TVA EnergyRight helps Knoxville dad find a cool solution after A/C unit stops working

Residential / Home Uplift

Lewis Davis may have retired in 2021, but his life is still very active. He and his wife, Bernice, are raising two young sons and two American Bully dogs — the youngest just a few weeks old. Photographs of their family adorn the living room walls, and Davis’ favorite brown leather recliner draped in a University of Tennessee blanket is the living room’s centerpiece.

“I love being in Knoxville and love my home. This is a roomy house,” says Davis. “Bernice still works at the industrial park, so I’m a stay-at-home dad. I cook, clean, and do our laundry. I do at all.”

But doing it all isn’t always easy. When the family’s HVAC started to go out last summer, Davis called a repair shop and paid $1100 to have them fix the unit’s fan.

“My house was plus 90 degrees. I bought six big fans and put them in every room of the house to help the air conditioner along. I even started cooking outside on the grill.”

Davis says the repair did not fix his HVAC. After lamenting about his situation, a friend suggested Davis look into the Home Uplift program. TVA EnergyRight partners with local power companies to help income-eligible families save hundreds of dollars on their utility bills with free home energy improvements. Davis reached out to Knoxville Utilities Board, and their team set him up with a TVA-certified Home Energy Advisor.

“He noted the HVAC needed to be replaced,” recalls Davis. “He also checked for air leaks around the house and said my return unit needed to be replaced, and I needed insulation.”

Chasity Hobby with KUB says Davis’ experience is similar to that of many Knoxville residents.

“There are a lot of older, energy inefficient homes in Knoxville, which can greatly impact utility bills. In Mr. Davis’ situation, he was struggling to keep his home cool in the middle of summer, and that was his day-to-day.”

Hobby says Home Uplift not only improved the comfort level for the Davis family but it should help lower their utility bill for years to come.

Davis says he was impressed the same TVA-certified inspector who audited his home for Home Uplift came back to check the contractor’s work.

“He didn’t like how the air was flowing,” Davis says. “So he called the supervisor and told him, ‘Look, this is not right. The air is not flowing right in this house, so you need to get back out here and get Mr. Davis taken care of.’ The whole crew was back out here in two weeks.”

Davis says the sound of his new HVAC kicking on was the best thing he had heard in a long time — until he heard his sons react. “Oh my god. It was like they’re in heaven. My kids said, ‘Daddy, thank you!’ They were in hog heaven.“

Partnering with local power companies to spread the word about Home Uplift

“We often hear the Home Uplift program sounds too good to be true,” says Bethany Kitch, TVA EnergyRight senior program manager. “That’s why it’s important for us to partner with local utility companies that are already trusted partners in their communities and can help recruit people to the Home Uplift program.”

Hobby says the partnership with EnergyRight helps KUB fund programs like Home Uplift. As an environmental program lead for KUB, Hobby is always looking at holistic solutions for internal operations and KUB’s customers. “There’s an energy-saving component to Home Uplift, which helps reduce the carbon footprint,” says Hobby. “But a major sustainability component of the program is helping to promote energy equity and reduce the energy burden for our customers so that all customers can have access to the same resources, and supporting everyone that we serve equally.”

Related stories:

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Home Uplift gives customers a hand up in creating a healthy, energy efficient home

TVA EnergyRight helps a mother of two preserve generations-old family home

Kentucky great-grandmother saves money and energy through a Federal Home Loan Bank program

Kentucky great-grandmother saves money and energy through a Federal Home Loan Bank program

Residential / Home Uplift

Family photographs hang from every wall of Ann Darnall’s Hardin, Kentucky, home. Children’s toys are neatly tucked away in the corner, waiting for her two great-grandsons to visit and scatter them on the floor.

“I have been called Boda since my grandson was born,” recalls Darnall. “When he was little, he’d call me Boda. We tried to tell him I wasn’t Boda, but he insisted I was. So everybody calls me Boda.”

When Ann and her husband, Jerry, found themselves empty nesters in the early 1990s, the couple decided to downsize and found a unique home — a basement house. It was built underground, so the land surrounds three sides of the home like a blanket. The builder had intended to add another floor, but the Darnalls liked the coziness of the basement house.

“We’ve been here ever since. It just worked out to be what we needed,” says the now 80-year-old.

Their family grew by one when a little terrier mix named Dolly joined the couple almost 13 years ago. Darnall says her husband spoiled their pup until he passed away two years ago. She’s managed the house’s upkeep with her family’s help but needed help with her bills on a single fixed income.

“My local power company [West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation (WKRECC)] called me and asked me if I wanted to participate in Home Uplift,” says Darnall.

David Smart, WKRECC chief executive officer, says Darnall’s basement home provided some natural energy efficiency, but heating and cooling her home with plug-in fans was not saving her money.

“Home Uplift helps recipients save at least 25% on their energy costs every month,” says Smart. “Right now, with the cost of everything going up, we’re actually helping lower one of their costs through Home Uplift.”

For Darnall, that meant having window units removed and replaced with new mini-splits in her living room and bedroom, along with attic insulation and a new fan in the bathroom. As a result, Darnall says she’s saving money and feels more comfortable in her home.

