Tona Barkley lives in the small town of Owenton in northeastern Kentucky between the cities of Louisville and Cincinnati. Just like her neighbors, she’s one of the more than 42 million rural Americans who are part owners of their electric utility.
First established in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, rural electric cooperatives (RECs) were created to provide electricity to rural America in a way nobody else could or would. The Rural Electrification Act was one of the most successful programs in US history. It rapidly electrified, boosted the quality of life, and expanded the economy in rural areas.
But after 75 years, rural utilities, and the communities they serve, are increasingly coming under serious pressure. Rural electric cooperatives are laden with billions of dollars of debt for outdated fossil fuel infrastructure. In fact, nine out of the top fourteen worst polluting energy utilities are cooperatives.
On top of this, the low-income member-owners of these cooperatives face three times the energy burden of their higher-income urban peers. COVID-19 has greatly increased their financial vulnerability, as many thousands of customers need relief or face shut-offs. The recent financial challenges only compounds the problems, as nonpayment has put the financial viability of hundreds of rural electric cooperatives at risk.
That’s why Shareable has joined climate justice organizers, the Rural Power Coalition, and electric co-op member-owners like Tona, to demand that Congress support rural energy transition. Rural communities need the authorization of $100 billion in appropriations for federally insured Hardship Loans from the Rural Utilities Service along with conditions for loan forgiveness akin to those offered in the CARES Act through the Small Business Administration.
These conditions would facilitate the retirement of all coal plants currently in operation and potentially all outstanding electric cooperative debt in exchange for new investment in clean energy, distributed energy resources, energy efficiency, high-speed broadband, storage, and electric transportation with new loans at U.S. Treasury rates.
If co-ops and rural communities are not adequately supported by the infrastructure bill, millions of Americans could suffer and the opportunity to transition to renewable energy could be lost.
Here are a few more ways you can support rural electric cooperatives by promoting the RuralPowerNow! video campaign: