The road to efficiency

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Photo provided by Sarah Kaplan

Athens County is in the middle of an upgrade. A new loan program for electric and hybrid vehicles is steering the community toward sustainability, creating a community of electric vehicle owners and a chance to win millions of dollars.

UpGrade Athens, a project of the environmental resource group UpGrade Ohio, collaborated with the Ohio University Credit Union (OUCU) and an anonymous donor to introduce a zero-interest loan for the purchase of electric and hybrid vehicles. As of Jan. 1, 44 individuals enrolled in the Electric Vehicle (EV) Loan Program.

The EV Loan Program allows those living or working in Athens County to buy an electric or hybrid vehicle with an interest-free loan through June, or until the funding for the loans runs out. The list of approved vehicles for the loan is somewhat small, but some of the most popular hybrid and electric vehicles are included, such as the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf.

“There was a lot of people interested in an cheap way to get a hybrid or electric vehicle,” UpGrade Athens’ Information and Outreach Director Mathew Roberts says. “There was a donor in the community that really believed this and led the way.”

The loan program is just one of the initiatives UpGrade Athens introduced in pursuit of the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a nationwide competition to promote environmentally efficient initiatives. Athens County is a semi-finalist in the competition; if it were to win, the county could receive $5 million to help spread environmentally friendly practices and innovations. The winner of the will be announced during the Finalist Selection Stage between January and June.

The impact and motivation behind the zero-interest loan initiative lies in the high price tag of electric vehicles. Kelly Blue Book prices the 2016 Nissan Leaf, a popular electric car, at the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of just under $30,000. Although electric and hybrid cars have a higher initial price tag, they provide economic, as well as environmental, incentives. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates electric vehicle owners spend $1.22 to drive about the same distance a gasoline-fueled car could drive on 1 gallon of gasoline. Due to the ever-fluctuating price of gas, electric vehicles offer more consistent fuel costs.

The city of Athens and Ohio University have helped to promote electric vehicles by installing charging stations in various locations across the area. In one location, underneath wide solar panels in the parking lot of the Athens Recreational Center on East State Street, several charging ports are available for electric and hybrid vehicle owners. That charging location was built in 2010 through a partnership between the city of Athens, Solarvision LLC and Dovetail Solar of Athens County. Ohio University has also made an effort to accommodate electric vehicles by equipping the parking lot in front of Morton Hall with several charging stations.

The OUCU contributed to the EV Loan Program by providing the support and administration of the loans. The credit union does not receive any government assistance, instead relying on funds from the anonymous donor to bring down the interest rate.

“It’s been raising the awareness of electrical vehicles,” Eva Bloom, OUCU’s membership development specialist, says. “So, it’s helping people that were on the fence about buying a hybrid and gave them an incentive to make the choice.”

In addition to the loan, UpGrade Athens helped to foster a club of electric and hybrid car owners called the EV Cruisers. Several of the group members purchased vehicles through the zero-interest loan, and the group finds immense pride in the good its vehicles do for the environment. The group meets every sixth week and finds a connection in environmentally positive transportation.

“A lot of people around town ask us about our car, too, … [and it] is always exciting to talk about the benefits of a plug-in EV,” Jessica Minor-Baetens, a member of the EV Cruisers, says.

The zero-interest loan initiative is the OUCU’s biggest sustainability project to date, but it’s not the last. The credit union unveiled a solar panel program on Dec. 1 for Athens County residents. The solar panel lending program is adaptable to an individual’s financial need and solar panel project.

“For smaller projects, we have unsecured loans with a discounted rate of 6.99 percent and based on credit,” Bloom says. “And we have a home equity line of credit or loan as they come in larger amounts, but unfortunately come with closing costs, but we are offering $100 off closing costs.”

Above all else, the collaboration between a local community group and a university-affiliated nonprofit institution has paved the way for environmental change. The future of Athens County seems bright and even greener than the rolling hills surrounding it.

 

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