When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, Carbon Power and Light feared that new service connections would come to an abrupt halt, derailing the co-op’s sustained growth.
“The whole thing was very scary,” says General Manager Russell Waldner. “The information we were getting was pretty gloomy. It was hard to know what was coming to Wyoming.”
The 4,700-member co-op in south-central Wyoming had been averaging about 60 new service connections a year for the previous decade. But, with the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, “we were wondering if we’d even get 20,” Waldner says.
He gathered his staff, and they brainstormed ideas before deciding on a bold strategy: They would offer rebates of up to $10,000 to people who paid for new service on unmetered property, up to a total of $1 million. The cost for a mile of overhead power line in the sparsely populated area is about $41,000.
The goal was to try to push new service connections to 100. By the end of 2020, Carbon Power and Light had reached 115, a record high in the midst of a pandemic. Of those, construction was completed on 110 last year, and the remaining five will be finished this year.
“We were surprised,” Waldner says. “We just assumed that the rebate would, at the most, help us have an average year. Instead, we nearly doubled our average. I don’t think it could have gone any better.”
In the end, the co-op will end up paying out nearly $736,000 in rebates.
Carbon Power, which serves a 4,500-square-mile territory with only about three meters per mile, was in a strong financial position to offer the rebates because of good investments, Waldner says.
“We met with the board, and we decided that this was the best way to use our emergency funding for the benefit of the overall cooperative,” he says. “The rebates brought in new members to the co-op. Over time, it will make up for the money we spent.”
“The other point is, what’s it going to cost us if we don’t do this?” he adds. “If there are no projects coming in, what does it cost you to keep crews busy through the year? If you’re just doing maintenance, is there enough work to keep the staff busy?”
The co-op advertised the rebate offer in the local newspaper, on Facebook and on local radio stations.
“But mostly it was just word of mouth—people talking and recognizing that this really is a good deal,” Waldner says.
Will Faust, a financial adviser with a wife and two kids, said he heard about the deal from friends who work at the co-op and decided to speed up plans to build his family’s dream house on 10 acres of land in Saratoga.
“There was quite a bit of talk around town about the rebates,” Faust says. “It was the first time the co-op had done something like that. We saw this as the opportunity to accelerate our plan to move into a bigger house with more space for the kids. Getting that $9,000 rebate upfront was a big help.”
Valerie and Mark Condict, longtime co-op members who own a cattle ranch southeast of Saratoga, were able to get the $10,000 maximum rebate for connecting three new rental cabins that will help supplement their income.
The couple will rent the cabins to vacationers coming to Wyoming to fish, hunt and enjoy the outdoors, Valerie says. In the spring, they will rent them to temporary workers who come to help with calving season.
“We were really excited to take advantage of that rebate,” she says. “It made it so much easier to afford everything else we need to do to develop our land. We rushed to get in our paperwork for the program. We sure didn’t want to miss out on it. That’s a huge deal to us. It’s a lot of money.”
The rebate program proved so popular that the co-op had to stop offering it in November to avoid going over their budget.
In addition to local families like the Fausts and the Condicts, there were people coming in from out of state during the pandemic to build a cabin or develop vacant property to hook up their camper, Waldner says.
“People wanted to be in less populated rural areas,” he says. “We had a lot of people moving here. Homes sold faster than anyone thought they would. People were saying, ‘We can’t social-distance where we are; let’s go to Wyoming.’”
Waldner isn’t sure whether a rebate program would work for other co-ops.
“I’d love to say this would be good for any co-op,” he says. “But it really depends on their situation. For us, it was like catching a wave.”