Co-ops overwhelm USDA with project proposals

Electric cooperatives flooded the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with interest in a new $9.7 billion clean energy program, submitting proposals for hundreds of projects that would require at least twice that amount and launch $93 billion in new investment across rural America.

USDA announced on Sept. 27 that it received 157 letters of interest from electric co-ops across the nation for 750 projects seeking grants and loans from the Empowering Rural America program, also known as New ERA.

“The demand for the New ERA program illustrates the innovative spirit of electric cooperatives 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,” said National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson.

USDA closed its 46-day window to file letters on Sept. 15 and is preparing to send application invitations to co-ops with projects deemed technologically viable, reliable and resilient.

Awards are expected to be made early next year. Grants may be up to 25% of a project’s cost, with a maximum amount of loans and grants limited to $970 million for any one co-op. Eligible projects may include carbon capture, renewable energy, energy storage, nuclear energy and generation and transmission efficiency improvements.

USDA said the co-op proposals emphasized plans to serve the country’s most disadvantaged communities and would create a total of $93 billion in public and private investments in rural America.

NRECA provided in-depth recommendations to USDA as it shaped the New ERA program, which was created by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, and encouraged prioritizing grid reliability, electricity affordability and project flexibility.

“The program rightly prioritizes voluntary, flexible decision-making that allows electric co-ops to take a tailored approach to respond to local energy needs,” Matheson said.