News Column

Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla., Anthony Westbury column

April 29, 2014

By Anthony Westbury, Treasure Coast Newspapers, Stuart, Fla.



April 29--If the past weekend's weather is anything to go by, plenty of air conditioners will be working extra hard this summer. And many of them will cost their owners a lot more money than they should.

Yet the cost of upgrading to a more efficient air conditioner, adding extra insulation to a home or retrofitting leaky windows is beyond the means of many low- to moderate-income families.

That's where the Solar Energy Loan Fund comes in.

SELF was founded in July 2010 by former St. Lucie County Commissioner Doug Coward to address the problem of working-class people struggling to make ends meet in the face of rising energy costs.

By making small, low-interest loans available to homeowners, Coward reasoned he could not only reduce people's power bills, he could also help generate new jobs in the hard-hit construction industry.

Coward had barely assembled a consortium of four local banks and a Palm Beach County-based credit union to finance his idea when the recession began to bite. Almost overnight, banks became a lot more cautious about their lending practices.

Despite these setbacks, SELF has grown, both financially and geographically. Inside four years it's expanded to cover five counties as far away as Brevard, and has closed on 250 loans. SELF is poised to expand into the Orlando area by next year and could double its loans within a year.

SELF's expansion came through the use of funds from faith-based organizations, many from outside our area. It will continue along that path, but recently received some good news locally.

One of the original banks in the consortium, PNC, decided to invest $300,000 in the organization. Coward hopes other banks will follow.

Even though SELF's target clients may not be the richest, they tend to be stable customers. Of the 250 loans so far, the delinquency rate sits at a low 3 percent.

The average residential loan is about $8,000, and clients report annual energy savings of 21 percent -- about $263 a household. SELF has performed 860 individual energy audits of homes and the program now has partnered with 42 contractors.

Coward and Duanne Andrade, SELF's chief financial officer, intend to offer similar incentives to small businesses in the near future.

Two of the biggest misperceptions about SELF, Andrade said, are that they only do solar (in fact, 85 percent of their business is in nonsolar technologies) and that they only cater to low- and medium-income clients.

In fact, a growing number of SELF clients come from Port St. Lucie and Hutchinson Island, Andrade noted.

Robyn Foster of Port St. Lucie is one satisfied residential customer.

"I purchased my home four years ago as a single parent," she said. "In the last four years, I've completed nursing school and started a new career, but I still could not afford to do some much-needed updates on my 1960s home. I had no equity in the home, so I didn't qualify for a home-equity loan, and I couldn't obtain a home improvement loan either."

Foster saw a SELF booth at the Home Show at Port St. Lucie Civic Center and got the ball rolling on a loan she could afford. She now has all new windows in her home and "I can see a difference on my electric bill each month," she said.

I've championed SELF a number of times and the organization seems to be growing at a steady pace. Coward and Andrade both spoke of the irony that for a while it was easier to attract investors from across the country than on their home turf. So the PNC investment is very good news and may be a sign of greater financial opportunities to come in the future.

SELF's track record has made it a national model in getting the job done rather than simply theorizing about energy efficiency. Coward said he's fielded calls from Nevada, Chicago and New Jersey asking how to replicate the program elsewhere.

"We're the boots on the ground," Coward said. "We've excelled at that. Now we need to cultivate new clients."

The future looks bright and pretty cool -- especially if you can swing that new AC unit.

Anthony Westbury is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. Contact him at 772-221-4220, anthony.westbury@scripps.com, or TCPalmWestbury on Twitter.

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(c)2014 the Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, Fla.)

Visit the Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, Fla.) at www.tcpalm.com

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Source: Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, FL)


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