“The air feels cleaner and drier, which is helping with my COPD,” says Darnall. Research shows poor indoor air quality can aggravate preexisting medical conditions like asthma, emphysema or COPD. After a home is weatherized, people report having fewer bad health days and fewer doctor or emergency department visits.

Tim Hughes, TVA EnergyRight energy services consultant, says the goal of Home Uplift is to provide free home weatherization upgrades to income-eligible homeowners.

“Many folks are heating their home[s] in the winter by turning on an electric oven and opening the door or using kerosene space heaters instead of having a heating and cooling unit that works. That’s something we tend to take for granted. But some of these homes, like Ms. Darnall’s, didn’t have that.”

Darnall’s home is one of 35 Home Uplift homes in the WKRECC service territory funded partly by the Federal Home Loan Bank Affordable Housing Program. WKRECC, in partnership with the Purchase Area Development District, received $200,000 from the Affordable Housing Program, with EnergyRight matching the loan for a total of $400,000.

In addition to the upgrades made inside Darnall’s home, she also received beautification work in her yard thanks partly to the loan and to a donation from The Murray Bank and Lowe’s Home Improvement.

“We did some landscaping and tidying up around the property,” Hughes says. “Ms. Darnall is a huge University of Kentucky basketball fan, so we made sure to put the Wildcats mascot front and center.”

“I just love it,” says Darnall. “I’m so thankful to EnergyRight and WKRECC for this opportunity.”

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TVA EnergyRight helps a mother of two preserve generations-old family home

Middle Tennessee church makes first-of-its-kind donation to TVA EnergyRight program

Home Uplift gives customers a hand up in creating a healthy, energy efficient home

Memphis schools discover significant energy savings and earn big rewards

Business & Industry

It had all the makings of a school pep rally gearing up to cheer their team to victory. A DJ blasted music through speakers while taking to the mic to excite the crowd of teachers, students and city leaders in the school parking lot. The music occasionally faded to let the elementary and high school cheerleaders enthusiastically shout about pride and spirit. Other kids proudly waved bright blue pom-poms, but their homemade signs were the one indication that this was not a traditional pep rally. The posters did not display messages supporting the team. Instead, it was a simple “thank you” to their local power company Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) and TVA EnergyRight®. Then the cheerleaders made a big reveal — the schools had been awarded $500,000 in grant money, and the crowd erupted in cheers.

“It takes a lot to win a grant,” says Cindy Herron, vice president of EnergyRight. “A grant is not a given to the schools. The students and teachers must compete for the grants against other [DS1] schools. They have to look for ways to save energy, and we look at how they engage the schools and the community. Being with Power Center Academy today and seeing their hard work pay off is amazing.”

The road to get to this day for Power Center Academy’s elementary and high school started 12 months ago when representatives from EnergyRight and MLGW approached Yetta Lewis about joining the School Uplift program. After hearing about the success of the first cohort and how much money the schools saved, the co-founder and CEO of Gestalt Community Schools in Memphis, Tennessee, did not hesitate to say yes.

“The elementary is a former Kroger grocery store,” says Lewis. “Our high school used to be Southwest Community College. It’s wide-open spaces with high ceilings and just a beast to warm and cool. It’s very expensive.”

School Uplift supports schools in the region by reducing energy costs and improving the quality of the learning environment. Participating schools receive behavior-based strategic energy management (SEM) training while promoting engagement from faculty and students with easy, actionable energy saving tips and energy efficiency practices.

“We assign energy coaches to the school, and from there, they create energy teams that involve the students and school administrators,” says Kevin Wren, operations manager for EnergyRight.

Wren says the coaches met monthly to make sure things such as their HVAC systems were running at peak performance and were being cleaned regularly. He says changing behaviors was also another key component.

“In addition to the coaching, we got great educational materials that we could use in the classroom to remind students to turn off computers and lights,” says Lewis. “Our teachers didn’t have to recreate the wheel. There were resources right there with TVA and MLGW, and we want to continue using those resources throughout the year.”

Collaboration with MLGW was also crucial to each school’s success. “We were happy to help them save energy and utilize resources in other areas that make the school great,” says Natasha Rosko, commercial marketing representative for MLGW. “It’s just not about MLGW servicing them. We want to find ways to help all of our customers save energy and money.”

Power Center Academy’s successful participation earned them a $100,000 grant for the elementary school and a $400,000 grant for the high school. The money was in partnership EnergyRight, MLGW and Tennessee’s Energy Efficient Schools Initiative (EESI).

“TVA’s mission is to serve the people of the Valley and to make life better,” says Herron. “Schools are the heartbeat of the communities. It’s also about our future generation, so it just made sense to focus on what we could do in the schools to help them save energy.”

Power Center Academy students will help decide how the grant money is spent. Lewis says they are looking at building an outdoor classroom, upgrading their air filtration system and switching to LED lights.

“Schools are making hard decisions on whether to do more extra-curriculum activities or pay the light bill,” says Lewis. “We feel fortunate to have these savings that will be re-invested back into our students.”

TVA EnergyRight is currently accepting applications for the next School Uplift

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Bledsoe County Schools transform their energy training into cool savings

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Alabama School district makes the grade in sustainability 

TVA EnergyRight helps a mother of two preserve generations-old family home

Residential / Home Uplift

Jessica Malone’s kitchen is one of a kind. Her off-white, hand-painted cabinets turned into a literal “hands-on” paint project.

