(Arlington, VA) – Rural electric consumers across the nation stand to benefit from an array of new and revised laws and rules coming out of Washington, D.C. in 2015. From increased funding for an efficiency loan program at the U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) to improved coordination on cybersecurity and consumer protections against monopoly business practices, policymakers demonstrated they were listening to the concerns of America’s electric cooperatives looking out for their member consumers.
Congress showed demand response programs some much-needed love, passing the “Energy Efficiency Improvement Act” in April.
- The Act paved the way for co-ops to expand the use of large-capacity electric resistance water heaters to reduce electric usage during peak demand times and, thanks to new technology, integrate more renewable resources into the electric power grid. Collectively, the co-op programs can reduce demand by an estimated 500 megawatts, saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.
- Thanks to the recently-passed Omnibus budget, USDA will have $8 million to fund electric co-op relending programs offering low-interest consumer loans that can be used to cover the cost of energy efficiency improvements. Consumer members can repay these loans from energy savings on their electric bill.
Surface Transportation Board reforms
Electric co-ops took heart when Congress passed bi-partisan legislation to reform the Surface Transportation Board, the consumers’ only protection against monopoly pricing by railroads.
- In December Congress passed the Surface Transportation Board (STB) Re-authorization Act of 2015, which electric co-ops believe will help level the playing field in pricing disputes with freight rail companies. For years, following the consolidation of railroads, co-ops have been subjected to monopoly practices that have drastically raised shipping costs. This bill represents the first major changes in freight rail regulation since the Staggers Act deregulated the business in 1980. Co-ops will continue to work for a dispute resolution process that produces fair and equitable results for electric co-ops and their consumer members.
The electric sector, in coordination with federal agencies and Congress, has made significant progress both in cybersecurity research and development and improved standards and planning.
- The Omnibus bill signed by the President contained long-sought legislation to promote robust information-sharing about cybersecurity threats between and among federal agencies and the utility industry. Real-time intelligence will be absolutely vital to electric utilities, including America’s electric cooperatives, in the event of a cyber-attack.
- A total of 18 co-ops from around the country joined in the electric sector’s national exercise simulating physical and cyber attacks. The drill gave co-ops a chance to put contingency and disaster plans to the test, including plans for responding to a major cyber event.
Endangered species protections
Electric co-ops are encouraged by the willingness of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to hear co-op concerns and find solutions that reduce the burden of species protection while accomplishing the goals of the Endangered Species Act.
- A FWS proposal to list the northern long-eared bat as an endangered species would have put more than 650 co-ops in an untenable position, forced to choose between complying with reliability requirements or species protection requirements. In complying with habitat protection rules enforced by the FWS, co-ops would find themselves out of compliance with reliability standards enforced by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. Co-ops worked with FWS officials to craft a responsible approach that balances bat preservation and electric reliability. The FWS listed the bat as threatened rather than endangered and finalized a special rule that allows co-ops to carry out the tree-trimming needed to maintain reliability.
All too often bureaucracy needlessly increases the cost of environmental regulation, ultimately paid by electric consumers, sometimes even siphoning money from the objective: a cleaner environment.
- The recently enacted “Highway Bill” includes a provision that should help streamline and coordinate environmental reviews of energy infrastructure projects. This was the first re-write of environmental review laws in nearly 40 years.
- The Supreme Court ruled in our favor that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should have considered costs when determining the appropriateness and necessity of regulating mercury in the Mercury and Air Toxics regulation finalized several years ago.
- Both EPA and the Corps of Engineers clarified that the final Waters of the U.S. rule does not narrow the scope and applicability of general permits. If projects could be conducted under nationwide permits before the rule, they can still be used under the new rule.
NRECA worked diligently to advocate for the interests of America’s not-for-profit, member-owned cooperatives and their 42 million consumer-members all across the country. Every victory that allows co-ops to continue to honor their obligation to provide safe, reliable and affordable electricity is a victory for those consumers.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association is the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 private, not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives, which provide service to 42 million people in 47 states.