In 2005, Tammy Agard took a break from her barista's job to help low-income Mississippians rebuild their homes after Hurricane Katrina. She soon spotted an interesting pattern: After being refurbished, the homes saw their energy bills cut, typically by 50 percent and sometimes by up to 80 percent. 

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That's because poor, rural Americans pay some of the highest energy rates in the country, on a per-square-foot basis. Their substandard homes are energy inefficient, yet many owners can't afford to upgrade. So they keep paying excessive monthly bills--and burning more fossil fuels.

"This is something that makes financial sense. And we happen to benefit society and the environment along the way."

Agard and another volunteer, Johnnie LaCaze, saw the pattern repeat when they joined a Clinton Foundation program that did home repairs. In 2015, they formed EEtility, a Little Rock-based startup that works with utilities to finance efficiency upgrades--often as simple as new insulation and caulking. Then, a formula applies: Say a customer was paying $200 monthly but now uses only $100 worth of energy. His bill might decrease to $180 monthly, with $80 going to the utility and EEtility. Once the financing is paid off, the utility bill could then fall to $100.

For EEtility, the key is proving that the math works. Using remotely monitored tools that identify a property's drafty spots and other inefficiencies, the startup can quantify a return on investment. "We're taking the guesswork out of the equation. We're also taking the environmental part out of the equation," Agard says. "We can have a conversation with the utility company that's just about numbers."

EEtility is working with utility cooperatives in North Carolina and Tennessee and has other projects, generally in areas with low income and little access to cleaner energy sources. "This is something that makes financial sense for everybody," Agard says. "And we happen to benefit society and the environment along the way."