NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Electric cooperatives are vital to the transformative energy and broadband service in rural America envisioned by the Biden administration, which is offering unmatched financial assistance to help get the job done, Rural Utilities Service Administrator Andy Berke told PowerXChange attendees.
“The people in this room are the backbone of progress, and often you do it with very little support,” Berke told co-op leaders on March 8. “But here’s where the good news starts…more support is coming from the federal government than any of us have seen in our lifetimes. President Biden has placed infrastructure at the heart of his agenda…and co-ops are at the center of this strategy.”
That includes getting affordable, reliable high-speed internet access to every American with $65 billion in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, Berke said. RUS received a portion of those funds and has invested over $2.1 billion in 360 rural broadband projects, many involving electric co-ops that “are building fiber in areas other internet service providers won’t touch,” he said.
“And it’s not just minimal service. You are providing the best service and speeds in the country. Let’s retire the phrase, ‘It’s good enough for rural America.’ Rural America should never be an afterthought.”
Berke also discussed the $9.7 billion in new budget authority from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act exclusively for electric co-op energy projects. Co-ops may receive a grant for up to 25% of the cost of eligible projects, which include carbon capture, renewables, storage, nuclear and efficiency improvements under the new Empowering Rural America (New ERA) program at RUS.
The law also allocated $2 billion to RUS for the Rural Energy for America Program, which offers grants and loans for renewable and efficiency projects, and $1 billion to create the Affordable Clean Energy program, which offers forgivable loans to deploy renewable energy. Electric co-ops are among the eligible utilities to pursue these funds.
“Start your engines,” Berke said. “Each of these funding opportunities will be open very soon. Our goal is to make sure co-ops can participate regardless of how many members you have. We want to help you make the clean energy transition at a capital cost that doesn’t break your balance sheet.”
Biden spotlighted co-ops in his infrastructure plan because of their ability to spread equity across their communities, Berke said.
“When a co-op builds that solar array, it means that the members in your area own it,” he said. “When the government pays for part of that project with a grant, you pass along the savings to your members, making that energy more affordable. That’s how you fight inflation and give Americans more money in their pockets.”
Berke thanked NRECA and its members for being a “trusted partner” in helping these programs take shape.
“The work that NRECA does is what allows us to do our great work as well,” he said. “Without your advocacy making sure that we have the funding that we need, that we have resources [so] that we can do our jobs, we simply wouldn’t be able to have the effects in rural America that we do.”