselves and put some savings in the pockets of Benham residents each month. 

Benham Power Project -- March 2014MIT wrapped up the meeting with presentations on how small energy improvements (like low-flow shower heads, CFL lights, and water heater blankets, etc.) could add up to significant savings for residents and the utility. They also discussed savings that could be seen by upgrading municipal buildings and other larger users of energy in town, as well as shared their research on ways for funding improvements to the local electrical grid, a major concern of the Power Board. 

After the local leaders enthusiastically demonstrated their support for going forth and designing a full project, next steps will be pulling together a design team of local leaders, KFTC members and researchers to come up with a plan to formally present to the Power Board. That work took a step forward the following day as MIT and local residents toured the water and waste water treatment plants, substation and other sites to look for ways to begin saving energy and generating energy locally. 

As Carl Shoupe said to close the meeting on Tuesday: if Benham can implement this power project in Harlan County, it can be a candle lighting the way for the region, and other towns across the country, to do the same. 


Building a Clean Energy Future in Benham and Lynch (2012)

Watch Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner from Lynch who lives in Benham, talk about the environmental struggle of the two towns.

beshear eky
In 2011, KFTC members took Gov. Steve Beshear on a tour of eastern Kentucky, including Harlan County. Click here to see photos from his visit.

Clean Energy Potential

KFTC members in Harlan County have a vision of clean energy and sustainable buildings for the towns of Benham and Lynch. Residents have been working for the past several years to make their towns more efficient and sustainable. Through their organizing efforts, they are now on their way to improving their energy use, with many more goals set for the future.

Several years ago, KFTC established a relationship with the MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), which worked closely with KFTC as well as MACED (Mountain Association for Community Economic Development) to find the most efficient and sustainable way to develop energy in southeastern Kentucky. Their final report, Benham Community Energy Initiative, looked at Benham as a model for other similar towns and how it could become more sustainable. This provided residents of Benham and Lynch with an alternative model that shows the potential for meeting their energy needs while reducing energy costs.

Kentucky has one of the highest rates of energy consumption of any state. This trend is especially true in the towns of Lynch and Benham. Part of the reason for this is that buildings are so old that they lack insulation and are prone to leakage. One of the suggestions of the report was to retrofit homes and other buildings to be more energy efficient. In order to achieve this, KFTC members worked with the city to apply for a grant, and the city ended up receiving a grant to retrofit Lynch's city hall. Although these funds will not cover retrofitting for homes, it is a healthy start to the city’s struggle for sustainability.

Harlan County chapter members have many more ideas for the future of sustainability in Benham and Lynch. Other groups in town have been trying to tackle their own energy efficiency projects, such as the Benham Garden Club, which handed out CFL bulbs to residents. Members would also like to explore micro-level wind and solar projects, and potentially even hydroelectric for the many streams in the area. They would also like to acquire more money to retrofit residents’ homes. Additionally, Black Mountain has a very high potential for a large-scale wind farm, and although this would take a long time and a lot of effort, it is a long-term goal of the group.

History and Struggle with Coal

maced in lynch

Benham and Lynch are towns in southeastern Kentucky next to the Virginia border. Originally founded as coal camps, the towns were filled with miners and their families. Lynch was once the largest coal camp in the world with a population of around 10,000. However, once the companies left, so did most people, leaving a population of about 740 in Lynch and 500 in Benham, according to the 2010 Census. Most of the old buildings that were once owned by the coal companies remain and are in use. Click here to learn more about the history of the towns.

Lynch and Benham sit at the foot of Black Mountain, the tallest mountain in Kentucky. In the 1990s, the Harlan County KFTC Chapter and the Kentucky Resources Council worked to save the upper elevations of Black Mountain from strip mining and logging. However, coal companies are still pursuing Black Mountain and other mountains in the area. In 2010, Black Mountain was even listed as one of the 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

KFTC members are challenging several mining permits in the area. In one instance, members filed a Land Unsuitable for Mining petition in an attempt to prevent a strip-mining site that could negatively affect tourism in the area. Learn more about Benham and Lynch's fight to protect their land here.