Nashville – State officials on Friday awarded $61 million in emergency broadband grants, with $40 million going to Tennessee’s electric co-ops. The grants were awarded through the recently created Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that broadband is essential for modern life,” said Mike Knotts, vice president of government affairs with the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “From telemedicine and distance learning to telecommuting and e–commerce, Tennessee’s rural communities must have reliable and affordable access to high–speed internet. Families and businesses in rural communities unfortunately understand what life is like without internet access, so today’s announcement is welcomed news.”

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development worked with the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and other stakeholders to develop the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund using a portion of resources allocated to Tennessee through the Coronavirus Relief Fund. Recipients must utilize the funds before the end of 2020.

Nearly 70 percent of the funds awarded went to electric cooperatives. “When the state asked ‘Who can build rural broadband quickly?’ they turned to electric co-ops,” said Knotts. “Tennessee’s co-ops are demonstrating their ability to expand access quickly and leverage grant funds for maximum impact. We appreciate the trust and confidence Governor Lee has placed in us through today’s announcement.”

Tennessee’s electric co-ops will immediately begin construction on 29 separate projects to bring broadband to locations that currently do not have access. These projects will enable tens of thousands of people in some of the most remote parts of the state to participate in modern work, education and commerce. Broadband expansion will also improve Tennessee’s ability to respond to current and future public health emergencies.

Nashville, TENN. – Today Gov. Bill Lee announced that a portion of Tennessee’s aid from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund would be used to expand access to broadband service. The newly created Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund will expand broadband access to better facilitate participation in telemedicine, distance learning and telecommuting.  

“The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the digital divide that exists in Tennessee,” said Mike Knotts, vice president of government affairs with the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “Never before has the need for broadband access been greater or the limitations for Tennesseans who can’t access the internet been more obvious. The Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund will help bring this essential service to many of the homes and businesses that need it most.” 

Since the passage of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act in 2017, 14 of Tennessee’s 23 electric cooperatives have launched broadband projects, and Tennessee’s electric co-ops have proven their ability to maximize state and federal funds. For every dollar of grant money received, Tennessee co-ops are investing $15 of their own money. This multiplier means that Tennessee electric co-ops are stretching grant funds further to have the greatest impact. 

“The Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund can position Tennessee to better respond to the current pandemic and be better prepared to face the challenges that will come our way in the future,” said Knotts. “The impact of this investment will be felt for years. We appreciate the vision of Gov. Bill Lee and Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Bob Rolfe as well as Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Speaker Cameron Sexton, Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson and House Utilities Chair Pat Marsh. Their allocation of these funds will positively impact tens of thousands of Tennesseans. 

Learn more at tnelectric.org/broadband.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Trent Scott | Vice President of Corporate Strategy | 615.515.5534 | tscott@tnelectric.org 

Gibson Electric Membership Corporation and its not-for-profit subsidiary, Gibson Connect, have announced their boards have approved moving forward with Phase III of their broadband network buildout.  Phase III work will begin in the Rutherford, Kenton and Newbern zones.  These zones have met their participation goals using Gibson Connect’s registration website, join.gibsonconnect.com.

“A start date for Phase III has not been set, but board approval will enable us to soon begin the engineering step of the buildout,” says Dan Rodamaker, President and CEO of Gibson EMC and Gibson Connect.  “We plan to start Phase III with these three zones and add more zones a little later, based on join.gibsonconnect.com registrations, as well as engineering and grant/loan requirements,” he said.

Charles Phillips, Gibson EMC VP of Technical Services and Gibson Connect VP of Operations, explains, “Gibson Connect provides its internet service through Gibson EMC’s substations, meaning work must be completed in the substation and the fiber network must be built from the substation to the zone before Gibson Connect can begin construction in the zone.  A grant or loan can impact the order of our buildout because it is typically for an area that has met grant eligibility requirements and may have deadlines by which we must complete the work to receive the funding.”

“Gibson EMC is actively seeking out and taking advantage of every grant opportunity in order to save our members’ money on construction costs,” Rodamaker says.  “Where grants are not available, we’re applying for low-interest loans.”

Rodamaker says the ReConnect loan Gibson EMC was awarded by the USDA will ultimately help construct the fiber network in certain parts of Obion County in Tennessee and in Gibson EMC’s Kentucky counties.  ReConnect also has a deadline by which Gibson EMC must complete the work, but Rodamaker says, “it allows a five-year period as opposed to the shorter deadlines of the grants.  Utilizing grants and low-interest loans will make the fiber network construction more affordable for Gibson EMC’s entire membership,” he says.

More than 4,700 consumer-members have been connected since construction started in February 2018.  “We’ve completed the initial construction in Phase I zones, and we are diligently working to connect those who have more recently signed up for the service,” Phillips says.  “Phase II is well underway, but there is still considerable work to do.  Board approval for Phase III zones will enable us to begin the initial step of the build in those areas,” Phillips said.

“We plan to ultimately provide high-speed internet access to all of our eligible members, but the buildout is a massive project that is time-intensive, he says.  “With about 3,100 miles of the fiber network to engineer and build, we knew from the time we started construction in August 2018 that it would take at least five years to provide access to all of our members.  Even so, we understand how urgently this service is needed and we are doing everything within our power to provide it as quickly as possible.”