“I would let them [my sons] paint on the linoleum floor to use it as a canvas,” recalls Malone. “When they were done, I would mop it up. Then, Dalton, my youngest, wanted to make the project a little more interesting. Before I knew it, he and his older brother, Bretley, put their handprints on the kitchen table and, eventually, my cabinets and fridge.”

Initially not a fan of their work, Jessica came around to the new art installation in whimsical shades of red, purple and orange — a time-capsuled kitchen adorned with handprints of her fast-paced boys.

Child handprints on cabinet doors.

Malone and her two boys live in Minor Hill, Tennessee, about five miles north of the Alabama border. She grew up a mile down the road from her current home. Her farmhouse has been in their family for generations. Decades ago, her great-great-uncle moved the two-bedroom, one-bath from the nearby holler to its present location. Each generation has added rooms to the home. While that has made it unique, Malone admits the house is not the most energy efficient.

“My budget as a single momma is very tight, so any change to my bills, especially if they go up, has a big impact on our lives,” says Malone, who works full-time outside the home and is careful with her spending.

Tamieka Russell understands Malone’s concerns. “I was a young homeowner and a young mother, and I know for a fact you don’t have the money lying around to make energy efficiency upgrades,” says Russell. She’s worked at Pulaski Electric System for 20 years and is currently their Chief Customer Service Officer. She knew Malone would be a great candidate for the TVA EnergyRight Home Uplift program.

“PES can provide homeowners with an energy audit, and it tells you where to make energy efficient improvements to your home,” says Russell. “But if you’re a family with limited means, you can’t afford to make those upgrades to correct the problem. This program actually allows them to correct the problem.”

“Home Uplift was created to fund home energy upgrades for individuals and households with limited means,” says Bethany Kitch, Home Uplift senior program manager for TVA EnergyRight. The program partners with local power companies, like PES, to offer income-eligible families free weatherization improvements like updating HVAC units and water heaters and installing attic insulation.

“Families often spend 10% or more of their income on their utility bills, and they have to make tough choices between purchasing medication, food or paying their electric bills,” says Kitch.

Malone says she is grateful for the Home Uplift program. Not only has it helped cut her utility costs, but during the initial inspection, it also uncovered a problem she was unaware of.

“The contractor discovered my water heater was leaking,” says Malone. “I had no idea! It’s almost 30 years old, but I could never have afforded to replace it.” Crews not only installed a new water heater, but they also placed insulation in her attic and installed a fan in the bathroom to help reduce humidity.

Russell says Malone’s experience is why she’s excited to offer Home Uplift to her customers.

“Jessica makes a good candidate because she’s a young homeowner and a mother who doesn’t have $5,000 lying around for a new water heater unit or new insulation,” says Russell. “This program can help her focus that time and energy on her boys instead of worrying about the money that she may have to spend on improvements.”

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Business & Industry

Sally Scales does not shy away from hard work. She maintains nearly straight A’s while juggling several after-school activities. Her drive is not surprising since her motto is, “Be all in or get out. There is no in-between.” As she starts her freshman year at Sheffield High School, she is starting to think about her future and the world she’s stepping into.

“Maybe it’s because we’re the next generation trying to say, ‘Hey, there is no Planet B. So, let’s clean up what we’re doing here,’ ” says Scales.

She says the environment wasn’t something she was concerned about even just a year ago. Scales jokes that she was more interested in recess. But when her school district, Sheffield City School, enrolled in TVA EnergyRight’s School Uplift program, it helped her see the impact she could make, even if it was small, sustainable steps.

“I think many people have a mindset of ‘what’s the big deal if I leave one light bulb on? It’s not gonna hurt,’ ” says Scales. “But when billions of people have that ‘one light bulb’ mindset, it becomes a problem my generation is responsible for.”

L.E. Willson Elementary principal Heather Collum shares Scales’ concerns.

“This is their future, and if we don’t teach them to preserve and protect what they have now, it might not be there,” says Collum. Her school participated in this year’s School Uplift program, along with the junior high and high school.

TVA EnergyRight senior program manager Clay Hoover runs the School Uplift program and has watched it evolve over the last few years.

“The program is designed to start with low and no-cost behavior changes for energy savings. Many of the schools we work with are underserved and cannot make investments upfront, so we start by showing them how to run what they have more efficiently,” says Hoover.

Before the second School Uplift cohort started, Hoover and his team felt teachers and students needed to be more involved in their school’s energy savings. “Typically, we work with the maintenance staff for 12 months of energy management training,” says Hoover. “But we realized kids also need to understand the impact of their energy use.”

The team invited the Energy Monsters, already popular among children who attend EnergyRight’s Eye Spy Energy Workshop, to join the School Uplift curriculum. The adorable monster friends include Zap, Bolt, Watt, Newton, Breaker and Spark and they help children learn energy-saving habits that save money around the home and school.

Another new School Uplift initiative was the creation of student teams led by an adult Energy Champion to spearhead its energy-saving initiatives.

Collum chose Savanna Mize, who works with gifted and talented students, to be the Energy Champion for the school. 

“I thought it was a great opportunity to teach the kids about saving energy and the importance of it for their future,” says Mize. She says teachers and students from all the schools in the district collaborated. They put together spreadsheets to track each school’s monthly energy bills. Mize also let the students take the reins in developing energy efficiency activities for the entire school.

