Electric cooperatives are engines of economic development working to power and empower local communities across the nation. The Farm Bill is a crucial tool for electric co-ops and for America’s rural communities.
Where we stand
The Farm Bill is a crucial tool for electric co-ops as they work to provide important financing options that help keep the lights on and accelerate the deployment of broadband internet across rural America.
Maintain affordable, reliable electric service
Rural Utilities Service electric infrastructure financing programs and new clean energy initiatives help co-ops meet traditional electric needs and promote clean energy deployment. Collectively, these programs help co-ops keep electric bills affordable while meeting the expectations of our consumer-members. We urge Congress to oppose policies that would lead to higher electricity costs for rural families, businesses and communities.
Help bridge the digital divide
A reliable broadband connection is vital for a modern electric grid, and it also creates new ways to live, learn and earn in rural America. Many electric cooperatives are working to expand rural broadband access in unserved and underserved areas of the country, in addition to integrating smart grid technologies to their electric networks. We encourage Congress to use the Farm Bill to robustly fund scalable broadband networks that meet current and future needs in rural America and allow providers additional flexibilities to meet the unique challenges posed by hard-to-reach areas.
Reauthorize USDA toolbox of programs for electric cooperatives
Owned by the communities that they serve, electric co-ops have a vested interest in the success and safety of their people and places. USDA programs like the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program, Rural Energy Savings Program, Rural Energy for America Program and Rural Cooperative Development Program are crucial for co-ops as we carry out our mission to power and improve the quality of life in rural communities. We urge Congress to maintain these critical tools for electric co-ops.
Modernize the permitting process
The federal permitting process has continually expanded over the last four decades, resulting in delays and added costs for electric co-op infrastructure projects. For electric co-op consumer-members, this means longer waiting times to get high-speed internet and higher electricity bills. We urge the Congress to modernize and improve the federal environmental review process across USDA-Rural Development, specifically for RUS projects.
Co-op Leader to Congress: Broadband Is Key to Rural Economic Development
PublishedMay 17, 2023
Affordable, reliable broadband service is critical for the economic growth of rural communities throughout the nation, an Illinois electric cooperative leader told a Senate panel Wednesday.
“Robust internet access allows students to get the educational resources they need, improves access to medical care in rural communities, and enables farmers to better leverage new technologies to improve crop yields,” Jesse Shekleton, director of broadband operations at Jo-Carroll Energy, told the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy at a hearing on rural broadband.
“This connectivity is critical to fully participate in today’s internet-based economy, and many families and businesses will choose to locate elsewhere if robust internet access is unavailable in rural areas.”
As Congress considers a new five-year Farm Bill, lawmakers “should prioritize scalable, future-proof networks in any future rounds of federal funding for broadband,” Shekleton said.
“Consumer demands and needs for increased internet speeds continue to grow and are trending toward a need for multi-gigabit service by 2030,” he said.
Shekleton also urged Congress to create flexible rules for rural broadband programs. He said Jo-Carroll Energy and other electric co-ops that provide high-speed internet service are often trying to tap into several federal and state funding programs at once to help them deploy broadband.
“Areas currently unserved by broadband are expensive, and Congress should provide the flexibility to leverage multiple programs to offset some of the high costs of deployment so that providers are able to best meet the needs of those rural and remote areas,” he said.
Jo-Carroll Energy, which is based in Elizabeth and serves about 20,000 consumer-members, launched a broadband arm, Sand Prairie Internet, in 2008. It initially offered a fixed wireless system but has since pivoted to a fiber-only network that is much more reliable, Shekleton said.
“Fiber allows JCE to bring rural economic development and prosperity to our communities and enable robust opportunities for education, health care, and agriculture in northwestern Illinois,” he said.
The fiber broadband connection has helped support recently opened businesses, including a local pharmacy and a convenience store that is the only place for residents of the small community to buy groceries.
“It also is a draw for younger families, especially as many have transitioned to hybrid work or are considering the educational needs of their children,” Shekleton said.
More than 80 years after electric co-ops partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring electricity to rural America, co-ops are partnering with the agency again “to bring vital broadband service to those same areas,” he said.
