Electric cooperatives seeking billions of dollars in funding under key federal energy programs must show how their projects will benefit affected communities and workers.

That’s good news for co-ops, which have been doing that since their inception.

“A cooperative on its own is essentially a community benefit program,” said Eric Hawkins, chief operating officer and general counsel for Marana, Arizona-based Trico Electric Cooperative, which has had several projects selected for recent funding.

Electric co-ops and other applicants must submit a Community Benefits Plan (CBP) to secure federal funding under certain programs, including grants and loans for clean energy and grid modernization projects provided by the bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA).

The CBPs must address four priority areas: community and labor engagement; domestic workforce investment; advancing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in recruitment and training; and the Biden administration’s Justice 40 initiative, which seeks to ensure that 40% of a federal investment’s overall benefits flow to disadvantaged communities.

As not-for-profit entities owned by the members they serve, co-ops have a long history of basing their decisions on the needs of local communities—often rural parts of the country with many low-income residents. But the CBP must show how selected projects will provide new value for impacted communities and create or sustain jobs in rural areas.

“The CBP pushes us to think outside the everyday work that we do and relationships we rely on,” said Keelie Montalban, chief financial officer of Missoula Electric Cooperative in Montana.

All federal funding awards under the infrastructure law and IRA require CBPs, although requirements for each program may differ.

Drafting a good CBP

The CBP can be a decisive factor in who wins competitive awards. The Department of Energy, for instance, typically weights the plan at 20% of an applicant’s overall score.

In March, the Department of Agriculture chose Trico to potentially receive $83.5 million in funding for four solar energy and battery storage projects through the USDA’s Powering Affordable Clean Energy program (PACE). Trico was also part of NRECA consortia that won significant funds from the DOE for a solar and battery microgrid project and a wildfire readiness project, the latter of which was awarded through the department’s Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships (GRIP) program.

When it comes to making a good CBP, Hawkins encouraged co-ops to get creative and find measurable ways to demonstrate action on the plan’s priorities.

Among other things, Trico is planning to design an apprenticeship program focused on solar and battery technology and is looking to develop weatherization and energy efficiency kits for low- and moderate-income households.

The co-op’s CBP for the PACE awards will emphasize support for farmers and ranchers, including possible partnerships to use sheep for grazing on solar energy sites and planting pollinator gardens near the co-op’s energy facilities.

“[The plans] are quite a bit of work … but it's a good opportunity to sort of recalculate, relook at our community programs and say, ‘What more can we be doing?’”

Missoula-based MEC was also tapped for GRIP funds to make its power distribution system more resilient and better prepared for wildfires.

MEC’s plan established an internship program and expanded its pre-apprentice program. It will also broaden the co-op's electrical safety training for first responders and other organizations to include a section on wildfire safety.

The benefits plan will also allow MEC to “amplify the DEIA training that employees receive,” Montalban said.

Although the grant-writing process can be overwhelming, Montalban encouraged interested co-ops to approach the task “one bite at a time” and not be discouraged if they currently lack policies that address the CBP’s requirements.

“Remember that all applicants will have different starting and end points,” she said. “The important thing is a commitment to improvement and accountability.”

NRECA ready to help

To help with CBP creation, NRECA offers a range of resources, including webinars and one-on-one consultations with co-ops.

Although the plans require work, co-ops have a long history of putting their communities at the front of decision-making.

“The terminologies that DOE uses in defining the Community Benefits Plan may sound new and complex, but many co-ops have been implementing some form of CBP on a daily basis,” said Rajeena Shakya, community energy program manager with NRECA's Business and Technology Strategies department.