“Before I was on this team, I just had basic ideas about how to save energy,” says 6th grader Cullen Archer. “But now that I’m on the team, I can express myself and think about what I could do to improve this world.”

“By instilling a sense of ownership with School Uplift, we’re helping to grow our student leaders,” says Mize.

Scales and her fellow students created a series of videos highlighting each school’s accomplishments, such as the student-led energy audit team. After school, they would visit every classroom to ensure lights were turned off and equipment was unplugged.

“The team hung notes on the teachers’ doors to show what they did right and what they could have done better, says Scales. “It made for interesting conversations in the morning. Teachers can be competitive.”

TV monitors in the hallways of the schools displayed energy scores. Mize says many of the students and teachers liked Blackout Day, where they spent the whole day using flashlights to learn and teach. She says it helped draw attention to how much electricity they were using.

“It’s another lesson in conserving energy,” says Collum. “Our elementary school building dates back to 1962, so it doesn’t hold heat or cold air really well due to the structure of the building. So, we’re going to do everything and anything to help protect and save there.”

Sheffield City School Superintendent Carlos Nelson says student involvement will also be critical in sustaining long-term energy efficiency changes.

“We want something that’s embedded as the students move to different grade levels and eventually graduate,” says Nelson. “We also want them to bring this home and remind mom and dad to turn off lights, to unplug cords not being used.”

Hoover says Sheffield City School’s success helped them win a $200,000 grant. School officials will use it to upgrade LE Willson Elementary since it’s the district’s oldest building.

Nelson also credits the partnership between TVA EnergyRight and their local power company, Sheffield Utilities, for their success. “They were both great partners and would go out of their way to help us,” says Nelson.

Sheffield Utilities general manager Steve Hargrove says his team has been working on a 10-year sustainability plan for their customers, and he says School Uplift aligns with their goals. “We’re building a 10-megawatt solar farm as a part of our long-term plan to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Hargrove. “It’s all about lowering energy use, and we involve students now because this will impact them as our future customers.”

Scales says she’s already seeing her family use electricity differently at home.

“They are more mindful of turning off a light when leaving a room or unplugging an unused cell phone charger. It’s become our responsibility, but I don’t see it as a burden,” says Scales. “It’s such a tiny thing that makes a big difference.”

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Tennessee teachers and students can ‘sense’ the health benefits of an energy efficient school

Middle Tennessee church makes first-of-its-kind donation to TVA EnergyRight program

Residential / Home Uplift

Jerry Perry lives in what appears to be an unassuming house across the street from a park in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, until he proudly shows off the addition he created when he moved in decades ago – a small hair salon, complete with a vintage hair dryer chair and salon bowl.

“I lived and worked in San Francisco for 20-plus years at my own salon,” says Perry. ”I spent most of my free time traveling the world. That’s the only reason to work was to travel.”

He moved back to Murfreesboro in 1999 to help take care of his mother and eventually moved into the family house on Smith Street, built by Perry’s uncle in the 1940s.

“It’s a pretty well-kept home,” says Perry. “I’ve made some improvements here and there.”

A diagnosis of spinal stenosis forced Perry to hang up his salon apron for good a few years ago. The disease left him unable to bend over or stand comfortably for long periods of time. The 80-year-old relies on social security, but it doesn’t leave room for the unexpected, like when his heating and air-conditioning unit gave out in the middle of winter.

“I didn’t have the money to purchase a new HVAC,” recalls Perry. “For about five weeks, I used space heaters and wood for the stove fireplace. One night, it was in the 20s, and I was sitting in my living room with four coats on and a fire in the fireplace, and I was still cold.” 

Perry says he was overjoyed when he heard about TVA EnergyRight’s Home Uplift program in partnership with Middle Tennessee Electric (MTE). A TVA-certified advisor came to his home and found that, while Perry’s home was well-insulated, some equipment was not energy efficient. In addition to replacing Perry’s broken HVAC, Home Uplift swapped out his heat pump with an energy efficient unit at no cost to him.

“Home Uplift offers weatherization improvements by upgrading HVAC units, water heaters, attic insulation and other energy efficiency measures,” says Bethany Kitch, senior EnergyRight program manager. She says families with limited means often spend 10% or more of their income on their utility bills, and they have to make tough choices between purchasing medication or food or paying their electric bills.

“I think Home Uplift is one of the best programs I’ve seen TVA implement because it directly impacts those who may have a hard time figuring out their energy needs,” says Robert White, MTE vice president of member services & community relations. “The folks who end up having the highest bills can’t afford to upgrade their HVAC or insulation, and it’s no fault of their own.”

White says he’s impressed Home Uplift matches dollar-for-dollar the monetary investment made by MTE. “But there is also a commitment from TVA that if we (MTE) partner with any third-party organization dollar-wise, they will also do that match,” says White.  

Recently, White approached his church leaders at First Baptist Church Murfreesboro with a proposal to donate to the Home Uplift program. The church is a second home to White, who also serves as a deacon. Senior Pastor James McCarroll says he often speaks to his congregation about the meaning of “neighbor” and encourages them to let go of preconceived notions.