“We began this project because our members told us they needed this service,” Rodamaker said, “and after experiencing the necessity to work and learn from home during the pandemic, we are more convinced than ever that we are doing the right thing for our members and our communities,” he said.  “Those who have already been connected are extremely pleased with and grateful for this service.”

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – More than $11 million of $19.7 million in broadband accessibility grants announced last week by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development will go to Tennessee electric cooperatives. Ten of the 17 grant recipients were electric co-ops.

“One of my top priorities is ensuring the success of rural Tennessee. With the assistance of these grants, communities across 21 counties will now have access to broadband that will aid in that success,” Gov. Bill Lee said. “I applaud the efforts of these 17 broadband providers as they play a fundamental role in our efforts to boost rural communities throughout Tennessee.”

The grants come at a time when the need for rural broadband is clear.

“We’re excited about this investment in rural Tennessee,” says David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “The current COVID-19 crisis has confirmed what we’ve known for some time: Rural America needs reliable broadband. Education, healthcare and commerce rely on a dependable, high-speed connection to the internet. More than ever, we’re seeing how vital that connection to the rest of the world truly is.”

Electric co-ops receiving grants are:

  • Fayetteville Public Utilities: $1,750,000, serving parts of Lincoln County
  • Forked Deer Electric Cooperative: $719,921, serving parts of Haywood and Lauderdale counties
  • Gibson Electric Membership Corporation: $703,518, serving parts of Obion County
  • HolstonConnect LLC (Holston Electric Cooperative): $361,211, serving the Mooresburg community in Hamblen and Hawkins counties
  • Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative: $593,166, serving parts of south Perry County
  • PVECFiber (Powell Valley Electric Cooperative) and Scott County Telephone Cooperative: $1,908,811.24, serving part of Union County
  • SVEConnect (Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative): $1,654,882, serving the Battle Creek and South Pittsburg Mountain communities in Marion County
  • Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation: $1,768,686, serving parts near the Brownsville community in Haywood County
  • Tri-County Fiber Communications LLC (Tri-County Electric Membership Corporation): $501,811, serving parts of Trousdale County
  • United Communications (Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation): $1,331,504.80, serving the Eagleville community in rural Rutherford and Williamson counties

The broadband accessibility grant fund was created in 2017 as a key component of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act – sweeping legislation designed to close the digital divide in Tennessee. In the years since, many of Tennessee’s electric co-ops have invested more than $187 million in broadband projects that will eventually bring high-speed internet access to more than 790,000 homes and businesses.

Trenton, Tenn. — Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald “DJ” LaVoy announced the award of a $31.9 million low-interest loan to Gibson Electric Membership Corporation to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in parts of western Kentucky and western Tennessee.  Gibson EMC has been working to provide high-speed internet access to its consumer-members since 2017, when the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act was passed and the cooperative formed Gibson Connect, its wholly-owned, not-for-profit broadband subsidiary.

“Gibson EMC is grateful our ReConnect loan application was approved,” said Gibson EMC and Gibson Connect President and CEO Dan Rodamaker.  “This low-interest loan will enable us to more affordably deploy broadband to our members,” he said.  “We will use the funds primarily in parts of Hickman and Fulton counties in Kentucky and Obion County in Tennessee, as well as some areas in neighboring Carlisle and Graves counties in Kentucky and Lake, Dyer and Weakley counties in Tennessee.”

Gibson Connect is in its second year of a 3,100-mile construction project covering parts of four Kentucky counties and eight Tennessee counties.  The project is being done in phases and is expected to take another three to four years to complete.

Gibson EMC’s members are driving the order of construction.  The co-op’s 12-county service area is divided into zones based on substations and communities. Members can show support of this project and speed construction in their area by registering for the service at join.gibsonconnect.com. Zones that have reached their participation goals and zones funded by grants the cooperative has applied for and received are being built first.

 “Ultimately we plan to provide high-speed, fiber-based internet service access to all of our members,” Rodamaker said. “Access to this essential service can enable our members to enjoy a better quality of life and help our communities thrive,” he said.  “We’re honored to partner with the USDA to help bridge the digital divide.”

Caption:  USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald “DJ” LaVoy (center) and Hilda Legg, State Director of USDA Rural Development-Kentucky (at podium) congratulate Gibson EMC and Gibson Connect President and CEO Dan Rodamaker on being awarded a $31.9 million ReConnect low-interest loan.

David Callis, executive vice president and general manager, TECA

You don’t have to look far to find news stories that speak to the decline of rural America: aging population, unemployment, opioids. It can be a depressing outlook. We see it firsthand; Tennessee ranks 46th in life expectancy as rural hospitals close their doors. Schools struggle to attract teachers and provide advanced academic opportunities. And we all know that high-speed in-ternet can be unreliable, expensive or totally unavailable.

