Andy Berke, the new administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, got his Co-op 101 lesson long before he came to Washington, D.C.
Berke represented electric cooperative consumer-members in the Tennessee state Senate, where he served from 2007 to 2012 before being elected mayor of Chattanooga. Among his constituents as state senator were the residents of Marion County—about 28,000 people served by Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative.
“The Marion County residents wanted a better economic future and a high quality of life, and they understood that a big part of that was infrastructure,” Berke said in an interview with NRECA.
“During that time, I got to understand a lot about Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative from its CEO, Mike Partin. The co-op was a great partner to me to help me understand the issues coming before it and the people who lived in Marion County. It’s one of the reasons I was excited to take this job and work with co-ops again.”
As Chattanooga’s mayor from 2013 to 2021, Berke also tackled an issue crucial to many co-ops—expanding broadband service. He created a program to expand free high-speed internet service to struggling families with children receiving free or reduced-price lunches at school.
Berke went on to serve as a special representative for broadband at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Department of Commerce. Last month, President Joe Biden appointed the 54-year-old Chattanooga native to be RUS administrator in the Department of Agriculture.
Berke said he wants to work with electric co-ops to help bring broadband service to rural communities. Many co-ops will be applying for broadband funds from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“This is going to make high-speed internet possible for so many,” Berke said. “We know that co-ops are a big part of the solution for rural America. We want them to be partners through our ReConnect program, but also through all the other ways to make this happen for rural America.”
Berke is already working with NRECA on implementation of a program created by the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act that offers $9.7 billion in grants and loans specifically to electric co-ops that buy or build clean energy systems.
The program will be administered by the USDA and provide funding for a wide range of projects, including renewable energy, carbon capture, battery storage, nuclear power and improvements to generation and transmission efficiency.
“Co-ops are our partners; they’re essential to our success,” Berke said. “We understand that, and I’m going to spend a fair amount of time making sure that everybody in the co-op community understands how deeply we feel that partnership.”
He said he is seeking advice from co-ops on how to implement the clean energy program in the most effective, efficient way possible.
“So, from the beginning, co-ops will be part of what we do,” he said.
Berke said he is aware of co-ops’ concerns about how long it takes for RUS loans to be approved and will work to streamline the process. Co-ops rely on RUS funding to help pay for essential infrastructure projects, but they have been frustrated by a process they say is bogged down by lengthy environmental reviews and decision delays. NRECA is working with its member co-ops to push for the reform of the federal permitting system.
Berke said the RUS staff has been increased by more than 30% to help speed up the process.
"We’re going to continue to look at how we can streamline those loan approvals while also understanding that federal law requires due diligence on the environment and historic preservation to get the permits out the door,” he said.
Berke said rural Americans “want to have a job that inspires them while living in a place that they love.”
“For me, a critical part of that is having access to quality infrastructure, like electricity, water and telecommunications,” he said. “Those are the building blocks to have the job that you enjoy, to be able to go to school and do your homework and watch the entertainment that makes your quality of life better.
“I see us using every tool at our disposal, and partnering with electric cooperatives and others, so that rural people have more power and control over their lives.”