“Historically, humans gather with people who look like them, sound like them, talk like them, and have similar demographics as they do. So, that causes us to create silos. My goal is to make us look beyond the walls of the church, beyond the block of the church, and beyond the area of the churches to where God is calling us to serve.”

McCarroll says many people in his community could potentially feel the impact of Home Uplift’s equity in energy. He said it was an easy decision for First Baptist Church Murfreesboro to be the first third-party donation to Home Uplift.

“When you’re used to having water, used to all of your doors being on the hinges, having electricity or being in a room where there’s no draft coming in because the windows are properly repaired, it can be shocking to see the conditions that people accept as their normal.”

EnergyRight matched the $5,000 church donation for a total of $10,000, which is the average cost of one Home Uplift.

“The mission of the First Baptist Church aligns directly with TVA’s mission to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley,” says Kitch. “We want to make sure that everyone has access to these new technologies to lower their electric bills, so they can use that extra funding to purchase food, gas and medication.”

Pastor McCarroll hopes this donation will encourage others to act. “You cannot say you’re serious about the health of your community if you’re not directly investing in the people who need to be healthy in your community.”

If you’re interested in contributing to Home Uplift as an individual or an organization, please email If you or someone you know would like to apply to Home Uplift, visit

Small Tennessee town invigorated with energy-efficient upgrades to empower sustainable growth

Business & Industry

This blog was updated on August 9, 2023 to reflect the program’s new name: Small Business Uplift.

In collaboration with local power companies and community partners, Small Business Uplift (formerly known as Community Centered Growth) from TVA EnergyRight® helps business owners with free energy-related upgrades and resources.

The Industrial Age in America put downtowns on the map. It was a hub of activity – shopping, dining and live entertainment within blocks of each other. Decades later, the suburban sprawl created empty downtown storefronts in its wake. Now, there is a hopeful comeback. In far east Tennessee, downtown Erwin is poised for its next chapter. The city center is nostalgia incarnate, nestled between the college town of Johnson City, TN and Asheville, North Carolina. Roller Pharmacy harkens back to a time when the drug store owner knew everyone by their first name and asked how the extended family was doing. Plant Palace has been a Main Street staple for decades, housed in the old post office building. Flowers, tchotchkes and the owners’ cats have the run of the place. But there is also room in downtown Erwin for new businesses, like Union Street Gallery. The owners host art classes for locals and visitors and sell their unique pieces that involve glass and metal. City leaders had devised a plan to revitalize the area in 2020, but the pandemic forced several businesses to close permanently.

Small Business Uplift recognizes the struggle of small shop owners. The program is working with local power company partners to stimulate underserved communities across the region— by starting from within. Small Business Uplift assists small businesses with energy-related upgrades and resources, helping boost their productivity and sustainability.

We were happy to partner with Erwin Utilities to make energy-saving improvements for Plant Palace, Roller Pharmacy and Union Street Gallery. 

Unoccupied brick storefront in Erwin, TN
An unoccupied storefront in downtown Erwin, TN
Gray-haired, smiling small business owner holding orange tabby cat in his flower shop.
Harry Lewis, owner of the Plant Palace holds one of his store cats. Lewis bought the flower shop in 1993 after he was laid off from a fuel services company.
Woman answering phone in flower shop
Plant Palace occupies the old post office built in 1936.
Energy efficient HVAC roof-top units.
New energy efficient HVACs on the roof of Plant Palace have a beautiful view.
Smart thermostat
Contractors installed a smart thermostat. The Wi-Fi enabled device automatically adjusts temperature settings and can be controlled remotely with a smartphone.
LED lighting on ceiling
Flat-panel energy-saving LED lights provide a softer glow compared to their fluorescent counterpart. Lewis says it’s also easier upkeep and he won’t have to change bulbs as often.
Pharmacist working
Terry Roller’s father opened Roller Pharmacy in 1964. He’s carrying on the family business of helping the people of Erwin get the care their need. He hopes to pass that legacy to his daughter.
HVAC fan
Older buildings often lack insulation and energy efficient equipment. EnergyRight’s Small Business Uplift, in partnership with Erwin Utilities, installed new HVACs and furnaces to help small businesses save energy and money.
Artist welding in his studio.
Vincent Bowden welds a piece of artwork in his studio. He says the new heating and cool unit has improved the comfort level.
Gallery owner sitting in her shop in Erwin, TN.
Jan and Vincent Bowden are recent transplants to Erwin. “It’s a very close-knit, welcoming community.
Contractor in sunglasses, smiling at the camera.
Preferred Partner Network contractor Phil Allen says he was grateful to be part of the Small Business Uplift project in Erwin. “We’re getting the whole town involved and it’s been wonderful to help these small businesses.”

Nashville eateries enjoy the sweet taste of energy efficiency

Business & Industry

This blog was updated on August 9, 2023 to reflect the program’s new name: Small Business Uplift.

In collaboration with local power companies and community partners, Small Business Uplift (formerly known as Community Centered Growth) from TVA EnergyRight® helps business owners with free energy-related upgrades and resources.

It’s hard to tell if the delicious smells or the boisterous laughs coming from the kitchen are the first things you notice when entering Big Al’s Deli, but both make you feel at home.