But our co-ops are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on the rural and suburban communities we serve. Co-ops invest more money in rural Tennessee than almost any other group. They manage more than $3 billion in assets and 106,000 miles of distribution lines that stretch from the suburbs of Nashville to some of the most rugged and remote areas of the state. This year alone, co-ops have invested more than $107 million in the distribution grid — investments focused on meeting the needs of Tennesseans today and far into the future.

We also deliver power to our residential members at a price that is 16 percent below the national average. And our co-ops have significantly less debt per consumer than the national average. These stats speak to decades of thoughtful decision-making and a deliberate focus on the well-being of co-op consumer-members.

Our purpose is greater than simply keeping the lights on. Co-ops make healthcare, education, commerce and manufacturing possible in the communities we serve, empowering our consumer-members.

A solid education removes barriers and opens the doors of opportunity. That is why co-ops have a long and proud history of investing in rural youth. We want to prepare young people to be the next generation of leaders and to be fully aware of the opportunities that exist in their hometowns. That is why programs like 4-H Electric Camp, the Youth Leadership Summit and Washington Youth Tour are so vitally important. Electric co-ops give young, rural Tennesseans the power to be smarter, better educated and more prepared for the future.

From Burlison to Bristol and Clarksville to Counce, the communities we serve are remarkable. They are unlike any other place in the world. They have distinct challenges, yet offer unique opportunities. It is important for electric co-ops to be advocates for these communities — to tell the story of rural and suburban Tennessee. Decisions made in Nashville and Washington, D.C., have a significant impact on co-ops and the people we serve. So it is critical that we engage with legislators and policymakers at the state and federal levels and shape a positive image for co-ops and rural Tennessee through our communications efforts. We give rural Tennesseans the power to be heard.

Tennessee’s electric co-ops are able to merge the opportunities found in our cities with the quality of life that is unique to rural and suburban Tennessee. Our cooperatives have a legacy of fundamentally changing the communities we serve, but we can’t rest on yesterday’s successes. Our communities have new needs, and Tennessee’s electric cooperatives are here to step up and create fresh solutions.

We do more than deliver power. We empower the people and communities we serve.

The House on Tuesday passed the RURAL Act, protecting more than 900 electric cooperatives throughout the nation from the risk of losing their tax-exempt status when they accept government grants for disaster relief, broadband service and other programs that benefit co-op members.

The Senate is poised to pass the bill later this week, and President Trump is expected to sign it into law.

The RURAL Act was NRECA’s top legislative priority for the year because of the profound threat to the business model of not-for-profit co-ops. Tens of thousands of co-op leaders, employees and members across the country rallied to advocate passage of the bill.

Lawmakers passed the popular bipartisan legislation in the final hours of the 2019 session as part of a larger tax and spending bill that funds the government through September 2020.

“We are grateful to members of the Tennessee delegation who supported this important legislation,” said David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “While these changes may seem subtle, they will have a meaningful impact on Tennessee co-ops and the people they serve – lowering costs, protecting rates and encouraging investment in rural infrastructure.”

The Tennessean published a guest editorial by TECA calling on lawmakers to support the Rural Act. The op-ed appeared online last week and in print today.

The bill’s passage fixes a problem created in 2017 when Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which redefined government grants to co-ops as income rather than capital. That change made it difficult for many co-ops to abide by the 15% limit on non-member income to keep their tax-exempt status. The RURAL Act once again exempts grants from being counted as income and is retroactive to the 2018 tax year.

Without the fix, some co-ops would have had to start paying taxes this spring after receiving grants in 2018 or 2019 to repair storm damage, bring high-speed internet to rural communities or invest in renewable energy and energy-efficiency programs. Many co-op leaders feared they would have to raise rates for members to pay the new taxes.

The legislation attracted more than 300 co-sponsors in the 435-member House and more than half of the senators. The effort was led in the House by Reps. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and in the Senate by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Tina Smith, D-Minn.

NRECA lobbyist Paul Gutierrez credited the victory to a collaborative campaign strategy that included co-ops’ grassroots efforts to alert their senators and representatives to the issue.

“This was an amazing NRECA team and membership effort, including co-op members at the end of the line,” he said. “We had great legislative champions in the House and Senate, and they worked tirelessly to get this included in the final tax package.”

The following op-ed by David Callis appeared in The Tennessean on Friday, Dec. 13. You can view the article on The Tennessean’s website.

PASS THE RURAL ACT

An op-ed by David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association

In 2016 the Tennessee legislature and the governor’s administration published reports about the lack of broadband in rural areas. A major area of concern was the prohibition on electric cooperatives providing broadband and a lack of funding.

As a result, the General Assembly passed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act in 2017 to ensure that one day all Tennesseans will have access to broadband internet. The legislation allows electric cooperatives to provide broadband internet service and provides grants to jumpstart the efforts of willing providers.

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have also recognized the need for rural broadband deployment. Since low population density and high costs are major hurdles to successful rural broadband deployment, state and federal grants are essential tools in efforts to bridge the digital divide. Congress recently appropriated more than $600 million that will be distributed through the USDA’s Re-Connect program that focuses exclusively on expanding access to broadband in rural America.

However, another significant hurdle surfaced last year. An unintended consequence of federal tax law changes threatens to impose additional financial burdens on rural communities and hamper broadband expansion.

