The electric bill at Lacey Griffey’s neat Harlan County home, with its yellow siding and silk-flower arrangements decorating the living room, was $582.07 in January 2013.
The next January, it cost just $262.48 to heat her house in Benham, one of the first coal-company towns built in Eastern Kentucky more than a century ago.
That drop of more than 50 percent came even as frigid temperatures drove up the average electric bill in town by 42 percent.
Griffey, 87, didn’t change. Her house did.
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Before a wave of Arctic air hit in early 2014, a contractor blew foam insulation into the attic and under the floor of the house, sealed gaps around windows, pipes and other spaces to keep out cold air, installed a more efficient water heater and fixed a problem with the heat-pump ducts.
The upgrades keep her house comfortable even with lower bills, said Griffey, a widowed mother of seven sons once called on to demonstrate her cooking skills at the Smithsonian Institution.
“It sure helps,” Griffey said. “I’m satisfied with this.”
The work was a test of an ambitious energy-efficiency program supporters are pursuing in the town of 500, called Benham$aves.
The goal is to improve the energy efficiency of as many houses as possible, said Carl Shoupe, a retired coal miner who is on the city’s electric utility, called the Benham Power Board.
There are about 300 customer meters in town, nearly all of them houses.
Under the program, a contractor will check the efficiency of homes, then do upgrades to make them tighter and cut electricity use.
Homeowners will repay the cost of the work through a charge on their monthly electric bill.
The program is structured so that the repayment charge, spread over 15 years, will be less than the savings created by making the house more efficient, leaving people with a lower bill even as they pay for the upgrades.
The model is called on-bill financing, a method to let people improve their homes without having to come up with all the money up front.
If a house changes hands during the repayment period, the charge for the energy improvements would fall to the next owner.
Insulation will be one big need in Benham, given its history.
International Harvester began building the town in 1909 in what was then a remote valley near the state’s highest peak, Black Mountain, in order to get coal needed to make steel for its manufacturing operations.
As in other places in Eastern Kentucky, the company created a wholly-owned town from scratch to serve its mines, building stores, churches, a theater, schools, a theater, a hospital and about 500 houses, according to local histories.
With abundant coal for heat, insulating the houses was not a priority.
Chris Woolery, who heads an energy-efficiency program called How$martKY for the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), said Benham had a high average electric use per residential meter.
One reason is that there are not a lot of newer houses to balance out the inefficiency of older homes, Woolery said.
The Benham$aves program should be able to help cut electric bills for many people.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit there,” said Woolery, who is helping with the project and has tracked costs and savings at Griffey’s house, which was built around 1940.
Employment at the International Harvester mines peaked at 1,200, dwindling after World War II because of changes in markets and mining technology.
By 1960, the company was ready to get out of the business of owning a town.
It sold houses to residents, gave churches to congregations, signed over the schools to the county school board and gave its office to the city.
The town was incorporated in July 1961, according to a local history. City Hall is in the 1919 brick building where miners lined up decades ago to get their pay.
Benham$aves was inspired by How$martKY, a partnership of MACED and several rural electric co-operatives in Eastern Kentucky that provides financing for energy-efficiency upgrades.
The co-ops pay for the work and homeowners repay them through a charge on their electric bill. MACED has provided much of the funding for the program through loans to the co-ops.
More than 230 homes have received upgrades through the program. Homeowners have seen an average savings of 21 percent, Woolery said.
Work could start this week on the first house that is technically part of the Benham$aves program, said Blake Enlow, executive director of COAP, which stands for Christian Outreach with Appalachian People.
The local homebuilder has experience in energy-efficient construction and will be the primary contractor on Benham$aves houses.
The power board approved the initiative last April, celebrating with a community pig roast afterward, but it took some time to work out details of the program.
The Charlottesville, Va.-based blue moon fund provided an initial grant to get the project going, which included surveys to gather information about the housing stock in town.
The power board and partners plan to begin looking for grants and donations soon to roll out the efficiency program.
The goal is to raise $500,000.
At a projected cost of $10,000 per house, that would be enough to fix 50 houses.
Participants estimate the program would be self-sufficient at that point, with payments from the first houses upgraded coming back in to a revolving fund to retrofit more houses.
“The project will be paying for itself in 10 years. That is my hope,” Shoupe said.
The power board decided to seek donated money for the program so there wouldn’t be a creditor demanding repayment, creating a more forgiving structure as the town shows the potential for energy efficiency.
The program won’t work at every house in town.
Some won’t need it, and at others, the projected savings on electricity costs would not be great enough to pay the cost of the upgrades in the allotted period.
And in some cases, houses might need too many other types of repairs to justify putting thousands of dollars in efficiency measures into them.
In those cases, COAP will work with homeowners to see if they qualify for other repair programs, Enlow said.
Benham is doing more to pursue energy efficiency than any other town he knows of in Eastern Kentucky, Woolery said.
The city pays a higher price for electricity it has to buy from its wholesale supplier at peak demand times, so holding down the peaks by making houses more efficient will save the city money as well.
The city also has looked at ways to cut electric bills at its properties.
Workers boxed in an office at the city water plant, so that the whole building is no longer being heated. That saved the city $5,000 in less than six months.
Saving money is important to residents and the city these days, given a downturn that has made coal jobs hard to find in a region coal built.
Coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have dropped by half since early 2012 as the regional industry faces a number of challenges, including competition for power-plant customers from cheap natural gas, tougher federal rules to protect the environment and high production costs.
The hall where union miners once met in Benham is now a food pantry, Shoupe said.
As Eastern Kentucky grapples with how to reinvent its economy, work to make homes more efficient could create a good number of jobs, Enlow said.
In addition, the money people save will flow into the economy, he said.
“It’s great for economic development,” Enlow said. “You’re basically putting more money back into people’s pockets.”
A 2012 study commissioned by MACED and the Kentucky Sustainable Energy Alliance projected that weatherizing homes would contribute to creating thousands of jobs in the state, and that cutting electric bills would leave Kentuckians with more to spend on other goods and services, creating economic activity.
Supporters said there’s not been enough attention to home energy efficiency in Kentucky, in part because of historic low electricity rates.
But with rates going up significantly over the last 15 years, Benham’s project could help prove the potential savings for homeowners and utilities and the economic impact, participants said.
“This could be a game-changer if we do it well,” Woolery said.
Shoupe said he hopes Benham$aves succeeds and shows the way for much wider pursuit of energy efficiency.
“We want to be the light on the top of the mountain,” he said.