How to Surmount Skepticism About Energy Efficiency in Rural Communities
May 27, 2019 •Hollie Whitmire
One in five Americans lives in rural America. That’s about 60 million people with a way of life and a proud, independent culture all their own. They don’t have the same usage patterns as those that live in urban or suburban areas, meaning they can’t be reached with the same tactics and programs.
For example, rural energy consumption is disproportionately high. Although just 14 percent of the total population now live in non-metropolitan areas, rural communities account for 20 percent of US annual energy use.
Of course, agriculture uses a great deal of energy. With irrigation systems, grain dryers and other technology running daily to complete farm tasks, this comes as no surprise. In fact, some rural utilities must periodically hike energy prices to account for the high cost of meeting peak irrigation loads. But beyond the farm, much energy is also used by the many small and medium-sized businesses that support the rural economy—businesses that consume 44 percent of overall US commercial building energy.
Looking at these facts, it’s obvious that rural customers could stand to benefit significantly from energy efficiency programs. So, why is it so hard to recruit participants in these areas?
What are the challenges in winning rural support?
The most fundamental problem is that many rural customers are simply unaware of the significance and benefits of energy efficiency measures.
If customers are entirely unfamiliar with energy efficiency programs, they have no idea how to go about saving energy and money by participating. There’s also a chance they’re aware of common renewable energy sources like solar or wind, but that still doesn’t mean they have ever heard of demand response or understand available options.
Historically, rural areas have been fairly isolated, both in terms of geography and —so it’s no wonder that people living there are less likely to have experienced efficiency projects and technologies, or even seen utility marketing materials about them.
It’s also not surprising that many rural customers are just plain skeptical about why their utility company—which sells energy to them—should want to help them reduce their energy usage. Program implementers often face an uphill struggle trying to convince customers to trust that the free efficiency upgrades they’re offering are wholly legitimate.
A third reason for resistance among rural communities is that many may see energy efficiency as a low priority. Farmers, for example, are usually more preoccupied with how factors like soil quality and water availability affect their business than how they can reduce their electricity usage.
Another important factor to consider is that farmers may not be able to participate in energy efficiency programs if they don’t fit with their schedule. It’s important to research whether offerings conflict with busy periods in the growing season, for example. This cyclical workflow can lead to fluctuating program uptake, making it difficult for implementers to provide year-round work for contractors.
How can program implementers step up to the challenge?
When it comes to encouraging participation in rural energy efficiency programs, there are two key components: community engagement and education.
Working with local partners is a great way to get an inside look at the needs and concerns of rural customers. This allows program implementers to design offerings with the most appropriate technical, financial and administrative support possible.
For example, local soil conservation districts and farmers’ bureaus are well-placed to communicate the needs of their members to agricultural energy efficiency program implementers, because they work so closely with farmers around land management practices. Conducting secondhand research only goes so far. It’s important to interview people with actual knowledge on the needs and demographics of the community you’re trying to reach.
Similarly, agricultural cooperatives, community action agencies, local governments, chambers of commerce and even local universities could be hugely helpful partners for engaging rural customers and promoting efficiency programs.
Helping rural customers fully understand the benefits of energy efficiency programs, and how to apply for funding, is also vital for program success. Some municipal utilities, electric co-ops and other program implementers are already providing energy efficiency–focused education to their customers, and it’s making a difference. For instance, Sustainable Northwest hosts a series of energy efficiency workshops partnering with Energy Trust of Oregon.
Many implementers also help rural customers access financial resources to fund efficiency improvements. The Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) in West Virginia, for example, works with rural businesses across nine states to conduct energy assessments and audits, identify and apply for funding from USDA and other lenders, and even helps with project implementation.
The bottom line
Rural utility customers have traditionally been skeptical about the benefits and legitimacy of energy efficiency programs, even though they stand to gain significantly from them. Rather than ignoring this segment or tip-toeing around it, program implementers need to get creative in finding ways to fully engage with non-metropolitan customers and create offerings tailored specifically to their needs—to help rural America save energy, save money and thrive.
To learn how Franklin Energy can engage your rural customers, get in touch with an expert today!