SAN ANTONIO, Texas—Filling out applications for federal grants is a lot of work, but the rewards can be millions of dollars to help electric cooperatives withstand natural disasters, expand broadband service and develop clean energy projects, co-op CEOs told their colleagues at PowerXchange.

“The juice is definitely worth the squeeze,” said Curtis Wynn, CEO of Sumterville, Florida-based SECO Energy, during a March 5 panel discussion about co-op experiences in navigating the federal funding landscape.

SECO Energy recently won approval from the Department of Energy for a $70 million project to strengthen its system against damage from hurricanes and tropical storms by burying more of its distribution lines underground and replacing wooden power poles with concrete or steel to provide greater wind resistance.

Wynn was one of three CEOs on the panel whose co-ops have recently been awarded millions in federal funds to improve their systems. They are among dozens of co-ops that have tapped into a historic level of federal funding flowing from the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law in 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. NRECA pushed to include funding opportunities for co-ops in those bills.

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative was awarded more than $33 million from the bipartisan infrastructure law to harden its distribution system, including putting more lines underground and replacing about 38 miles of aging conductors.

Sonja Cox, president and CEO of the Hughesville-based co-op, said she hired a Washington, D.C., consultant to help write up their funding application, but the small firm got overwhelmed and didn’t end up being much help. Cox turned to one of her executives to take charge of the project, and things went well after that, she said.

There are a lot of regulations and hoops to jump through, but Cox said she’s willing to deal with all of that because “to me, $33 million is worth it.”

Bryan Hannegan, president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, suggested that co-ops band together or partner with their statewide associations, local colleges or community groups to share the burdens and rewards of applying for funding.

“If you’re just starting out, hitch a ride with someone else,” he said.

Holy Cross Energy, in partnership with NRECA and its consortium of 38 co-ops, applied for and won a $99 million grant for wildfire mitigation projects through the Grid Resilience and Innovation Partnerships program created by the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Hannegan advised co-ops to apply for money for projects they were already planning to do, rather than trying to come up with something simply to win funding.

“The funding can help you complete your plans faster,” he said.

Lauren Khair, NRECA’s director of business transformation, said the national association can assist co-ops interested in applying for federal funds. NRECA has a grant-writer portal to help pair co-ops with experienced grant writers and resource sections on for infrastructure law and IRA funding opportunities.

“We know you’re busy keeping the lights on,” Khair said. “The federal funding process can be daunting, but we’re here for you.”