Patrons can grab a seat at one of four linoleum tables draped in plastic covers featuring bright lemons. But the best seats are the faded stools that provide a front-row view to the choreographed chaos of Al Anderson’s work.

“I call the food Southern food with a twist,” says Anderson with a big smile. “That twist is usually spice. I try to make food that nobody else in Nashville is doing. And if someone copies me, I just try to switch it up and do something different.”

Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Anderson says he sort of fell into the business when he opened Big Al’s Deli in the Salemtown neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, nearly nine years ago. The food industry was a pivotal part of his early childhood.

“When I was a kid, my dad bought a bar, and my mother bought an ice cream shop,” recalls Anderson. “So at one point, I was making pizza, strawberry sundaes and banana boats at 11 years old. That was my first introduction into the food business.”

When the current space for Big Al’s Deli became available, Anderson knew the 100-year-old building came with challenges. “There was a small, little hole in the window, but everything else was padded up. All that was in this place was a hood and a sink.”

Anderson bought what he calls “collected items,” such as mismatched coffee cups, plates and silverware to save money. The promotional mugs from long-forgotten businesses give the place personality. But his other collected items, like the dual convection oven and refrigerator, gave Anderson headaches. The second-hand equipment was cheaper than purchasing new, but it would often break or wasn’t energy efficient, costing Anderson a lot of money to run it 12 to 14 hours daily.

When TVA EnergyRight® and Nashville Electric Service approached him about participating in their Small Business Uplift program, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“In the middle of COVID-19, I’m struggling to stay afloat. Seventy-five percent of my business is corporate catering, which disappeared with the pandemic. The only thing that didn’t disappear was the bills. They still came.”

Carolyn Greer, TVA EnergyRight senior program manager, says the mission of Small Business Uplift is to focus on small businesses in communities that are often overlooked. “TVA has built a mission of service,” says Greer. “When you meet people like Al [Anderson], you see what a game-changer it is for them to come to work, save $500 a month on their bills and not have to use old equipment. The temperature is cool when they come to work and when they leave work. Things like that have been beneficial for these mom-and-pop places. It is worth it.”

“The benefits are, first of all, unbelievable,” says an excited Anderson. “I made very good biscuits. Now, with this new oven, I make fantastic biscuits. Buying equipment or getting new lighting was never in my budget. It was in my wish budget. But there’s no money tree in my backyard.”

Greer says partnering with NES helped them provide Anderson with a new, energy-efficient double convection oven, a three-ton air-conditioning unit and LED lights inside and outside the deli.

“We are public power. A governmental agency that serves the people,” says Antonio Carroll, NES representative. Carroll helped NES select several small businesses to participate in the Small Business Uplift pilot. “To see the impact of Small Business Uplift around this neighborhood is just phenomenal because you’re seeing your neighbors being uplifted. You’re seeing your community being uplifted. You’re being able to help folks who are helping themselves and help those who want to continue to help the neighborhood that they serve.”

Ed’s Fish and Pizza House, just a mile and a half down the road from Big Al’s, also participated in the Small Business Uplift program. The drive-thru establishment is tucked in the corner of J.B. Todd and Buchanan Street in North Nashville. It recently celebrated 50 years in business and is now managed by 24-year-old Anthony Williams.

“My great-uncle opened this place with his son, and they served fried fish with a side of mustard, hot sauce, pickles and onions. It was a new thing on the scene back in 1972, and it sort of became normal,” says Williams.

While their recipe hasn’t changed much in the decades that followed, a few other things have. Some of the equipment, such as their HVAC and lighting, were no longer efficient and put a strain on the small business’s monthly utility bills. Williams says he couldn’t believe it when EnergyRight and NES approached him to participate in Small Business Uplift. “The work they did would most likely not have happened. After they put in the new HVAC, there was a 20% decrease in our energy bill.”

Carroll says many small businesses participating in Small Business Uplift work with very tight budgets. If any were to close, their communities would feel the loss. “Ed’s is a multigenerational owner of this restaurant location,” says Carrol. “It’s transformational for the community. It’s also amazing for us to help this business continue on its successful path and help them reduce their energy load.”

Greer hopes the long-term impact of Small Business Uplift will not only sustain these businesses for years to come but also show a different side of their utility. “TVA and NES are not just power providers. We have this mission of service to be more than just this bill that comes in the mail.”

“Just to know that TVA took the initiative to step out and do that for small businesses, it’s kind of mind-blowing,” says Williams.

Anderson also agrees. “EnergyRight and NES care, and that’s a rarity these days. You care, and it makes a big difference.”

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TVA EnergyRight’s Small Business Uplift helps the heart of Sheffield find its rhythm

Small Tennessee town invigorated with energy-efficient upgrades to empower sustainable growth

Tennessee teachers and students can ‘sense’ the health benefits of an energy efficient school

Business & Industry

Just over 450 students and teachers pour into the Pickett County K-8 gym for an all-school assembly. Their voices echo off the concrete walls. Many don’t notice the large overhead gym lights, except for a few students – and principal Julia Barber has always been concerned for them.

“The old lights in the gym, the cafeteria and even some classrooms had a constant buzz,” says Barber. “Some of our children have sensory processing disorders and are on the autism spectrum. They would focus on that buzz and could not focus on what they needed to do. One of my students sat with his hands over his ears, and he would look and say, ‘Make it stop, make it stop.’” So, he often went into the office and put on noise-canceling headphones. But even then, the lights would flicker and agitate him.”

