Guest post: Four opportunities for bipartisan action in Congress

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Energy Fairness is pleased to present an op-ed from Jim Matheson.  Matheson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives. He previously served seven terms in Congress as a U.S. representative from Utah.

Across 56 percent of the nation, America’s electric cooperatives power rural economics, respond to evolving consumer needs, and meet members where they are. 

NRECA’s newly announced CEO Jim Mattheson outside the NRECA headquarters building in Arlington, Va., June 13, 2016.

There’s no one model for how America’s communities should use energy, so there’s no one size fits all solution for how to provide it. Because each community is different, electric co-ops require the flexibility to respond to their community in unique ways. 

Co-ops are focused on enabling a better future for the communities that they serve. This community focus also drives co-ops to innovate across a spectrum of technology including investments in community microgrids, new XPRIZE carbon capture research and the expanded deployment of solar energy in rural America. 

Because of our community connection, co-ops serve as the voice of the rural energy consumer. That’s foundational to our desire to achieve pro-consumer energy policies.

Washington policies have a real-world impact on electric co-ops. And as our members work to meet tomorrow’s energy needs in their communities, we’re constantly working to advocate for their interests. 

In 2019, electric co-ops are looking for Congress to work towards policies that align around four key priorities.

  • Pursuing common sense energy and infrastructure policy that enables co-ops to meet the growing needs of their communities.

We support the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to craft an Affordable Clean Energy rule to address carbon emissions from existing power plants that makes good economic and environmental sense, while avoiding the legal overreach of the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan. We likewise support development of a rule governing new power plant carbon emissions that relies on existing, commercially available technologies.

If Congress considers an infrastructure package, it’s critical that any such legislation goes beyond roads and bridges to address the need for rural electric infrastructure improvement and expansion of rural broadband.

  • Emphasizing the importance of expanded rural broadband access – both for electric co-op system optimization and for co-op members. Twenty-four million rural Americans lack access to broadband, and millions of them are electric co-op members. That’s why more than 100 electric cooperatives are working to close the digital divide by bringing broadband to their communities. Even more are exploring the option. Congress and the administration have made some important strides over the past year to promote rural broadband, but more federal support is needed to deliver rural communities access to telelearning, telemedicine and a 21st-century economy.

Our members are technology neutral and partner with many different entities to bring broadband to communities whose future existence depends on connectivity. Our goal simply is to ensure all Americans have access to broadband. 

  • Enhancing grid resilience and advocating for resources and technologies to meet the cybersecurity needs of small and mid-sized utilities to protect our systems. Electric co-ops are committed to protecting the physical and cybersecurity of the rural electric grid and work seamlessly with the federal government and other partners to maintain safety and reliability.
  • Promoting environmental policy that supports and encourages energy research and development programs – including a focus on renewables and programs that work to find a viable use for carbon capture, use and storage. Electric co-op non-hydro renewable energy capacity has increased by 130 percent since 2010. At the same time, co-ops have invested in cutting-edge XPRIZE carbon capture and utilization research to help ensure that coal continues to play an important role as part of an “all of the above” energy mix.

Congress should look beyond the political battles and work towards strong policymaking on these critical issues. Even in a divided government, many of them present opportunities for bipartisan cooperation. Failure to work towards these objectives risks adding an additional element of uncertainty to our members and the end-of-line consumers they serve.