Let me explain. Most of the nation’s 900 consumer-owned electric co-ops are recognized as tax-exempt organizations by the IRS as long as they receive no more than 15 percent of their income from non members.

Under the 2017 tax law, federal, state and local grants now count toward that 15 percent threshold. If that limit is exceeded, a co-op will lose its tax-exempt status for that year. Lawmakers acknowledge that the threat to electric co-ops is an unintended consequence.

This undermines a successful business model that has served America’s rural communities well for decades. It doesn’t matter if the money is for storm recovery, broadband deployment or economic development. If a co-op’s non member income exceeds 15 percent because of the grant, the cooperative could be forced to pay taxes on the grant amount.

Last month, Forked Deer Electric Cooperative was the first cooperative in the nation to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Agricutlure’s new Re-Connect program. They were awarded a $2.8 million grant that will allow the cooperative to reach areas across 425 square miles of their sparsely populated West Tennessee service area that lack broadband service. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue toured Lauderdale County, and during his speech announcing the grant, he told the audience, “We know when rural America thrives, all of America thrives.”

I couldn’t agree more.

However, receiving this grant puts the co-op dangerously close to the 15 percent limit for non member revenue. If Forked Deer Electric Cooperative is fortunate enough to receive additional grants for broadband or economic development, they could easily exceed the 15 percent limit. If a natural disaster caused significant damage to the electric system, grants from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) could also force the cooperative into becoming taxable.

Rural America faces serious challenges, and few organizations are investing more money and effort into solving these problems than consumer-owned electric co-ops.

Congress inadvertently created this problem, and now co-ops are urging Congress to fix it. Pending bipartisan legislation known as the RURAL Act (H.R. 2147 and S.1032) clarifies that government grants should not jeopardize the tax-exempt status of electric co-ops. The act, introduced by Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) and Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.), will restore certainty and common sense.

The bipartisan RURAL Act has been co-sponsored by nearly all of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Reps. John Rose, Phil Roe, Tim Burchett, Scott DesJarlsis, David Kustoff, Chuck Fleischman and Mark Green. We thank them for their support. Their leadership and commitment to helping rural Tennessee will help ensure that co-ops won’t jeopardize their tax-exempt status. Electric co-ops should be able to focus on their core missions of providing affordable and reliable power and enhancing the quality of life in their communities without fear of a federal tax bill.

Time is running out, and lawmakers need to pass legislation this year. Passage of the RURAL Act is essential for America’s rural communities.

As co-ops across the nation prepare to apply for the next round of broadband grant funding for rural America, relief from this taxing problem can’t come soon enough.

Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation and Aeneas Internet and Telephone Form Partnership to Bring Broadband Internet to West Tennessee

Broadband via gigabit fiber coming soon to Southwest Tennessee Electric’s consumer-members

Brownsville, Tennessee – December 11, 2019 – Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation and Aeneas Internet and Telephone announce today that they have formed a partnership to build and expand a gigabit fiber network to bring broadband communications to the region. This partnership will pave the way for a multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment into West Tennessee’s future. The new network will eventually expand to provide high-speed internet access to every consumer-member in Southwest Tennessee Electric’s service area.

The network will allow Southwest Tennessee Electric to build one of the most advanced electric distribution systems in Tennessee. The communication network will allow the cooperative to monitor and remotely manage equipment across the utility’s 11-county service area, reducing cost, improving reliability, and increasing operational efficiency.

The gigabit fiber network will also allow Southwest Tennessee Electric and Aeneas to bring broadband internet and telephone services to many unserved areas of southwest Tennessee. Construction’s first phase of nearly 1,000 miles of fiber optic cable will begin in the spring of 2020. Phase one will take approximately one year to complete and will focus on Tipton County and Chester County. Additionally, grant applications have been submitted to serve Hardeman and Haywood counties. Following phases will be launched based on participation and interest. The entire project is expected to take five years to complete.

“We have heard the call from our consumer-members all over the service area who are asking for reliable high-speed internet service,” said Kevin Murphy, president of Southwest Tennessee Electric. “Recognizing that retail broadband service would be a new space for the cooperative, we began looking for a local partner with similar mission and purpose – serving the rural communities of West Tennessee. We found that strategic partnership with Aeneas Internet and Telephone. Aeneas is passionate about local customer service, and that is the culture and purpose that we looked for in a partner.”

“Our common mission is to serve our neighbors,” Murphy said. “That, coupled with their expansive knowledge of the technology required to operate a gigabit fiber network, makes this a perfect fit.”

“What an exciting time for West Tennessee!” said Stephen Thorpe, CEO of Aeneas Internet and Telephone. “For years we have worked with Southwest Tennessee Electric on various projects bringing broadband service to rural communities around West Tennessee. The need for broadband is growing rapidly, and in today’s world we really do rely on it being available to all of us – not just those that live in or around the metro areas. Our founder Jonathan Harlan instilled in us a commitment to the communities we live in and the people we serve – to always have our customers and community our top priority. This is why he believed Southwest Tennessee Electric would be a perfect partner because we share cultures and beliefs. All of us here at Aeneas are excited to partner with Southwest Tennessee Electric to continue with Mr. Harlan’s legacy and help bring this much needed service to even more people in the communities we serve!”

About Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation

Based in Brownsville, Tennessee, Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation is a consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperative distributing power to 50,000 meters in parts of 11 West Tennessee counties. The cooperative powers nearly 50 communities of various sizes and maintains more than 4,000 miles of electric distribution lines. With offices in Haywood, Tipton, Madison, and Chester counties; STEMC has been community focused for almost 85 years.

About Aeneas Internet and Telephone

Headquartered in Jackson, Tennessee, Aeneas Internet and Telephone has been named to Entrepreneur magazine’s Hot 500 list of fastest growing businesses in the United States, as well as BusinessTN magazine’s Hot100 and Inc. Magazine’s Inc 5,000. Founded in 1995, Aeneas offers a myriad of services including gigabit fiber broadband, local and long distance, VoIP, office phone systems, commercial web hosting and corporate e-mail, network security, off-site file storage, data center services, managed networking, and more.

If you would like more information about Southwest Electric Membership Corporation, please call Billy Gordon at 731-585-0538, or email wgordon@stemc.com.

If you would like more information about Aeneas Internet and Telephone, please call Stephen Thorpe at 731-554-9200 or email sthorpe@corp.aeneas.com

State’s electric cooperatives gather in Nashville to explore the opportunities facing co-ops

NASHVILLE – The 78th annual meeting of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association was held Sunday, Nov. 24, through Tuesday, Nov. 26, in Nashville. Nearly 400 electric cooperative leaders from across the state attended the event where they discussed the significant impact co-ops have, challenged one another to meet the needs of their communities and learned more about emerging technology and power supply issues.

During an address to electric co-op leaders, Gov. Bill Lee commended co-ops for their service to rural Tennessee. “What you do is important to me, and it is critically important to Tennessee’s rural communities,” said Lee. “You bring not light but life to rural Tennessee.”

“Our co-ops are uniquely positioned to have a positive impact on the rural and suburban communities we serve,” says David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “From infrastructure to education to communications, co-ops invest more money in rural Tennessee than almost any other group. We know that these communities matter, and we have a vested interest in their success.”

Kevin Murphy, president of Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation in Brownsville, was elected president of the TECA board of trustees. Dave Cross, manager of Plateau Electric Cooperative in Onieda, was named vice president, and Steve Sanders, director for Gibson Electric Membership Corporation in Trenton, was named secretary.

Elections were also held for three positions on the association’s board of trustees. Keith Carnahan, CEO of Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative in Centerville; Albert Dicus, director from Caney Fork Electric in Madisonville; and Greg Williams, manager for Appalachain Electric Cooperative in new Market, were elected to four-year terms.

Mike Partin, CEO of South Pittsburg’s Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative, was also elected to serve as Tennessee’s representative on the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association board of directors.

“We congratulate those selected to serve in leadership positions,” says Callis. “We depend on our co-ops to provide guidance and counsel for the association, and we are grateful for their willingness to serve.”

The fifth annual TECA Top Tenn Communications Awards were presented during the event. Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative received an award for Best External Newsletter or Magazine Section; Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, Best Internal Newsletter; Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative, Best Website; Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, Best Use of Social Media; and Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation, Best Video. Duck River Electric Membership Corporation, Appalachian Electric Cooperative and Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative received Awards of Excellence in the Wild Card category, with Gibson Electric Membership Corporation, Duck River Electric Membership Corporation and Caney Fork Electric Cooperative earning Awards of Merit.

Four co-ops were presented with certifications from the Rural Electric Safety Achievement Program for 2019. Receiving certifications at this year’s event were Fort Loudoun Electric Cooperative, Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative, Tennessee Valley Electric Cooperative and Upper Cumberland Electric Membership Corporation.

“We believe that Tennesseans should not be constrained by where they choose to live, and we are committed to closing the gap between opportunities in places like Nashville and Chattanooga and the opportunities that exist in New Market, Centerville and hundreds of other rural and suburban communities,” says Callis. “The continued success of co-ops and the communities we serve depend on people choosing to live and raise their families here – not in spite of the limitations, but because of the abundant opportunities.”

November 6, 2019 – Centerville, TN As of October 23, Meriwether Lewis Connect, is live with installations in each of the nine cities it targeted for Phase I.  Connected residents in Waverly, Hohenwald, Centerville, Erin, Tennessee Ridge, New Johnsonville, Linden, Lobelville and now McEwen are streaming high-speed, affordable, reliable broadband from the Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative subsidiary.

The first MLConnect customer was connected in March 2019, just seven months after MLEC announced its plans to make high-speed, fiber broadband and phone services an option for all its members. Construction for Phase II is now underway in rural Humphreys County.

I am pleased to announce that the board of directors has approved Phase II of the project to get high speed, reliable fiber broadband to all our members,” says MLEC President and CEO Keith Carnahan. “It includes the rural areas of Humphreys and Houston counties and utilizes a Tennessee Economic and Community Development grant received for rural Humphreys County to bring broadband.  The grant is time sensitive, and we need to complete this part of the project in a timely fashion. Phase 2 will span 15 months, while evaluation and preparation for Phases III and IV are ongoing.”