“As the committee considers the upcoming Farm Bill, JCE and the rest of our nation’s electric cooperatives look forward to working with you in our shared goal of connecting all Americans, no matter where they live, with a robust and reliable internet connection.”
Top Policymakers Address Electric Co-op Leaders at NRECA’s Legislative Conference
PublishedApril 18, 2023
Electric cooperatives will soon have access to $9.7 billion in grants and loans to buy or build new clean energy systems, Rural Utilities Service Administrator Andy Berke told co-op leaders Monday at NRECA’s Legislative Conference.
Berke said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is poised to roll out the program in the coming days. It was approved last August when Congress passed the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act.
“This is huge,” Berke told 2,000-plus conference attendees. “We have to make sure that you can make the energy transition that is coming without breaking the bank.”
The voluntary program will provide funding for a wide range of projects, including renewable energy, carbon capture, battery energy storage systems, nuclear power and improvements to generation and transmission efficiency. Interested co-ops will be eligible to receive an award for up to 25% of their project costs, with a maximum of $970 million going to any one co-op.
“This is an enormous opportunity,” he said. “We don’t know when it is going to happen again. Please take this opportunity. It’s available because of your advocacy.”
Berke drew applause when he announced that RUS, beginning this week, is shrinking the size of environmental review paperwork that co-ops have to fill out when they apply for loans from a minimum of 70 pages down to just four pages.
He said he listened to concerns about the process from co-op leaders at NRECA’s PowerXchange in Nashville, Tennessee, in March and made the change based on their feedback. He said he hopes it will expedite co-op construction projects.
“We know that a project today is better—and more importantly cheaper—than a project tomorrow,” Berke said.
Sen. Boozman Honored With Distinguished Service Award
Also on Monday, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., received NRECA’s Distinguished Service Award, which honors members of Congress who make essential contributions to electric co-ops and the communities they serve.
“Sen. John Boozman, an electric cooperative member, has been a friend to the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas throughout his years in public service,” said Buddy Hasten, president and CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. “Sen. Boozman’s dedication as an advocate for Arkansans clearly aligns with the mission of our state’s electric cooperatives.”
Boozman, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said he is hopeful that Congress will be able to pass one of NRECA’s top legislative priorities this year: a new five-year Farm Bill that includes full funding for rural economic development and broadband programs. The current Farm Bill expires Oct. 1.
“Farm Bills aren’t about Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “They’re bipartisan. I think we’ve got a great chance of getting it done.”
DOE Official: ‘Reliability Is the Foundation’
Gene Rodrigues, assistant secretary of energy for electricity, said he shares NRECA’s goal of ensuring that the electric grid “remains reliable, resilient and affordable for all Americans.” The importance of grid reliability is the main message that co-op leaders are taking to Capitol Hill and federal agencies this week.
“We are all in agreement with every single one of you in this room that reliability is the foundation of everything we want to do,” he said.
Unfortunately, the American people and many of their elected officials “take it for granted” that the lights will always come on when they flip the switch, Rodrigues said.
“That’s a problem,” he said, urging co-op leaders to “advocate, educate and collaborate” to sound the alarm about the potential risks to reliability.
“If it’s taken for granted, then we won’t have the champions we need to keep electricity reliable and affordable over time. … Make sure they understand the absolute necessity of investing in a 21st century power grid for the American people.”
Spanberger Lauds Co-op Role in Closing Digital Divide
“Rural communities feed and fuel the rest of Virginia and our nation,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., told conference participants. “Unfortunately, at times it seems like rural America can get left out of the conversations on infrastructure and economic development.”
She said that electric co-ops serve 40% of her constituents and are helping to bring essential broadband service to rural communities that for-profit internet providers ignore.
“I’m so grateful to your [NRECA] members for working to bring broadband,” Spanberger said.
The bipartisan infrastructure law’s $65 billion in broadband funding will help close the digital divide and “strengthen our rural economy for the next generation of Americans,” she said.
