EXTRA – Co-ops key in USDA efficiency plan

Calling it part of a “pathway to prosperity,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced his department will partner with electric cooperatives in a new initiative to improve energy efficiency in rural parts of the country.

Vilsack said the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program will turn to co-ops as intermediaries to help homeowners and small businesses offset the high upfront costs of efficiency upgrades that can save energy and lower their electric bills

The plan, based on similar co-op efforts, will create jobs in the efficiency sector, reduce U.S. dependence on energy imports and forestall some of the need to build expensive new power plants, he said.

“No group has been more involved in energy efficiency than the rural electric cooperatives and associations around the country,” Vilsack said as he unveiled the program at the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association office during a July 17 swing through the state. “We’re thrilled with this partnership. We’re excited about it.”

NRECA CEO Glenn English called the announcement an important step that could benefit thousands of co-op members by helping to keep electricity affordable.

“This program will unleash a new resource for our consumer-members, their businesses and their communities,” said English, noting that co-ops serve large numbers of older, inefficient residences.

The program will be published as a rule in the Federal Register. The department will solicit input from co-ops and interested parties before finalizing it, Vilsack said.

As envisioned, USDA’s Rural Utilities Service would lend money to co-ops, which would relend microloans to members for improvements, such as additional insulation or a new heat pump. About $250 million could be available initially, Vilsack said.

Recipients would pay back the loans through a charge on their bills, or by other means. Co-ops would be responsible for ensuring contractors performed the work properly.

Ninety-six percent of the nation’s more than 900 co-ops offer some sort of energy-efficiency program to their members. Vilsack said the new USDA program will not supplant those, but instead will complement them and provide them with additional resources.

“Our sense is there is a good deal of interest in this. I would expect that it will be a popular program,” he said.

The USDA plan shares some of the same principles as the rural energy savings program that co-ops have advocated in Congress. It draws on other co-op efficiency projects, including one developed by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina that  has gained national attention.

Michael Couick, president and CEO of the statewide association, said the South Carolina program, if fully funded through the rural energy savings program, will save enough energy during a 10-year period to avert half the cost of a nuclear power plant.

Like other co-op endeavors, though, it needs additional resources to address unmet needs, said Couick, who spoke with reporters on a conference call with Vilsack and English.

“Our members really deserve a lot more than electricity and this is one of those things,” he said.

Source: ECT.coop, a publication of the NRECA