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When 16 lineworkers from Ohio’s electric cooperatives got stranded in Guatemala at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Bill Johnson played a crucial role in bringing them home.
It was March 2020, and the lineworkers had been volunteering with NRECA International in two remote villages in north-central Guatemala to bring electricity to homes, schools and churches. They rushed to finish their work and were set to return to the U.S. when Guatemala abruptly closed its borders and canceled all flights because of the rapidly escalating pandemic.
With the lineworkers stranded in Guatemala City, leaders of NRECA International and Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives and members of Congress worked together to find a way to get them out.
As luck would have it, Johnson had become friends with Guatemala’s ambassador to the U.S., and the congressman appealed to him for help. Johnson and Ambassador Manuel Espina met at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., several years earlier and had stayed in touch.
“I called Manuel and he put me in touch with top officials, who pledged to do everything they could to help us,” the congressman told NRECA in 2020.
Johnson’s connection with Espina helped convince the Guatemalan government to allow the lineworkers to leave and the Miami airport to let them land in a charter plane hired by NRECA International.
“Congressman Johnson went above and beyond to orchestrate the safe return of Ohio lineworkers,” says Marc Armstrong, government affairs director at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives.
Johnson says he was glad to help.
“They went down there on a noble cause, and I’m glad we were able to get them home,” the congressman said after the lineworkers made it safely back to Ohio.
A year later, Johnson joined Ohio co-op leaders at the annual summer conference to honor the lineworkers for their volunteer work in Guatemala.
Johnson’s congressional district is home to Cardinal Generating Station operated by Buckeye Power, the Columbus-based generation and transmission cooperative that provides power to 24 distribution co-ops in Ohio and Michigan.
“He’s been a strong supporter of coal and natural gas power generation, natural resources that are prevalent in eastern and southeastern Ohio,” Armstrong says.
The 67-year-old Republican congressman has also been an advocate for bipartisan legislation that helps co-ops and their consumer-members. He is a co-sponsor of the Flexible Financing for Rural America Act, which could save electric co-ops billions of dollars by allowing them to refinance their Rural Utilities Service loans at lower interest rates without prepayment penalties.
He also was a co-sponsor of the RURAL Act, which passed Congress in 2019. The law prevents co-ops from losing their tax-exempt status when they accept government grants for disaster recovery, rural broadband service or renewable energy projects.
“Congressman Johnson has consistently supported issues and legislation that allow the cooperatives in Ohio to be successful in their mission to supply and deliver reliable, affordable electricity,” says Pat O’Loughlin, CEO of Buckeye Power and Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. “He understands the electric cooperative business model and has been a pragmatic champion of Ohio’s cooperatives.”
Johnson says he has “seen firsthand how important local electric cooperatives are for keeping the lights on in rural communities across America.”
Now, he says, co-ops are crucial in providing broadband service to rural communities.
“These groups are on the frontline of the effort to bring high-speed, reliable broadband to those areas that lack it,” the congressman says. “Distance learning for our children, remote working from home for many businesses, and advances in telehealth have demonstrated how critically important it is that everyone in rural Ohio has access to high-speed broadband internet.”
“We must take advantage of this opportunity, and local electric co-ops understand, like I do, that reliable broadband is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity in a global digital economy,” Johnson says. “I’ll keep working to ensure rural co-ops can continue delivering power and broadband to rural Americans today and for years to come.”
Johnson was elected to a sixth term in Congress in 2020. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over energy, health care and telecommunications. He is co-chairman of the House Natural Gas Caucus and a member of the House Shale Caucus.