There’s help for energy-efficiency improvements for low-income homeowners

BY Kevin Mims, — 07/12/2021

The Sun Sentinel released an opinion piece on Doug Coward’s Interview with the Invading Sea series titled “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of businessmen and women throughout the state. This episode talked about how SELF partners with companies to provide financing for sustainable home improvements, like roof loans, for low- and middle-income residents, featuring Steve Sowders, the sales manager of Westfall Roofing.

The article can be found here.

Here is an excerpt that features SELF:

Here in Florida, the Solar and Energy Loan Fund offers small and micro-loans for low-income homeowners to install solar or increase energy efficiency. (Cathy Bussewitz/AP) As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of businessmen and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Doug Coward, executive director of the Solar and Energy Loan Fund (SELF).

Here are some highlights from the interview.

What is SELF and what are some of its main projects?

The main thing that the solar energy loan fund does is provide existing affordable-housing owners with access to low-cost financing so they can fix up those structures.

The majority of what we’re doing is loans directly to homeowners who are then making these improvements. And that would primarily be single-family homes, but not exclusively. If somebody owns a townhouse or a condo or even a mobile home, we’re able to provide small micro-loans to assist them as well. But we’ve also not only been scaling our residential programs, but we’ve also been diversifying our lending products. We want to be able to provide options and solutions to more sectors of the community. For example, in 2019, we just received a grant through JPMorgan Chase to help work on developing a new multifamily-lending product.

We’re working with the South Florida Community Land Trust and the Palm Beach County Land Trust and basically leveraging that $5 million grant into about $70 million of retrofits to existing multifamily structures. We also have developed new septic-to-sewer conversion loans as a new partnership in Martin County and working with their utility. We have water-quality problems in the state, almost 3 million septic tanks, and there’s a void. We’ve just launched that recently and we’ve already done about $300,000 of septic-to-sewer conversion loans.

Can you tell us a little bit about why you started SELF?

It really stems back to my 12 years serving as a St. Lucie County commissioner. I was trying to promote the clean energy economy and fighting off a coal plant proposal from the largest utility in the state. We’re really working in an environment that was punitive toward clean energy and I got tired of beating my head against the wall in Tallahassee and trying to get permission from an energy monopoly to promote the right types of energy technologies in the state, which is really solar and energy efficiency. I think it was out of pure frustration that I was unable to make any progress at the state level that I finally realized that we needed to try and solve the problem from the local
level and really more of a bottom-up, organic solution and we felt that financing was one of the keys to unlocking the clean-energy economy.

The technologies are proven, the return on investments is solid, but if you’re a working-class person and you don’t have savings and you may not have a great credit score, you don’t have access to low-cost capital. It was really with that as a background that we decided to create the first local government green bank in America with a seed
grant through the Obama administration.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the work you’re doing?

Our first item of concern was our outstanding loan portfolio in excess of $5 million, and what impact the pandemic would have on people’s ability to repay those loans. We were very fortunate that the number of folks that needed relief was quite small — it was less than 3%. And so we did provide some flexibility to help people get back on track. The second issue was what was going to be the impact on demand moving forward.

Lesson learned looking back is that we had record-breaking decreases in energy use overall, but in the residential sector, it actually went up. And that’s, of course, because of the stay-at-home orders and the amount of time that people were spending at home was unlike any other year before. And so one of the other interesting things is that the home-improvement sector was one of the few sectors of the economy that actually has been booming through the pandemic. Home Depot and Lowe’s are making record profits, and we’re a nonprofit lender that’s doing home-improvement lending, so by happenstance our lending activity increased by 84% in calendar year 2020 during the pandemic with our entire team working from home. And then overall we’ve increased our lending activity by about 400% in the last three years. We have found that the demand in working-class neighborhoods is essentially at
an all-time high.

People need help. Letters have just been sent out to tens of thousands of Floridians from their insurance
companies saying if you don’t get your roof fixed, you could either lose your insurance or
your premium’s going to go up. There are lots of folks that are scrambling to try and figure out: How do I get my roof
repaired? But we’re doing our best to try and meet a burgeoning demand within the state and candidly, the United States — we’re beginning to spread our wings and go into other states as well. But there’s a tremendous demand. We currently have a pipeline of over $2 million of projects that we’re working through the approval process.

What advice do you have for homeowners and business owners who are interested in switching to renewable energy or making other sustainable property improvements?

I would advise homeowners and businesses to look at the cheapest fixes first, and that’s generally energy conservation and energy efficiency. Those are really the best bang for the dollar to start. I always find it entertaining when people come to me and say, “yeah I’ve got high energy bills so I want to build this solar system.”

Well, the first thing to look at is: Why do you have high energy bills? It may be that you have an old A/C that’s not running properly. You may not have proper weatherization. You may have jalousie windows and your A/C is literally streaming out your windows. Solar is not going to solve that. So the first thing you need to do is really focus on the
conservation and efficiency side, reduce your overall use of energy, and then size a solar PV system to meet that reduced demand. It’s the most cost-effective way to do it. That’s one of the things that SELF does. We don’t just provide low-cost financing … but we’re helping to provide them with energy expertise and guidance through this process.

The article can be found here.

Read More From SELF