Coweta-Fayette EMC’s Christopher Stephens urges the Senate Agriculture Committee to support vital co-op provisions in Farm Bill 2018. (Photo By: Meghan Cline/Senate Agriculture Committee)
"While our first priority is to deliver safe, reliable, clean, affordable electricity to our members, we have a calling to be more than just poles, wires and electrons companies," Christopher Stephens, president and CEO of Coweta-Fayette EMC, told the Senate Agriculture Committee Sept. 28.
"Our broader purpose is to provide the services and support that empower our communities to thrive."
Testifying on behalf of NRECA, Stephens outlined the biggest challenges for electric co-ops going forward—adapting to changes in consumer demand, accommodating an evolving generation mix, and protecting against cyber threats—and how the Farm Bill "contains essential tools co-ops use to modernize and meet those needs."
Chief among them is the Rural Utilities Service, which offers loans to help build, expand, and improve the infrastructure of co-ops and integrate smart grid technologies. The federal government may realize up to $300 million in net interest and fees from RUS loans, according to the president's 2017 budget request.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., led a bipartisan effort for robust RUS funding. "We thank you for your past support of RUS and ask that you please continue to provide that support," Stephens said.
Another crucial need is broadband. Electric co-ops are stepping in to serve where millions of rural Americans lack access to high-speed internet. NRECA urges continued authorization of significant funding for RUS loans and grants to incentivize rural broadband and smart grid technologies, Stephens said.
Electric co-ops also want Congress to sustain the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant (REDLG) Program, which was slated to be zeroed out in the
administration's budget proposal this year. The program allows federal proceeds from RUS loans to help communities finance projects from hospital renovations to new firetrucks.
"We believe the REDL&G program is a valuable tool in offsetting population flight and job losses in rural Georgia and around the country. We urge the committee to work with us to ensure ample funding for REDLG throughout the next Farm Bill and beyond," Stephens said.
The Senate committee was also asked to support and streamline the guaranteed underwriter program and to back the Rural Energy for America Program and the Rural Energy Savings Program for innovation and energy efficiency.
"The health of our whole country is dependent on a healthy rural America," said Stephens. "We urge the committee to maintain a strong rural development title of the Farm Bill to reaffirm the importance of these programs."
NRECA sent a letter to the committee urging support of these key programs.