Freshman House Members Push for Bipartisan Solutions
Freshman Reps. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., and Don Davis, D-N.C., were both elected in 2022 and represent electric cooperative members in rural communities. They told co-op leaders that they are frustrated by the fierce partisan divide in Congress and hope to work together as members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
“There’s too much extremism, and it comes from both sides—let’s be honest about it,” Davis said.
Ciscomani, who described his district’s voters as one-third Republican, one-third Democratic and one-third independent, said he has set up an advisory committee back home made up of local leaders with diverse political ideologies.
“There is an appetite in our country for people to work together to find solutions,” he said.
NRECA CEO: Reliable Electricity Is Main Focus of Legislative Conference
PublishedApril 14, 2023
More than 2,000 electric cooperative leaders are gathering in Washington D.C., for NRECA’s Legislative Conference, and they will urge Congress and federal agencies to focus on maintaining reliable electricity for the American people, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said at a media teleconference Thursday.
“Affordable and reliable electricity is an issue of growing concern among members of NRECA,” Matheson told reporters ahead of the April 16-19 conference.
“American families and businesses expect the lights to come on whenever they flip the switch, and we’re concerned that the reliability of the grid is at great risk.”
He pointed to rolling blackouts that took place in nine states last December as evidence of “a stressed grid.”
Electric co-op leaders will discuss five major issues that impact reliability with policymakers. They include:
Growing demand for electricity as other sectors of the economy are electrified.
Decreasing electricity supply due to the retirement and insufficient replacement of existing generation.
Recent reports by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. underscore the risks to electric reliability, Matheson said. NERC warned last year that the U.S. is experiencing a “disorderly retirement” of older electric generating plants without replacement power coming online fast enough to meet growing demand. NERC’s 2023 summer reliability risk assessment is due out soon.
“Demand is going up and supply is going down, and that’s not a good trend if you want to maintain system reliability,” Matheson said.
In addition to advocating for reliability issues, co-op leaders will push for robust funding for rural broadband and rural development in the new five-year Farm Bill that Congress is considering.
The bill is likely to include funding for the Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program, which provides loans and grants to electric co-ops and other groups to provide high-speed internet service to rural communities.
Co-op CEO: New Farm Bill Should Prioritize Broadband for Rural America
PublishedJanuary 17, 2023
As Congress considers a new five-year Farm Bill, lawmakers should ensure that rural Americans have access to high-speed internet service that will meet their needs well into the future, the leader of a Pennsylvania electric cooperative told a House committee Friday.
“The Farm Bill provides an opportunity to continue to support lasting, scalable, ‘future-proof’ broadband network deployment in rural areas,” said Aaron Young, president and co-CEO of Mansfield-based Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, which serves nearly 17,000 consumer-members.
“To connect every rural home, business and community with reliable internet service, federal support programs should prioritize technologies and speeds that can meet the needs of today as well as tomorrow.”
Young, who is also the co-CEO of the co-op’s broadband subsidiary, Tri-Co Connections, compared today’s demand for rural broadband service to the push for the electrification of rural America in the 1930s.
“Rural areas are hard to reach and expensive to serve,” he said at a Farm Bill listening session held by the House Agriculture Committee at the 2023 Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.
“Electric cooperatives, owned by the members that we serve, are increasingly getting into the broadband business to provide these essential connections for everyday life. Without high-speed internet, people move elsewhere.”
The 2023 Farm Bill will authorize funding for a variety of programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including broadband programs, which offer loans and grants to electric co-ops and other organizations to deploy high-speed internet in rural areas that lack sufficient access. The goal is to help fuel long-term economic development in those communities.
Federal support for broadband helps Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative “bridge the digital divide ensuring that rural northwestern Pennsylvanian families and businesses have access to the fastest internet available,” Young said.
The bill will also include programs to help co-ops continue “to deliver affordable, reliable electric service to rural America and to foster rural economic development,” he said.
“USDA programs like the RUS Electric Loan Program, Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program, Rural Energy Savings Program and Rural Energy for America Program are all critical programs for electric cooperatives around the country.”
Co-ops would like to collaborate with House Agriculture Committee members to help craft the Farm Bill this year, Young said.
“Electric cooperatives across the country look forward to working together with you in our shared goal of improving life in rural America.”