With only a propane stove in the main living area and wall heaters in the bedrooms, Madden Surbaugh’s house on Orcas Island, Washington, was always either too cold, too hot, or too damp.

It’s a headache for someone who does a lot of cooking.

“Moisture is a problem. If I’m making stock, my wife was going around every few hours wiping down the window sills to make sure we didn’t get mold,” says Surbaugh, 44, a food service director at the local public school on the island some call “the gem of the San Juans.”

Surbaugh and his wife, Megan, say the high cost kept them from getting a new heating and cooling system, but a program offered by Orcas Power & Light Cooperative (OPALCO) put a solution within reach.

“I can’t believe we thought not to do this,” he says, describing the energy-efficient ductless heat pump the co-op program helped him buy.

Under the OPALCO financing arrangement, the Surbaughs pay off the $7,500 system over time. What’s more, the family’s propane is down by 75%, and their electric bill is about the same, even after including payments on the unit.

Such “pay-as-you-save” programs aren’t new, but they’re part of a broad movement among co-ops to ensure that energy technologies that save money, improve quality of life, or reduce emissions are available to all members, regardless of income.

“Co-ops were the vehicle for giving energy access to our communities when there was no electricity, and they’ve been quietly going about this for 85 years,” says Adaora Ifebigh, NRECA’s senior manager of R&D engagement. “Fast forward to today, and now we’re talking about new challenges … access to technology, income inequality, population decline, to name a few.”

Ifebigh is the driving force behind NRECA’s Advancing Energy Access for All initiative, a new program that helps co-ops share their experiences and advice on access programs.

“The initiative is a way for us to spotlight co-ops going above and beyond keeping the lights on,” she says. “We want to elevate their work by building a community of interest to share best practices and lessons learned.”

Resources include an online community, where participants can ask questions and share ideas, and multiple case studies on co-ops’ access efforts.

“Sometimes it takes thinking outside the box a bit and leveraging our networks to make those things happen,” says Josh Kramer, executive vice president/general manager at North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association headquartered in Mandan, North Dakota. “And a lot of times, it’s up to co-ops to take the lead.”

The statewide has focused its efforts on keeping North Dakota communities vibrant and viable. They’ve worked with state telecom co-ops on a rural development center that provides access to loans for business start-ups. Projects have included a wholesale warehouse to help stock grocery stores and three cooperative day care centers.

“If we are going to have vibrant communities, we need to have a supporting cast,” Kramer says. “We need grocery stores and access to food, access to daycare, and access to the amenities attract people to want to live in those communities.”

Helping the local economy

Co-ops have ample incentive to lead on this issue. Their territories cover more than 90% of the country’s “persistent poverty counties,” according to Census Bureau data. And the 4.2 million people who live in those counties spend almost three times more to heat and cool their homes than higher-income rural families.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and that’s always been a problem,” says Mark Cayce, general manager and CEO of Ouachita Electric Cooperative, where 60% of members have low incomes or live on fixed incomes.

Since 2014, the Camden, Arkansas, co-op has offered a tariff-based pay-as-you-save program for modern heating and cooling systems and other efficiency upgrades that he says has lowered members’ bills by an average of 15%.

“They come in with an electric bill of $300 or $400, and we go out and look at their house, and the problem is they need a new heating and cooling system or insulation,” Cayce says. “If they can’t pay a $300 electric bill, there’s no way they can pay $7,000 or $8,000 for improvements.”

The Ouachita program’s focus on equal access not only helps members, but it also helps the local economy, he says.

“We’re trying to show realtors it improves property values because a house that’s more energy efficient is just a better home,” Cayce notes. “Even landlords are finding that if renters’ utility bills go down, they’re more comfortable and they tend to stay longer.”

These efforts by co-ops are getting noticed at state and national levels. Earlier this year, Ifebigh was one of 20 rural energy experts at a roundtable sponsored by the National Governors Association on the access-for-all issue. And late last year, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded NRECA a $1 million grant for a solar energy project called Cooperatives Achieving Rural Equity in Solar, or CARES. The three-year project will develop resources for co-ops, small utilities, solar developers, and community and regional financial institutions to extend the benefits of solar generation to low- and moderate-income consumers.

Ifebigh says CARES is a flagship project for the Energy Access for All initiative and addresses a key program objective: to identify and establish community-based partnerships for co-ops.

“CARES presents a platform for our co-ops to demonstrate leadership within the co-op community and gain national visibility as leaders committed to innovation and service to the wider community,” she says.

Equity in access

To date, Switch It Up, the OPALCO program that helped Madden Surbaugh, has financed 110 projects—mainly ductless heat pumps, a few heat pump water heaters, and one electric vehicle charger. Another 43 projects are at various stages of completion, and total financing is about $1 million.

The region OPALCO serves, including all 20 of the San Juan Islands, has some of the state’s highest incomes as well as many of its lowest wage earners.

“Many of our members struggle to make ends meet,” says Travis Neal, OPALCO’s head accountant. “Switch it Up levels the playing field by removing a major barrier. It’s a big step forward in achieving rural equity in energy access.”

Experts say the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely increase the need for outreach to low-income and other hard-hit households.

“More people will fall in the low-income category as they’re struggling to pay higher bills due to increased energy usage from being home more often and pay cuts from being out of work,” says Nathan Shannon with the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative.

Helping members create homes that are more efficient, more comfortable, and cheaper to heat and cool is one thing co-ops can consider doing to help.

“Our responsibility as electric co-ops, as leaders, extends beyond poles and wires,” says Kramer of the North Dakota statewide. “It’s hard, important work. We’re vested in these communities, and we want to do our part to help them thrive and grow and even sometimes sustain and keep them alive.”