“The goal is [to put] more money back in the pockets of people in rural communities and to catalyze rural development,” NCBA CLUSA president and CEO Doug O’Brien said last week during opening remarks at a briefing on Capitol Hill.
The July 16 briefing, called “Equitable Solutions to Rural Energy Burdens,” highlighted NCBA CLUSA’s Partnership for Advancing an Inclusive Rural Energy Economy (PAIREE) with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and shed light on innovative utility programs that are working to alleviate energy burdens faced by rural households in the U.S.
Specifically, in partnership with the National Rural Electric Association, the briefing sought to bring attention to the Rural Energy Savings Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS). NCBA CLUSA was one of many stakeholders that fought to reauthorize the Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP) in the 2018 Farm Bill to allow members of electric cooperatives to finance energy saving investments to their homes and businesses.
NCBA CLUSA was one of many stakeholders that fought to reauthorize the Rural Energy Savings Program in the 2018 Farm Bill to allow members of electric cooperatives to finance energy saving investments to their homes and businesses.
RESP provides 20-year loans to utility providers at zero percent interest to be used for programs that improve energy efficiency of rural Americans. Consumers pay back the loan—usually about $7,000—over ten years at an interest rate of no more than five percent to their utility provider, who ultimately repays the loan to RUS.
The program has strong champions on Capitol Hill, some of whom attended the briefing. First, Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) spoke about constituents he has heard from directly about rising energy costs due to a lack of proper insulation. The electric cooperative to which he belongs established a program called Round-Up. Round-Up brings energy bills to the nearest dollar to contribute to a fund that allows co-op members to make energy saving investments. When one member uses less energy, every member of the cooperatives saves.
When one member uses less energy, every member of the cooperatives saves.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) addressed similar challenges that he has heard from his constituents in North Carolina. He was particularly grateful that the panel included Curtis Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which provides service to the Congressman’s district.
Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-GA) also joined the briefing to speak about his passion for building inclusive rural communities. Bishop serves as the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development, which provides funding for critical programs like RESP.“No child or family should be left behind or be prevented from actualizing themselves and no business should be unfairly treated by a policy because of their zip code or location,” he said.
In addition to the three elected officials, last week’s briefing also featured executives from three rural electric cooperatives.
Curtis Wynn, president and CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative in North Carolina and president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, made the business case for energy saving investments. Despite energy saving investments of individual households lowering costs for the cooperative to take on, many rural and low-income members aren’t able to afford the costs of the investment. So, Roanoke has established a number of programs for their members to participate in to incorporate “smart systems” into their homes to improve energy efficiency and doing so through safe, affordable financing.
Chad Lowder, CEO of Tri-County Electric Cooperative in South Carolina, reiterated Rep. Clyburn’s point that a major contributor to high prices is a lack of sufficient insulation in low-income homes. Lowder talked about the challenges he hears about from members, adding that co-ops exist to “solve the problems of our members.” In an effort to do just that, Tri-County Electric Cooperative will launch a new program later this year called “Help My House” to help residents make energy updates to their homes that will lower energy bills and have less of an impact on the environment.
Arkansas’s Ouachita Electric Cooperative General Manager Mark Cayce highlighted their innovative financing program called HELP PAYS—a tariffed-based program that creates opportunity for co-op members, especially those with low credit ratings, to improve their home’s energy efficiency. Ouachita Electric Co-op’s program has already reached more than 550 homes with improvements averaging about $7,500—a cost that most families would be unable to cover without financing. The savings created through these investments has enabled Ouachita Electric Cooperative to innovate and invest in more projects like solar paneling.
Rural families spend approximately 40 percent more on energy than urban families.
Last week’s briefing also featured Mary Shoemaker, a Senior Research Analyst with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Shoemaker focused on the data behind the burdens that rural and low-income Americans face on energy costs. For example, according to ACEEE, rural families spend approximately 40 percent more on energy than urban families. “There might not be a silver bullet [to improve rural prosperity], but there are a lot of silver BBs, and energy solutions is one of them,” Shoemaker said. She also highlighted the importance of USDA’s RESP and other energy savings programs at the federal level, including the Rural Energy for America Program and the Weatherization Assistance Program.
USDA Rural Utilities Service Assistant Administrator Chris McLean also joined the panel to provide the perspective of the RESP’s administering agency. McLean emphasized that there is still more than $100 million in RESP funding available to make these energy improvements. Despite being a young program, McLean said, RESP is already generating significant interest as a result of the success stories, many of which were highlighted at the briefing.
Learn more about the RESP program from USDA.
Watch a video on rural energy burdens from ACEEE.