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Clean energy is getting a lot of attention these days. Locally “cheaper, cleaner, more local energy technologies” is the mantra for two candidates attempting to unseat two incumbent board members of the Sangre de Cristo Electric Association (SDCEA).

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet

But progress is already being made, and change is accelerating. Nationally, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet has been pushing for federal investment to advance clean energy across rural America. With Inflation Reduction Act funding, today two new programs were announced that will support clean and affordable energy, new jobs, and healthier communities.

This morning, Bennet joined U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Biden Administration leaders at the White House to announce nearly $11 billion in grants and loan opportunities to help rural energy and utility providers bring affordable, reliable clean energy to their communities across the country.

This represents the single largest investment in rural electrification since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936. This, by the way, brought electric poles and electricity to farm and ranch communities across America (including the rural area of northwestern Wisconsin where this journalist grew up.)

Nearly $11 billion was announced today, as well as $2 billion for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) program.

“We have no time to waste as families in rural Colorado face high energy costs and the effects of climate-fueled disasters like wildfire and drought,” said Bennet. “These programs will play a critical role in lowering energy costs, creating local jobs, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and accelerating the deployment of clean energy for Colorado’s rural communities.”

This means – it looks as if there are going to be federal dollars to the rescue to help rural cooperatives like SDCEA and Tri-State Generation and Transmission (a wholesale power supplier, which generates the power that SDCEA and its fellow rural cooperatives distribute), to hasten the shift already underway to clean and renewable energy.

Smart Energy Grids will be needed in the future. Image courtesy of National Energy Technology Laboratory

By the way, this SDCEA member service area just might want to pay attention to the progress that has been made here locally and across this state; a combination of long-term goals by power generators and distributors, and representatives such as Bennet continuing to push for grant funds.

Across all energy providers, the national average for power supplied by clean energy sources reportedly reached 20 percent in 2022.

But the SDCEA performance has been nearly double the national average: it reports that it currently provides nearly 40 percent of its power from renewable energy.

The SDCEA long-term goals are indeed linked to the power generator Tri-State. Theoretically, Tri-State is owned by several rural energy cooperatives including SDCEA, that distribute the power generated by Tri-State.

It is expected that by 2024, which isn’t that far off — that 50 percent of the energy provided to us will be from clean energy sources when the Tri-State output from other sources is combined with the Trout Creek solar project. This is solid progress — it’s not the 100 percent transition that needs to happen, but that’s where the federal grants can come in.

By the way, check out Allen Best’s column today on nuclear energy, which provides another perspective on clean and renewable energy. Here in Chaffee County, there might be a ready resource of geothermal power — but it would take millions to determine if it’s a viable, recoverable energy source and no one has stepped up to invest in finding out.

“The Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to cleaner energy provides rural communities with an affordable and reliable power grid, while supporting thousands of new jobs and helping lower energy costs in the future,” said Vilsack. “These investments will also combat climate change and significantly reduce air and water pollution that put children’s health at risk. The U.S. Department of Agriculture stands ready to partner with municipalities, tribal entities, entrepreneurs, rural electric cooperatives and other utilities to see this transformative investment come to life and create new economic growth and healthier communities.”

According to Washington, these grants and loan opportunities being announced today will be available through two specific programs:

  • $9.7 billion through the Empowering Rural America (New ERA) program for eligible rural electric cooperatives to deploy renewable energy, zero-emission, and carbon capture systems.
  • $1 billion through the Powering Affordable Clean Energy (PACE) program in partially-forgivable loans to renewable energy developers and electric service providers to help finance large-scale solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower projects, and energy storage in support of renewable energy systems.

It’s one thing to allocate funds — it’s another thing for them to actually reach rural communities. It needs to happen faster. USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small (who was just here in Chaffee County in March) and Rural Utilities Service Administrator Andrew Berke have been directed to quickly distribute clean energy funds from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to rural communities.

Many of us might say ‘we’ll believe it when we see it.’ But Bennet has urged the USDA to cut through the normal federal red tape to set clear implementation guidance for the funds. He’s demanding that the USDA find new flexible distribution paths and improved tax credits so that rural co-ops and communities have a better route to access the funding to move faster to clean energy.