Carnahan reiterated MLEC and MLConnect’s commitment to make fiber broadband an option for all MLEC members, noting that it will take time to build such an expansive, reliable network. He also shared that they are pursuing grants for additional areas in other counties and will know if the applications are successful in April 2020.

“It isn’t a matter of ‘if’ MLConnect will be an option for every MLEC member but ‘when’,” says Carnahan. “When MLEC announced its broadband project in August 2018, we shared our goal to complete construction in all five counties by the end of 2022, realistically installations will still be ongoing past that because we just can’t be everywhere at once. However, obtaining grants can help us with the timelines and economic impact of reaching our goal.”

Preparations for Phases III and IV are constantly being evaluated and will include the rural areas of Hickman, Lewis and Perry counties. Updates will be available at a later date.

For now, MLConnect encourages MLEC members without service to sign up at www.mlconnect.com.  There is no obligation, and it gives them a way to contact you when installations begin in your area.

The electric grid has led to dramatic changes in our way of life, and as society continues to change, so does our nation’s grid.

The smart grid is the modern-day version of the traditional grid that has evolved with more advanced technologies that allow for two-way communication between the electric utility and the consumer. With all of the progress from developing technologies, the smart grid provides many advantages for both utilities and consumers.

The smart grid is made up of a variety of technologies that collectively help to make the grid smarter. A key feature is the smart meter, which provides two-way communication between the energy provider and the consumer. Smart meters help detect power outages and automate billing, which helps to improve reliability and efficiency. The smart meter is connected to smart distribution systems, smart substations and smart generation capabilities, which all work together to create a smart grid.

As research and innovation continues, additional technologies are becoming available. Advancements like machine learning, where electric utilities can forecast energy use using past data and patterns, and total automation, where power generation to distribution is completely automated are just a couple of examples of how the grid will be more efficient.

The smart grid provides many benefits, and one of the most important is providing electricity in a more reliable way. With all the new technology, problems in the grid are much easier to prevent early on, easier to identify and easier to fix. The smart grid also helps utilities plan for the future to reduce the likelihood of power blackouts and surges.

Another benefit to the consumer is more access to information and new ways to control and manage their energy use. Consumers now have the ability to view their daily energy use online or via app before they receive their monthly bill, which can lead to better energy efficiency habits.

Another benefit is that the grid will be better equipped to handle demand response programs to manage the electricity load, which can ultimately save money for the utility and consumers. Having the ability to strategically manage the energy load will also help the grid to better integrate renewable energy into the system. Consumer-owned renewable energy generation systems, such as rooftop solar panels, are also more easily integrated into the grid.

Considering all the benefits, it makes sense for utilities to invest in smart grid technologies. By investing now, they will help to reduce costs over the long run while also providing more reliable service to the consumers they serve.

Over the next decade, utilities are expected to invest $110 billion in smart grid technologies, and this value is likely to grow as new technologies continue to be developed. Many electric cooperatives across the U.S. have started initiatives within their service territory to deploy smart meters and other advanced grid infrastructure. These advancements and trends will continue as improving grid reliability remains a priority for electric utilities.

Maria Kanevsky is a program analyst for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.

HALLS, TENN. – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Purdue presented the nation’s first ReConnect grant to Forked Deer Electric Cooperative today at an event in Halls, Tenn. The co-op will use the $2.8 million grant to build a fiber-to-the-home network and bring broadband to the electric co-op’s rural consumers.

The USDA’s Rural e-Connectivity loan and grant program, or ReConnect, was established to build modern broadband infrastructure in rural areas. The program was funded by an initial $600 million Congressional appropriation.

“There are a lot of advantages that electric co-ops have when it comes to broadband,” said Secretary Purdue while speaking at a grant ceremony today at Forked Deer Electric Cooperative in Halls. “You know your customers, you already have lines, you have an obligation to serve, and this fits right into your business model. I truly believe that broadband will bridge the rural/urban divide.”

“This is a big day for Forked Deer Electric Cooperative,” said the co-op’s CEO Jeff Newman. “High speed internet access is more than a convenience – it is absolutely necessary for education, healthcare and commerce. Our rural communities cannot be left behind. These funds will assist Forked Deer Electric Co-op in bringing modern connectivity to the communities we serve, and it is exciting to think of the impact that will have right here in Lauderdale County.”

“It is noteworthy that an electric co-op in Tennessee is the first recipient of a ReConnect grant,” says David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “Tennessee co-ops have demonstrated the ability to maximize state and federal funds. For every dollar of grant money received, Tennessee co-ops are investing $15 of their own money. This multiplier means that Tennessee electric co-ops are stretching grant funds further to have the greatest impact.”

NASHVILLE – More than 50 electric co-op leaders from Tennessee traveled to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 30, to talk with members of the Tennessee congressional delegation about issues important to the state’s rural and suburban communities.

