Electric co-ops show interest in USDA’s New Era plan for rural empowerment

‘It’s no surprise to see electric co-ops oversubscribe the New Era programme, which is an exciting and transformative opportunity’

Co-operatives have shown ‘overwhelming interest’ in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) $9.7bn Empowering Rural America program (New Era) to promote energy innovation, says the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

Applications for New Era, which is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, opened on 31 July and closed on 15 September. USDA says it received 157 letters of interest from electric co-ops for 750 projects seeking grants and loans from the ERA.

The programme represents the largest investment in rural electrification since Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

“The demand for the New Era program illustrates the innovative spirit of electric co-operatives as they explore new ways to meet tomorrow’s energy needs and prepare for a future that depends on electricity to power more of the economy,” NRECA CEO Jim Matheson said in a statement. “It’s no surprise to see electric co-ops oversubscribe the New Era programme, which is an exciting and transformative opportunity for co-ops and their local communities. The program rightly prioritised voluntary, flexible decision-making that allowed electric co-ops to take a tailored approach to respond to local energy needs.”

According to USDA, co-ops submitted letters of interest for the programme that are more than double the amount of available funding for grants and loans through the programme. 

New Era programme is available only to rural electric co-operatives, including:

  • Existing or former USDA Rural Utilities Service (RUS) borrowers
  • Borrowers of the former Rural Electrification Administration
  • Rural electric co-operatives that serve predominantly rural areas
  • Wholly or jointly owned subsidiaries of rural electric co-operatives

Funds can be used to make energy efficiency improvements to eligible generation and transmission systems, to purchase, build, or deploy renewable energy, zero-emission systems, carbon capture storage systems, or to purchase renewable energy. Co-ops will be eligible to receive a grant for up to 25% of their project cost, with a maximum amount of loans and grants limited to US$970m for any one entity.

“The Biden-Harris Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act is driving investment in rural communities across the nation, particularly in places that for too long have been left out or left behind,” said USDA secretary Tom Vilsack. “Our programmes are a major opportunity to build a clean energy economy in rural America that will lower energy costs, strengthen energy security, create good-paying jobs, and meet our climate goals.

“The response from rural America and rural electric co-operatives to these programmes is a resounding ‘yes’ to federal funding for clean energy infrastructure to provide relief to farmers, rural small businesses and individuals by lowering energy costs and creating economic opportunity for generations to come.”