Q&A: Electric Co-ops’ Top Policy Priorities for 2023

NRECA has an ambitious list of policy goals that its Government Relations team will push on Capitol Hill and with the Biden Administration. (Photo By: Doug Armand/Getty Images)

NRECA is diving into 2023 with a long list of policy goals that range from shaping a new five-year Farm Bill to helping electric cooperatives prepare for catastrophic wildfires.

“All of our priorities are aimed at helping our members maintain reliable and affordable power and giving them tools to help meet the challenges of the future,” said Hill Thomas, NRECA’s vice president of legislative affairs.

Thomas and Ashley Slater, NRECA’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said their teams will work closely together to help pass legislation that benefits co-ops and then ensure that those new laws are implemented as intended.

Co-ops saw major policy wins in 2021 and 2022 with passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law and key co-op provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, and NRECA will continue its efforts this year to ensure that members benefit fully from the programs created by those laws.

In a recent Q&A session, Thomas and Slater outlined what’s ahead for co-op policy goals.

What are NRECA’s top regulatory priorities for 2023?

Slater: I have a long list!

• Implementing NRECA’s two priority provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act: direct-pay energy tax credits and the $9.7 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture program to assist co-ops with the energy transition.

• Shaping agency funding opportunity announcements for co-op programs included in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law. Those programs include rural broadband, electric vehicle programs to build a network of chargers, grid resiliency and modernization, physical security and cybersecurity, and clean energy programs.

• Protecting co-op access to an affordable, reliable power supply as the Environmental Protection Agency looks to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants.

• Ensuring sound transmission policy as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission contemplates first-in-a-decade transmission reform.

• Ensuring that the Department of Energy uses its presidentially directed Defense Production Act authority appropriately to ease supply chain shortages.

• Ensuring that any new cybersecurity or physical security reporting requirements by the Department of Homeland Security are optimized for co-ops to enhance their security posture and improve their ability to protect against, detect and respond to—or recover from—threats to the electric system.

• Modernizing environmental permitting. The existing processes take too long, are too expensive and are an impediment to co-ops’ ability to meet future energy needs. They need to be modernized to give more certainty in the energy transition.

• Working with co-ops to prepare for and respond to catastrophic wildfires. Co-ops that want to do vegetation management are running into inconsistent guidance from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. We need to work with the agencies to streamline the process.

• Working with co-ops to ensure that the broadband maps produced by the Federal Communications Commission are done correctly to provide the best picture of where broadband is and isn’t available across the country. The FCC has released a pre-production draft of its latest broadband maps.

What are NRECA’s top legislative priorities for 2023?

Thomas: For the first couple of months, our top priority will be holding Co-op 101 sessions to meet the 81 new members of Congress and educate them about electric cooperatives. Beyond that, we want to make sure Congress is engaged when they need to be to ensure the legislation that has already passed is implemented the right way to benefit co-ops and their members.

A new five-year Farm Bill is being written by Congress that will affect electric co-ops and all of rural America, so that will be a priority. And we support a bipartisan permitting modernization conversation. Also, we’re going to continue to face supply chain problems, and we’re going to continue to work to solve that.

We’ve already had co-op leaders come and testify to Congress about the upcoming Farm Bill. How will it affect electric co-ops specifically?

Thomas: The Farm Bill is the only piece of legislation that Congress does that is uniquely and specifically aimed at rural America. It is designed to support rural America and we share that goal. It’s important for us to talk about our priorities, including many of the USDA programs that we use such as rural development financing, the home energy efficiency program and clean energy deployment financing. These programs can be reauthorized in the new Farm Bill, and we want to make sure they’re operating as effectively as possible and are good to go for the next five years.

The other big conversation will be about broadband. There’s an opportunity to rewrite and improve the USDA ReConnect broadband program, which has provided opportunities to many of our members but could also operate more efficiently. It’s a fairly new program that has received lots of money, but some of our members haven’t been able to get access to it because it’s just too bureaucratic. We need to streamline the program so we can serve the communities that need it most.

Is the environment in the Biden administration and in Congress, with divided government, conducive to accomplishing NRECA’s goals?

Thomas: On the congressional side, with the House majority and the president being from different parties, it is going to be a tough environment for big, game-changing legislation. But we have a good reputation for being able to bridge gaps and find partnerships and bipartisanship. I think there will be lots of opportunities for us to engage in these important conversations.

Slater: We recognize that resource planning decisions are unique to the needs of the specific co-op and the communities they serve. The administration understands that if they want their policies to have a real impact, they have to reach rural America. And they can’t get there without electric co-ops.

That presents a real opportunity for our members who want to participate. In order to push an energy transition across the country, if you want to get there, you have to go through electric co-ops. If there’s no uptake, you’re not going to be successful in getting these dollars utilized…To the extent that we can be a conduit, that’s our edge.

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.