Updated: May 16, 7 p.m.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week released guidance for how electric cooperatives can access $9.7 billion in energy innovation funds to buy or build new clean energy systems.

The USDA officially launched the program at a special White House event Tuesday with NRECA CEO Jim Matheson and co-op leaders joining Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other policymakers.

NRECA and its members helped shape the funding program, which was designed solely for electric co-ops and included in the Inflation Reduction Act enacted last year.

“This is an exciting and transformative opportunity for co-ops and their local communities, particularly as we look toward a future that depends on electricity to power more of the economy," Matheson said.

The timelines set forth in the guidance allow electric co-ops to have from July 31 to Aug. 31 to submit a letter of interest and start applying for funding on a wide range of eligible projects, including renewable energy, carbon capture, energy storage, nuclear power, and generation and transmission efficiency improvements.

Interested co-ops can receive a grant to cover up to 25% of their project costs, with a maximum of $970 million going to a single co-op.

USDA will begin announcing the first funding awards at the end of this year. The program, which USDA is calling New ERA (Empowering Rural America), will be administered by the Rural Utilities Service.

At Tuesday's event, co-op leaders spoke about how the funding can be put to good use. They said they especially appreciate the flexible rules that take into account the diversity of circumstances among co-ops.

“This opportunity, if successful for us, would allow us to pursue new technology on our system today in a way that makes the most sense for us and the communities we serve," said Lisa Johnson, CEO and general manager of Seminole Electric Cooperative in Florida.

She said it would also allow the generation and transmission co-op to help distribution co-ops lower costs for consumer-members at the end of the line.

Mike Partin, president and CEO of Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative in Tennessee, said the program will help keep rural communities economically viable for future generations.

“People want to live and work in rural America," he said.

Curtis Wynn, CEO of SECO Energy in Florida, said the funding program will help co-ops reach out to underserved communities with the latest in advanced technologies.

“It really gives us an opportunity to provide the kind of service that everybody deserves," Wynn said.

RUS Administrator Andy Berke said he is hoping to receive lots of applications from co-ops for the funding. Co-ops can find more information on the application process on USDA's New ERA Program webpage.