NRECA CEO Jim Matheson is urging electric cooperative leaders to participate in public discussions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide their input on implementation of a new $9.7 billion program for co-ops to purchase or build clean energy systems.

USDA is hosting 13 virtual “roundtable" discussions through Jan. 26 on the Assistance for Rural Electric Cooperatives (AREC) program. The agency wants to hear from stakeholders on how best to implement the historic level of funding directed toward co-ops included in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

“As we approach these roundtables, our message to USDA is straightforward: Keep this program simple, flexible and accessible to all electric co-ops," Matheson said.

“Congress was purposefully broad in terms of what projects can be eligible for financial assistance under this program. It's essential that USDA adhere to the congressional intent by considering a wide range of projects."

The department plans to issue a funding opportunity announcement in the first half of 2023 and begin obligating funds in fiscal year 2023. By statute, projects will need to be completed with all funds advanced by the last day of FY 2031.

“This is a really exciting opportunity for electric cooperatives, and we want to make sure that this program is implemented in a way that really gives us the best opportunity for success and for good outcomes," Matheson said during a Jan. 13 session with the media.

To facilitate that goal, co-op leaders are encouraged to add their voice to virtual stakeholder meetings scheduled by USDA, especially the six roundtables that invite co-ops by their Rural Utilities Service region, he said.

NRECA in November provided written comments to USDA that underscored the importance of the program supporting the co-op mission to deliver reliable, affordable power to all members.

“We want to make sure this program is run effectively and in an accountable way," Matheson said. “That's going to allow for greater participation across the entire electric cooperative network."

The wide range of eligible projects in the program—including carbon capture, renewable energy, storage, nuclear, and generation and transmission efficiency improvements—allows each co-op to determine its path based on its unique circumstances. Co-ops would be able to receive an award for as much as 25% of their project cost, with a maximum amount of $970 million for any one entity.

“There is a lot of excitement across our membership about different types of projects," Matheson said.