“We try to live within our means”

Pickett County, Tennessee, is just over the Kentucky state line. In the summertime, visitors head to the county’s main attraction — Dale Hallow Lake. The majority of residents are retired and live on fixed incomes. Diane Elder, director of schools, says it is one of the main reasons why the school district hasn’t asked voters for a tax increase in 15 years.

“We take pride in not putting that burden on them. We try to live within our means. We don’t have some of the things many larger schools have, but we feel like we have a really good school system.“

With a tight budget, Pickett teachers rely on fundraising. The school gives them two weeks to raise money for classroom supplies like copy paper, pencils and notebooks.  “We also do some school-wide fundraisers,” says Barber. “Those are for things for copier maintenance that are not necessarily included in our budget from our central office. We spend a lot of out-of-pocket that I don’t think most people realize.”

Pickett’s school staff has been so self-reliant for years that Elder could hardly believe that anyone would help them improve their school for free.

Elder recalls attending a directors’ conference when Clay Hoover, a program manager at TVA EnergyRight, approached her with an interesting offer: the chance to join a pilot program, with nine other schools, called School Uplift. TVA engineers would audit their buildings and note where the schools could improve their energy efficiency. Each of the participating schools would enroll their maintenance personnel in a 12-month energy management training course — all at no cost.

“I said, ‘Clay, you know, this just sounds too good to be true.’ But he said, ‘I promise you, there’s no catch here.’”

“Diane’s got a tough job,” says Hoover. “She wears so many different hats. She is the maintenance manager, the transportation director and the director of the schools. And now we’re asking her to wear a hat as an energy champion, and she’s really taking it on just like all of her other roles. She’s done an excellent job at it, and we’re seeing great success in Pickett County because of her leadership.

The audit revealed that none of the air filtration systems in the HVACs were working at the K-8 school. The units were installed in 2000, after the construction of the building. Elder believes that the lack of filtration led to an uptick in sinus infections after holiday breaks. “It was just the inside air circulating, what little it did circulate. Coming back from winter break, there was almost a stale, musty smell to the building.”

Eighth-grader Johnny Jenkins recalls how his allergies would flare up. “My nose would run, and I could feel the drainage in the back of my throat. It was awful, and I was tired all the time. It’s hard to do your work and pay attention.”

Elder says the School Uplift energy management training helped her learn a lot about the building. She also realized there were plenty of low- to no-cost energy-saving solutions she could easily implement. “Simple things, just like flipping a light switch off when you walk out of the room. We asked the teachers to take out the small mini-fridges and coffee pots from their classrooms.”

“As a teacher, you don’t really know that somebody is paying the electric bill,” says Barber. “But as an administrator, when you actually see what that electric bill runs, you think, ‘Oh, now we’ve got to do better.’”

At the conclusion of the 12-month training program, TVA EnergyRight, in partnership with Volunteer Energy Cooperative, awarded Pickett County K-8 with a $200,000 grant. The State of Tennessee’s Energy Efficient Schools Initiative matched it, for a total of $400,000 to use for building upgrades to provide more energy savings to the school.

 “When Ms. Elder called and said y’all have been awarded the grant, I mean, I literally ‘yee-hawed’ in the office,” recalls Barber. “This was an opportunity of a lifetime. As a rural district, we don’t have a lot of school funds. This grant allowed us to upgrade everything to more efficient HVAC units and lights.”

While the grant was for their K-8, Elder says it helped the district redirect money into materials and supplies for the high school. “We are replacing some of the older HVAC units that we might not have done before because we didn’t have the budget.”

A difference they can see and hear

Jenkins says he’s his sinus infections are practically gone, thanks to the new HVACs and working air filtration. “I’ve noticed a big difference. I’ve been able to breathe easier.” But it wasn’t until new, flat LED light panels were installed in the hallways and classrooms that some students could truly see the difference from the School Uplift grant.

“When you walked into the school before, things looked like they were in a fog,” says 8th grader Aubree Whittenburg. “Kind of like everything was yellow.” She loves the new LED lights that were installed with the grant money because they make everything look brighter. Classmate Penny Daniels agrees, saying that the LED dimmers add a special touch. “With the old lights, there were only two settings. You couldn’t dim them. With the new ones, you can put them in different modes, have them dim or have them bright.”

Barber says teachers also use the dimmers to help calm a rowdy class. “That is a major positive for us, especially at the elementary level.”

She says the students agitated by the old lights have also seen a difference with the new LEDs. “The lights don’t buzz or flicker, so they can participate in activities in the gym, and they don’t have to wear headphones.”

Both Barber and Elder say they’re thankful for the School Uplift program, and they encourage other districts in the valley to participate. “We would not have been able to do this,” says Butler. “Teachers are so appreciative, and students, even though they might not have the words, are not in a yellow building anymore.”

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Business & Industry

This blog was updated on August 9, 2023 to reflect the program’s new name: Small Business Uplift.

In collaboration with local power companies and community partners, Small Business Uplift (formerly known as Community Centered Growth) from TVA EnergyRight® helps business owners with free energy-related upgrades and resources.

