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Energy Efficiency in Rural Areas: What Are Utilities Doing?


Much focus in clean tech and energy efficiency often goes to initiatives and technologies that are inherently only helpful in urban or densely populated areas. This trend might be intentional in some cases, since highly populous regions have the most energy savings gains to be realized, or they might be an unintended consequence of how some utilities or companies think about energy and its use or delivery. However, rural regions of the country are critical for energy efficiency advocates to tackle-- these regions could see a higher amount of wasted energy per capita if not addressed because of the longer distance from generation to delivery, while lower incomes associated with some rural regions mean those customers are the types who are spending the greatest portion of their monthly income on energy and could thus stand to benefit the most from improvements in efficiency.

Luckily, there are a number of organizations and initiatives that recognize this occasional disconnect between energy efficiency work and the need for it in rural communities. Keep reading for a rundown of some of the recent news and developments regarding energy efficiency in rural areas:


Utilizing DERs for Efficiency in Rural Regions

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) recently published a fact sheet on how to transform the rural energy economy through energy efficiency and distributed energy resources. Chief among the recommendations of this report were:

  • Prioritize energy audits and making efficiency improvements before implementing renewable energy solutions (less capital intensive and more bang for the buck)
  • At the same time, though, renewable energy is perhaps a more attractive idea to rural customers, so be sure to promote energy efficiency along with any promotions already highlighting renewables
  • Highlight generation and transmission co-ops that can deliver efficiency
  • Be sure to incentivize highly-efficient green building technologies, like zero-energy modular housing

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Utilize On-Bill Financing to Make Efficiency Upgrades Affordable to Rural Customers

 Checking back into the idea of making capital-intensive more affordable for low-income communities, this story highlights some of the efforts that the Roanoke Electric Cooperative in rural North Carolina have made to find creative solutions that can make these much-needed energy upgrades accessible in the region. 

The efficiency upgrades needed are basic in form-- patching leaks in ductwork, sealing the building envelope, utilizing insulation in attics, upgrade outdated heat pumps-- but the costs of these upgrades can easily tally up to thousands of dollars, money that these customers may not have on hand. And because power bills take up a disproportionate part of their income, they're unlikely to get to a place where they can afford those upgrades. Eager not to let these rural customers exist in a sort of utility purgatory, some electric utilities (including the Roanoke Electric Cooperative) are dispensing with innovative financing mechanisms to empower these customers-- on-bill financing combined with efficiency loans available from the federal government are making great headway here and are an example to rural communities across the country. 

lighbulbs with one on

USDA Stepping Up in Grants to Offset High Energy Costs in Rural Areas

Lastly, the United States Department of Agriculture announced early this month that the Department is seeking applications for grants to offset the unjustly high energy costs to customers in rural areas. This 'High Energy Cost Grant program' is intended to provide assistance to state and local governments (as well as non-profit agencies) to improve the grid in rural areas as well as install energy efficiency improvements in the regions.

To keep these projects in the areas where they are most needed, the grants are restricted to go towards communities where average home energy expenditures are 275+% of the national average-- highlighting just how difficult the situation is in some of these communities. 

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