The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to make $250 million in low-interest loans available to retrofit residences and businesses in rural communities to improve their energy efficiency, the agency announced Wednesday.
Through the Energy Efficiency and Loan Conservation Program, the USDA will make the money available to rural energy cooperatives, which in turn will offer loans to business and residential customers.
Starting in 2014, cooperatives will be able to apply for $250 million in loans that consumers will be able to use for such home improvements as upgrading old and inefficient heating and air-conditioning units, installing solar panels or improving lighting.
In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said a number of aging homes in rural America are in need of renovations that will reduce energy consumption.
“When you look at the challenges that rural families have in terms of their income differential with urban and suburban families, anything that will allow them to save money ought to be pursued,” said Vilsack. “I am betting as this unfolds during the next 12 months, this is going to be a pretty popular program.”
The former Iowa governor said the program would reduce energy costs for rural electric cooperatives, helping to keep rates low for area residents. Consumers would save money as their energy consumption falls. They also would benefit from a loan they can pay back through savings on their energy bills.
The USDA said theprogram is patterned after a similar one in South Carolina.
Vilsack said funding for the program is guaranteed for 2014, but future money will depend on whether Congress is able to finish work on a farm bill.
“This is yet another program whose fate is somewhat dependent on Congress getting its work done,” he said.
The program is one of several being run by the USDA to boost energy efficiency in rural communities.
Among them is the Rural Energy for America Program, the USDA’s flagship renewable energy program, which has given out $400 million in loans and grants since 2009 to farms and small businesses to make energy improvements.