During meetings with lawmakers, co-op leaders discussed energy, connectivity and other topics, including:

  • highlighting the need for rural and suburban America to be included in future infrastructure investments
  • supporting legislation that protects the tax exempt status of co-ops receiving income from infrastructure grants or FEMA reimbursements. An unintended consequence of the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act changes the way co-ops account for such income, placing tax exemption at risk in some cases and increasing costs for ratepayers.
  • TVA rates and ownership of transmission assets owned by TVA and the Power Marketing Administrations.

Lawmakers were also invited to visit their local co-ops to meet employees, attend annual meetings and tour co-op facilities.

“We bring co-op leaders to Washington, D.C., to build relationships,” said David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “We want lawmakers to know and trust us, and we want them to think about us as they make decisions. Visits like this provide us with a valuable opportunity to educate lawmakers about co-ops and our communities.”

Photos from the event are available online.

Senator Todd Gardenhire (R – Chattanooga) has successfully moved Senate Bill 481 though the Senate. It passed by a vote of 27-5 on March 18. This legislation includes utility workers among other first responders and will subject offenders that commit assault against them to enhanced penalties.

The bill has also been approved by the House of Representatives. In a rare show of bi-partisan sponsorship in this General Assembly, Representative Darren Jernigan (D – Nashville) successfully shepherded the legislation with minimal opposition. Only Governor Lee’s signature remains for this change to become law.

“Linemen and other utility workers should certainly be counted among first responders in the communities they serve,” says Mike Knotts, vice president of government affairs for TECA. “This legislation shows the support that these community heroes have from their co-ops and from state lawmakers.”

The pace of activity in the 2019 General Assembly has peaked as many Committees have closed and bills are moving quickly toward the House and Senate floors. The focus of the legislature is shifting to formation of the state’s budget, and TECA will be working diligently to see that budget priorities that benefit electric co-ops are heard by the Finance committees.

Chief among them is funding of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant Fund for which Governor Lee has proposed $20 million of new funds. In 2018, the Legislature increased Governor Haslam’s request by 50% in the final budget ($10 million proposed, $15 million funded). Key members of the Finance Committees have expressed interest in a similar increase for 2019, but additional funding is by no means assured.

TECA continues to track other important pieces of legislation moving through the 2019 General Assembly.

Increased Penalty for Illegal Drone Use

Senate Bill 306 by Senator Jon Lundberg (R – Bristol) and Representative Bud Hulsey (R – Kingsport) has been signed into law by Governor Bill Lee. 

This legislation increased the penalty to a Class E felony for operating a drone over a critical infrastructure facility without the consent of the owner. This makes a violation punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.

The law defines critical infrastructure facility to include “An electrical power generation system; electrical transmission system, either as a whole system or any individual component of the transmission system; or electrical distribution substation.”

It was previously a misdemeanor offense, which made enforcement of the violations a low priority of law enforcement. Should your cooperative feel the need to notify your local authorities of violations, you may now let the call center know that the crime is a felony and warrants dispatch of officers to investigate.

Cooperative Broadband Clarifications Passes House 81-8

Having already been passed by the Senate on a unanimous vote, House Bill 172 by Pat Marsh (R – Shelbyville) was considered by the House of Representatives on Monday, April 8. The bill clarifies elements of the Broadband Accessibility Act to encourage competition in co-op-served areas. After a brief discussion (Debate on the bill can be viewed here) the bill passed on a vote of 81–8.


NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Lee announced Monday that five electric co-ops in Tennessee will receive more than $6.2 million in broadband accessibility grants. Electric co-ops received nearly half of $14.8 million in state grants awarded by the state.

“Rural and suburban Tennessee cannot grow and prosper without access to reliable, high-speed connectivity,” says David Callis, executive vice president and general manager for the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “Tennessee’s electric co-ops are responding to this need and making significant investments to bring this service to the homes and businesses they serve. The state’s broadband accessibility grant program speeds the process of expanding high-speed internet to communities that have no other options.”

“I am pleased to announce that we are getting our rural areas up to speed and expanding broadband in the areas that need it most,” said Lee. “I am committed to ensuring connectivity in every corner of our state as broadband impacts our goals for health care, education, economic development and beyond.”

According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, nearly one in four rural Tennesseans lack access to broadband. In addition to the $20 million included in Gov. Lee’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2020, these grants will continue to close the access gap ensuring rural Tennesseans have the tools needed for growth and prosperity.

The six Tennessee co-ops receiving a total of $6,296,177.61 in this round of state grants include:

  • Appalachian Electric Cooperative: $1,739,581 serving parts of Jefferson and Grainger Counties
  • Gibson Electric Membership Corporation: $588,974 serving the Gadsden Community in Crockett County and part of Gibson County
  • Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative: $1,832,728.16 serving part of Humphreys County
  • Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative: $817,406 serving the Griffith Creek community in Marion County
  • Volunteer Energy Cooperative: $1,317,488.45 serving the Spring Creek community in McMinn County

Learn more about electric co-op broadband in Tennessee on our Co-op Broadband page.