Standing in a line 20 people long for lunch on an empty stomach requires a certain grit, especially when each hungry patron can smell today’s special wafting past them in to-go containers. Once inside, the mouth waters as the eyes dance across the food buffet — chicken and dumplings, fried catfish, green beans and sweet potatoes. It’s a gift for the senses, all cooked up by Sarah Douglas.

“I think when people eat, it makes them happy,” says Douglas with a smile.

If there is a “happiness expert” job, Douglas is a prime candidate. But for now, she finds joy as the co-owner of Sac’s Kitchen in Huntsville, Alabama, with her son, Carlos Burwell.

When it comes to her food, Douglas doesn’t cut corners.

“All my food is fresh,” says Douglas emphatically. “All my greens are fresh, nothing bad, nothing canned, nothing frozen. Our motto is ‘Not from can, all from hand.’”

If you grew up in North Huntsville in the 1980s and ‘90s, chances are you ate at Douglas’ house or know someone who stopped by hoping she had made her creamy mac-n-cheese.

“I always had friends want to come over just to eat,” recalls Burwell. “I would try to play tricks on my mom and act like I want something I think she can’t cook. She can come up with stuff, put it together and make it work. She’s a great cook.”

About a decade ago, Burwell asked his mom if she wanted to use her talents in a bigger kitchen. He had found a small place for sale on Mastin Lake Road. “We threw our hat in the ring,” recalls Douglas. “About six other people wanted the same restaurant. The owner of the building told my son somebody had to give him a start, so he gave us our first opportunity.”

Even though the building had previously been a restaurant, Douglas said, it didn’t come with many appliances. “We didn’t have the big machinery to cut and slice the food, so I had to do that by hand.”

Settling on a name for the place was a lot easier. Sarah’s nickname growing up was Sack, but she doesn’t know how she received that moniker. “So when we opened the restaurant and Carlos said, ‘Why don’t we name it Sack’s, after you?’ I said, ‘Nah, we’ll drop the K, we’ll name it Sac’s after both of us. Sarah and Carlos.’”

Like with any new business, the first couple of years for Sac’s Kitchen was tough. They didn’t have any money to advertise, so they relied on word of mouth, hoping people would find them.

“The restaurant is somewhat isolated, and the neighborhood is underserved with businesses,” says Joe Gehrdes, Huntsville Utilities director of community relations. He grew up in Huntsville and has seen the evolution of the northside. “North Huntsville needs help, but it is on the rebound.”

The food coming from the kitchen didn’t go unnoticed for too long as word spread beyond the 35810 ZIP code. “Some celebrities have stopped by, and folks from out of town tell us they made a special stop because they heard about Sac’s,” says Burwell. “But it’s this community that really rallied around us in the beginning.”

The restaurant eventually expanded, taking over the empty businesses next to it. Douglas says all their success doesn’t necessarily translate to a considerable income. “We’re definitely not rolling in money. The utilities keep getting higher. The cost of food and the food containers keeps getting higher. Then your equipment breaks down every other day.”

For years, Sac’s Kitchen got by using two residential stoves that didn’t last very long. “We went through at least eight kitchen stoves because we couldn’t afford to buy the commercial stoves,” says Douglas. “They’re not meant for cooking the big pots and pans. We’d run those stoves from the time we got here, so basically from seven to seven.”

Gehrdes credits TVA EnergyRight for recognizing that small businesses need a program to help them save on their utility bills. “They struggle just like residential customers do from month to month paying their bills, and TVA EnergyRight came to the table wanting to help.”

When Douglas learned Sac’s Kitchen qualified for TVA EnergyRight’s Small Business Uplift program she said she fell to her knees. “Thank God, somebody is helping us. It’s amazing.”

“Small Business Uplift is a program that focuses on small businesses within underserved communities,” says Carolyn Greer, EnergyRight senior program manager. “It was created to focus on those folks and really help people save money. We don’t want electricity to be a factor in making the hard decision of whether to stay open or not.”

Greer says the biggest energy users in restaurants are often refrigeration and cooking equipment. “Small Business Uplift uses grants to invigorate small businesses with energy efficient upgrades and access to energy resources.”

The project not only gave Douglas and Burwell the opportunity to install a commercial-grade stove, but they also received an energy efficient commercial-grade ice machine and air conditioning units near the food buffet.

“It feels like Hell’s Kitchen in the summertime. It’s hot outside, it’s hot near the food bar, and there is heat coming from the kitchen,” says Burwell.

Douglas says EnergyRight contractors worked around the restaurant’s schedule, so they didn’t have to close a single day. They also installed new interior LED lights, and Douglas has noticed how much it’s brightened up the place. She’s also happy to finally have lights outside the building.

The future for Sac’s Kitchen looks bright. Douglas says she has a few years left in her before she’s ready to hang up her apron. In the meantime, her granddaughter, Burwell’s youngest child, Little Sarah, shows interest in learning the ropes of the restaurant and often brings her homemade baked goods to sell to customers.

“What I love about this place is the independence and the room to grow and create something for my grandchildren,” Douglas says. “Sac’s Kitchen will hopefully be in my family long after I’m gone, and that’s the best part about it. I’ve worked since I was 15 years old. I opened this restaurant when I was 53, and now I’m 62. It’s a blessing, a lifelong dream.”

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