To nonprofit leaders, community organizers, advocacy groups, and elected officials,
We are leaders of faith, justice, agriculture, cooperative, rural and environmental organizations that share an understanding of the significance that rural electric cooperatives hold for resilience and economic relief and recovery during this time of crisis.
With this open letter, we are calling on you to highlight actions member co-ops can take immediately to address the pandemic and rise to the occasion for communities in need. In addition, we are calling for bold federal policies that will ensure electric cooperatives are in a position to accelerate rural economic recovery.
Electric co-ops were created in the depths of the Great Depression. Our co-ops were born out of crisis with instruments for investment and community engagement that are made for this moment. Electric cooperatives are both critical infrastructure providers, keeping our lights on, and a primary channel for Federal economic development and investment in rural communities. Some co-ops are partners in local community health, and some provide rural broadband service, a utility now vital for telemedicine, school, and work, are important now more than ever.
As you know, Americans are facing unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, many ongoing issues faced by rural communities are particularly difficult during these times.
For instance, rural areas struggle with significant energy burden, which is the proportion of income spent on energy bills. The energy burden in rural areas is about 40% higher than in metropolitan areas.1 With the number of unemployed now above 10 million people and climbing, that burden will only grow worse for rural families. Poverty rates in rural areas are also known to be higher, particularly for Latino, Indigenous, and Black communities, whose members are facing the highest risk of dying from COVID-19, according to early data.2 3 4 Furthermore, instances of pulmonary issues like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Black Lung Disease, and subsequent dependence on home oxygen use, are more prevalent among people living in rural areas.5 6 7
In this context, access to electricity is a crucial resource for under-resourced rural populations, and no cooperative’s member-owners should be at risk of losing that resource at a time when work is scarce or when going to work could mean a life-threatening exposure to COVID-19.
This is a historic moment of unprecedented challenge, not unlike the Great Depression that led to the founding of the electric co-ops themselves. It is a moment that calls for extraordinary leadership and exemplary cooperation. Therefore we ask that you join us in calling on cooperatives to rise to this moment by publicly urging our electric co-ops to immediately enact the following common-sense policies through the course of the pandemic:
- A moratorium on utility shutoffs, deposits, customer late fees, and negative credit reporting;
- Flexible, budget billing arrangements on electricity and broadband service, so that debt is not accruing for member-owners that cannot afford it;
- An accelerated return of capital credits, making member-owners’ own equity in their cooperative available to them to help pay their bills;
- Cooperation with other community organizations to support mutual aid organizing, providing financial resources and staff time as necessary; and
- Frequent, effective, and transparent communications with member-owners about the crisis and the steps that the co-op is taking to address it.
As every community’s needs will be unique, it is particularly important that local co-ops engage and listen to a diverse group of member-owners to understand what is needed by the community.
We share many of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) concerns that electric cooperatives need more resources to be able to enact these policies. In particular, we appreciate NRECA’s advocacy for additional funding for the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which was included in the CARES Act. While we oppose the removal of any public health and environmental protections that might be perceived as administrative barriers to infrastructure spending, we join in urging Congress to make resources available to rural electric co-ops to support communities with:
- Federal funding for utility operations shortfalls;
- A large increase in appropriated funding for the Rural Cooperative Development Grants (RCDG), Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants (REDL&G), Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP), and higher authorization for the Rural Utilities Service Treasury Rate Loan program, which also capitalizes the Energy Efficiency & Conservation Loan Program (EECLP);
- Funding and federal action to maximize production of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) so that there is enough for rural healthcare workers as well as electric cooperative workers — the maintainers of critical infrastructure.
We urge NRECA’s member co-ops to make use of these programs, and we call on NRECA to offer direct assistance to co-ops to encourage programs that make member-owners and rural communities more resilient in the face of this and future crises, particularly by:
- Implementing inclusive financing programs for energy efficiency and distributed generation and storage, such as the Pay As You Save (PAYS) model8;
- Coordinating with community action agencies and LIHEAP offices to prioritize outreach and investment in home energy upgrades where they are needed most;
- Creating rural broadband networks that will revolutionize rural communities’ access to telemedicine, education, and economic opportunity, just as electrification once did;
- Enabling the local democratic control of local energy generation and storage assets.
So far, stimulus packages passed by Congress have failed to include basic utility shutoff moratoria or adequate funding for states to deal with the ongoing crisis. As a result, 830 groups recently called for federal legislation that ensures moratoria truly protects families. By publicly taking a stand, our co-ops will be in good company and provide a shining example of what member-focused cooperatives can and must do.
This is an opportunity to demonstrate to the nation and the world the strength of the cooperative business model, including its principle of Concern for Community and its values of Social Responsibility and Solidarity, by calling on the Electric Cooperatives to rise to the occasion during COVID-19.
Truly, we are stronger together, and together we will overcome this crisis, just as cooperatives and their member-owners have overcome so many before it.
Erik Hatlestad, Energy Democracy Program Director, CURE
Brianna Knisley, Tennessee Campaign Coordinator, Appalachian Voices
Shiva Patel, Energy Justice Campaigner, Center for Biological Diversity
Dee Davis, Center for Rural Strategies
Ben Lilliston, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Matt Hildreth, Executive Director, RuralOrganizing.org
Shawn Sebastian, People’s Action
Alice Madden, Community Power (Minneapolis, MN)
Tony Wilkin Gibart, Midwest Environmental Advocates
Chandra Farley, Partnership for Southern Equity
Frank James, Dakota Rural Action
Michael Malcom, People’s Justice Council
Kyle Crider, Alabama Interfaith Power and Light
Bill McCabe, Member, PVEC Member Voices
Catherine Robinson, One Voice
Glen Brand, Solar United Neighbors
Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher, Center for Rural Affairs
Berneta Haynes, Senior Director of Policy and Access, Georgia Watch
Dany Sigwalt, Co-Executive Director, Power Shift Network
Benita Wells, Chief Financial Officer, Southern Echo
Sydney Ausen, Northern Plains Resource Council
Teresa Briley, CEMC Members for Change
Cassia Herron, Chairperson, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth
Rachel Norton, Energy Specialist, Mountain Association for Community Economic Development
Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid
Natalie Lucas, Care About Climate
Mikhiela Sherrod, Agricultural Missions, Inc.
Lynn Tobey, Member, PVEC Member Voices
8 Utility Guide to Tariffed On-Bill Programs. Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, February 2020.