by Tom Purkey, Executive Vice President and General Manager for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association
In early May, I joined in Washington, D. C., more than 2,000 electric cooperative leaders from across the country to deliver messages to Congress about the issues that are important to our electric consumers. While this is an annual event, it was especially important to visit our representatives this year, considering the numerous newly elected members in Congress.
Spending and debt are dominating the attention of Congress. Legislators are focusing on how to deal with mounting federal deficits and a national debt that is at its limits. Other issues, no matter how important, seem to be taking a back seat.
In visiting Tennessee’s representatives and senators, we spent a great deal of time introducing ourselves and telling the new members and their staffs what electric co-ops are all about. Four of our nine representatives are new: Diane Black of Gallatin, Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga and Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump. Although each has his or her own priorities and is assigned to different committees, I came away impressed with the speed with which they have become acclimated to their responsibilities.
These new members also have more clout than they might have had in years past. Of the 97 new members of the House, 87 are Republicans. Standing together, they can pass or defeat legislation through their strength in numbers. So it is important for us to encourage them to support policies that ensure reliable, low-cost energy — which your co-op has been providing for decades.
We specifically brought a number of issues to our lawmakers’ attention, including the future of the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and coal-combustion residuals, also known as coal ash.
Rural electric cooperatives have very specific financial needs when compared to other electric utilities. The expense required to connect homes and farms outside of urban areas prevented electric service from reaching rural America for many years and continues to impose disproportionally higher costs on rural customers. The RUS helps ease that pressure by providing lowinterest loans that help replace aging poles, increase system capacity or even build new substations.
Over the years, electric cooperatives have proved to be excellent borrowers. Because these loans are paid back with interest, it is estimated that the RUS electric loan program will return more than $100 million to the U.S. Treasury this year. This money is helping reduce the deficit and contributing to a healthier federal budget. We asked our members of Congress to continue this important program at its current level.
Another issue we discussed is whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will classify as a hazardous material the ash left after burning coal. These leftovers are frequently recycled and used as raw materials in manufacturing many useful products such as asphalt, roofing shingles and even bowling balls. Classifying this ash as hazardous will halt this recycling and increase disposal costs — and almost certainly cause an upward pressure on the cost of electricity. We encouraged our lawmakers to prevent the EPA from making such a rule.
While the faces in Washington may have changed and the issues of the day are certain to ebb and flow, the challenge of providing a product as critical as electricity remains. And electric cooperatives across Tennessee are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to live up to that challenge.
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