How Sandy Norris was able to lower her energy usage, save money How Sandy Norris was able to lower her energy usage, save money

How Sandy Norris was able to lower her energy usage, save money

Duke Energy pilot program offers free home energy improvements to hundreds of income-qualified customers in three North Carolina counties

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Asheley Cooper was losing sleep. Worries over her mother’s finances kept up her up at night.

“Mom really does make decisions between medication, food and [her] electricity bill.”

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Sandy Norris' 1940s-era home was “drafty on a good day." She's more comfortable now, thanks to Duke Energy, Forsyth County, N.C., and other partner agencies that worked together to make her home more energy efficient.

Like many Duke Energy customers, Sandy Norris lives on a fixed income. And there wasn’t enough money to cover everything. Her children feared she’d have to sell her Kernersville, N.C., home.

But Norris is a fighter. She’s conquered breast cancer and a life-threatening brain bleed. She wasn’t going anywhere.

“I love my house,” she said. “I love my dog and my two cats. I do not want to leave my house.”

Norris knows firsthand that inefficient appliances can add hundreds of dollars (or more) to annual energy expenses; her electricity bill was one of her biggest recurring monthly costs.

She found a solution in a social media post about a Duke Energy pilot program that provides free home energy improvements to income-qualified customers in Mecklenburg, Guilford and Forsyth counties in North Carolina who use a lot of electricity. And it’s not just for homeowners. The High Energy Use pilot program is also open to renters who meet the income, usage and location requirements.

The application process was easy, something Cooper is “immensely grateful” for. “It was such a simple, simple process to get the ball started,” she said of helping Norris (her mom) enroll.

Are you eligible?

The High Energy Use pilot program is open to income-qualified residential customers (both renters and homeowners) in Forsyth, Guilford and Mecklenburg counties with high energy usage.

Upgrades can include replacements for inefficient HVAC systems, refrigerators and water heaters, as well as air sealing, free lightbulbs and more.

Apply for the program, or learn more about the usage and income qualifications, on our website.

Customers can also call 877.403.0384.

The initial goal, said Program Manager Lacey O’Neil, is to lower energy usage, and monthly energy bills, for 1,000 Duke Energy customers.

“The biggest reward is talking to some of the customers who have qualified for the program,” O’Neil said, “and understanding the true impact that you make on their lives.”

For families with high energy usage, improving energy efficiency can lessen the strain of paying for monthly energy bills. Even a simple swap, like replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LED lighting, can save the average household about $225 in energy costs per year. This allows income to be spent on other necessities.

O’Neil said, “Customers have told me, ‘I couldn’t afford my medication’ or ‘I had to look for a food pantry to be able to feed my kids but now I’m saving this money and I’m able to take care of these things.’”

Once a customer qualifies for the program, a Duke Energy contractor conducts a free audit of the home, identifying energy-inefficient areas and appliances to determine which fixes to prioritize to save energy. The solutions are also free. Duke Energy handles the upgrades needed to improve the home’s energy efficiency, while partner agencies cover improvements or repairs deemed health and safety issues.

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Norris wondered if it was “too good to be true” after an energy audit revealed that she qualified for the program. Randy Honeycutt of Duke Energy said he understands people’s skepticism.

Norris’ energy audit revealed several problems. For one, her hot water heater was driving up electricity costs. And the home needed new insulation. Her 1940s-era house was drafty on a good day. Her daughter said, “You could sit downstairs and just feel the air come through.” And the money flow out.

When Duke Energy contractors insulated Norris’ home, her family noticed a difference in the draft immediately. And so did she, on her bill.

A lot of people could use a program like this; more than 30% of the company’s customers need some sort of bill assistance, said Randy Honeycutt, who works in Solutions Development, Residential Customer Innovation at Duke Energy.

But those customers aren’t always convinced the help being offered is real. They are highly skeptical when a company that threatened to disconnect, or disconnected, their electricity is now offering to help them. It goes back to a deep history of distrust between income-qualified customers and utility companies, commonly reported throughout the industry.

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The Kernersville, N.C., homeowner smiles for a photo with Sarge, her German Shepherd.

As a result, Honeycutt promotes the program in-person every chance he gets, at community meetings, town halls and anywhere else he can get the word out. There’s money to serve around 800 additional customers, and he wants to reach them.

It’s a lot of work, but worth it, he said: “That should be the endless goal … to build trust.”

Ashley Pendley is a partner in building that trust. She is the community and economic development business manager for Forsyth County, one of the three counties in the pilot program.

“When [Duke Energy] customers see that the county is backing a program like this,” Pendley said, “it creates more of a sense of trust and legitimacy.”

Pendley’s office also handles the health and safety measures identified in the program’s free energy audit. Having Duke Energy take care of the upgrades and repairs that improve efficiency, she said, frees up critical dollars from the county to put toward those health and safety issues.

Now, a grateful Pendley said, “We’re addressing all of the needs rather than just piecemealing some things and then the client coming back to us in a couple of years.”

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Norris enjoys crafting, especially the wind chimes she makes from stained-glass, beads and other secondhand items.

Working together, Duke Energy, Forsyth County and Piedmont Triad Regional Council (PTRC, another partner organization) – have already or will be providing the following improvements to Norris: water-saving fixtures, energy-efficient lighting, ductwork, insulation, and comprehensive air sealing, as well as a new heat pump water heater, a new central heating and cooling system and a refrigerator replacement.

Norris’ upgrades get to the heart of the pilot program: to identify and repair all issues contributing to high energy usage.

Now, she will have more reliable air conditioning this summer and heat next winter. And both for years to come. These systems are highly efficient, meaning they’ll use less electricity to get the job done – cutting energy bills in the process.

Money is still very tight, but her difficult decisions are a little easier to make. And her daughter is sleeping better.

And it all started with a social media post for Norris, who said, “You know what it [the program] does? It gives us hope.”

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