By Sarah Kellogg
An inspiring, forward-thinking businessman, Mike Couick works to distribute affordable electricity to rural homes. “I don’t believe it’s a sustainable business plan to try to sell electricity that a member can’t afford,” Couick says. “The bottom line is their satisfaction and well-being.”
Couick is the CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, an association of member-owned, nonprofit electric providers that created Help My House, an energy efficiency loan program in 2011 with the help of the Doris Duke Foundation.
According to Couick, “In some winter months, many co-op members were spending 60 to 80 percent of their disposable income on gas and electricity, not leaving much for food, clothing, or medicine.” The pilot program provided 125 low-income homes with loans for energy efficiency retrofits, and members used the savings on their electric bills to pay back the loans. Help My House, Couick says, “had amazing results,” reducing average home electricity use by 34 percent and providing participants with an average annual savings of more than $1,100.
Additionally, 96 percent of Help My House participants were as satisfied or more satisfied with their electric cooperative after the program. “I feel like I see dividends every day with these homes that we’ve [helped],” says Couick. “The excitement is phenomenal. That’s why I work for a not-for-profit utility company.”
The energy efficiency achieved through the Help My House program also cut carbon emissions and reduced the need to build a new power plant. Though the pilot is over, many South Carolina cooperatives are now starting their own energy efficiency loan programs and ECSC continues to share the success of Help My House with policymakers throughout the Southeast.
Looking forward, Couick’s organization is beginning a new solar program that allows interested members to purchase solar power at a slightly increased rate. “Currently, it’s tough for solar to make its mark on a true cost-effective basis, but it will get there soon,” he says. “We’re using this as a pilot opportunity on how to market solar.”
Couick believes that in the years to come, electric cooperatives will need to think creatively about how to reduce the environmental impact of energy generation while continuing to provide affordable energy to their members. “We believe there’s a decision to be found but you have to be willing to put all your conventional expectations to the side and search for truth.”