Electric cooperatives throughout the nation are poised to reap the benefits in 2022 of legislation passed by Congress last year that includes co-op priorities pushed by NRECA and its members.
The biggest success was passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which will give a major boost to co-ops by providing billions for broadband deployment, electric vehicle charging networks, electric transmission, energy storage, carbon capture and other clean energy technologies.
In 2022, NRECA will continue to advocate for direct federal incentives for co-ops to develop new energy resources and technologies, including renewable energy, battery storage projects, nuclear energy facilities and carbon capture, said Hill Thomas, vice president of legislative affairs.
NRECA will also push for passage of the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act. The bill could save co-ops more than $10 billion in interest payments by allowing them to reprice loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service at lower interest rates.
Here is Thomas’s perspective on this year’s legislative session:
What do you consider NRECA’s major legislative successes for 2021?
Thomas: We did a good job in a Congress that was stalled by COVID-19 in a world where most offices are still virtual and lawmakers are still singularly focused on just one or two items. I think we adapted well to that environment. Looking back, our biggest successes would be carving out what could be once-in-a-generation opportunities for co-ops in the infrastructure bill and, even though it’s not done, positioning ourselves well to defend against bad outcomes in the budget reconciliation bill while creating some new opportunities for financing for clean energy technologies.
What impact will the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed last March to provide COVID-19 relief, have this year on co-ops?
Thomas: One of the most important policy lessons learned during the pandemic was the lack of broadband access in rural America. The American Rescue Plan sent a lot of money to states that can be used for broadband deployment in rural areas. One of the lasting policy opportunities to come from that bill is that many co-ops will be able to use the money to bring broadband to rural communities.
There seems to be enormous interest among co-ops in applying for funds created by the infrastructure bill for broadband deployment, electric vehicle infrastructure, clean energy technologies and more. What are you hearing from co-ops about their intentions, and how is NRECA helping them apply for this money?
Thomas: There’s a lot of interest in the opportunities created by the infrastructure bill, whether that’s broadband, grid resiliency, cybersecurity, electric vehicles or clean energy. In a lot of ways, the process that created these programs is just the beginning. There will be regulatory processes of various lengths that will provide details about what applications for those funds might look like.
Our goal is to provide as much information to our members as possible so they can make good decisions about what opportunities match up with their strategic priorities. NRECA has developed an infrastructure hub on cooperative.com that provides detailed information to our members as these programs and funding opportunities emerge. And we will continue to partner with our members to make sure they get as much value out of these opportunities as possible.
Last year, the House passed a sweeping budget reconciliation bill that included direct-pay incentives for co-ops to develop clean energy technologies and a $10 billion voluntary program for co-ops interested in transitioning away from fossil fuels. What do you see happening with those two legislative priorities this year?
Thomas: I’d start by saying that our efforts on the budget reconciliation bill were both offensive and defensive, including playing defense against potentially overly aggressive and burdensome clean energy targets. We think we did a good job in defending against those unreasonable mandates. At the same time, there are several good opportunities for co-ops included in the House-passed bill and in ongoing Senate negotiations, including direct-pay incentives for energy technology and the $10 billion in clean energy transition funds.
As we begin 2022, we are in much the same place, with uncertainty remaining about the size and the shape of a bill that can pass the Senate. The Senate has committed to try to continue to find compromise on a bill that can pass. We continue to be well-positioned to defend against any bad policy mandates while protecting meaningful opportunities for co-ops.
If the Senate can’t reach a compromise, do you see other legislative vehicles for passing these co-op priorities?
Thomas: If the budget reconciliation process fades, we will look for other opportunities to push these priorities. These are the types of tools that meet co-ops where they are and give them voluntary incentives to implement their unique strategic plans. So, we’ll be looking for ways to advocate for these legislative priorities individually if the broader package fails.
There probably will be fewer opportunities for legislative work to get done as the election approaches, but we think these are strong priorities and we’re going to keep looking for other vehicles.
The Flexible Financing for Rural America Act was reintroduced last year and has attracted a great many co-sponsors in Congress. Do you see a path forward for this RUS repricing bill to pass this year?
Thomas: RUS repricing remains a top priority for us. It enjoys strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, so we think there’s still an opportunity to move it this year. It continues to remain an important opportunity for our members.
What are NRECA’s other legislative priorities for 2022?
Thomas: Broadband continues to be an important and ongoing issue among our members and an urgent need across rural America. It’s one of the few bipartisan issues in Congress, and it’s an issue that we will continue to focus on. Even though it doesn’t expire until 2023, the Farm Bill reauthorization process will start in earnest this year, and we will be doing the prework to make sure that the bill is as supportive of electric co-ops as it can be.
Another issue that we continue to watch closely is supply chain problems, so the advocacy team will continue to work with Congress and the administration to develop solutions to speed the availability of equipment for our members.
Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.