MLConnect making progress in project to service MLEC counties

Centerville, TN —  Ultra-fast, affordable, reliable broadband is getting closer for those receiving electricity from Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative.  The utility’s wholly-owned subsidiary, Meriwether Lewis Connect, LLC is preparing to serve its first customers.

Residents in and around the city of Waverly will be hearing from MLConnect by the end of March about firming orders and scheduling installations.

“We’re testing and working on processes to put our best technology and customer-care foot forward. We’re more interested in doing it right than hitting a deadline, so we aren’t announcing a live date at this time,” says MLEC President and CEO Keith Carnahan. “I can tell you this, though, it is exciting to be this close.”

Construction on the $60 million project began in Waverly in October 2018 and expects to be live with broadband and phone for all MLEC members by late 2022.  MLConnect’s Phase I includes more than 300 miles of main line fiber and helps secure a robust infrastructure is in place to serve the rural areas. 

Currently, construction continues in Hohenwald for a potential “go live” date in April.  By early March, construction crews will also be working in Centerville.  New Johnsonville, Erin, Tennessee Ridge, McEwen, Linden and Lobelville (in this order) are on schedule for service by the end of 2019.

When designing Phase II, construction costs, existing infrastructure, time constraints, etc. will be considered when selecting areas. Another factor is the amount of interest in each neighborhood (number of online registrations). This is why registering on www.mlconnect.com or at your local MLEC office is so important.

“Just as electricity did in 1939, MLConnect offering GIG services in our rural hometowns will bring unprecedented potential for education, healthcare, economic development and more,” says Carnahan.  “It’s proof you don’t have to live in a big city to be progressive.  MLConnect will offer world class broadband with hometown service, and we’re proud of that.”

To learn more, visit www.mlconnect.com or email customercare@mlconnect.com.

Gov. Bill Lee

NASHVILLE – On Wednesday, Gov. Bill Lee, in his first executive order, instructed all state agencies to examine and improve the way they serve Tennessee’s rural communities. The order emphasizes the need to coordinate efforts to better serve the state’s rural and economically disadvantaged counties.

In response to the executive order, David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, made the following statement:

“Tennessee’s rural and suburban communities matter. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s population – some 2.4 million people – call rural Tennessee home, and these residents account for nearly 30 percent of personal incomes for the state. The contributions these families make to the overall success of Tennessee are significant. A healthy and vibrant rural economy is critical to the state’s overall growth and prosperity. Electric co-ops have deep roots in these communities, and we support the governor’s focus on issues that impact rural Tennessee.”

According to a release from the governor’s office, the executive order is the first step by the administration to accelerate plans to address 15 distressed counties, which are all rural. The order requires each executive department to submit, no later than May 31, 2019, a statement of rural impact explaining how the department serves rural Tennesseans. Departments must then provide recommendations for improving that service by June 30, 2019.

Tennessee’s electric cooperatives serve 71 percent of the state and more than 2.5 million consumers. The Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association provides leadership, advocacy and support for Tennessee’s 23 electric cooperatives. The association also publishes The Tennessee Magazine, the state’s most widely circulated periodical. Visit tnelectric.org or tnmagazine.org to learn more.

Last week, the 111th General Assembly of the state of Tennessee began its two-year session, and operative word for all Capitol-watchers is “new.” With so many first time members of the Legislature who are still learning about the legislative process and how best to represent their districts, Tennessee’s electric co-ops have work to do.

The upcoming TECA legislative conference, day on the hill, and legislative reception offer co-op Boards and staff a great opportunity to interact with legislators, both new and old, and engage in important public policy discussions. If your cooperative has not yet registered to attend, please do so. We look forward to seeing you there.

TECA’s public policy partner is the law firm of Bass, Berry, and Sims. They recently published a helpful and concise overview of the beginning of this General Assembly.

With the new session comes change not seen in Tennessee government in recent history, as over 30 new lawmakers were sworn in on the first day. Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) was again elected as Speaker of the Senate, and Glen Casada (R-Franklin) was elected to replace outgoing House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville). Harwell served as Speaker of the House for eight years.

Governor-elect Bill Lee (R-Franklin) will be sworn in on January 19, 2019. Lee’s first major task of the start of his first year will be to finalize his commissioner appointments and present his budget. Lee is expected to give his first State of the State address and release his budget on March 4, 2019.

Tennessee House Committee Updates

As Lee begins his work he will be working with all new leadership in the House. In addition to the new Speaker, Majority Leader and Caucus Leader, the House has brand new committees and committee chairs. There is sure to be an extended learning curve this session with so many new legislators and committee chairs. The list of committees and committee chairs for the House can be found here.

Tennessee Senate Committee Updates

In the Senate, there were fewer changes. No new committees were created in the Senate, but there are five new chairs of committees. The list of committees and committee chairs for the Senate can be found here.

After the inauguration, the Senate will take an additional week to organize before returning to business on January 28, 2019. The House will return sooner to resume its business on January 23, 2019. The bill filing deadline will be the first week of February. House members will continue to have 15 bills unless they chair a committee. In that instance, a chairman will have an additional five bills that must be related to the subject matter of his or her committee.

111th General Assembly App

General Assembly App

The 111th Tennessee General Assembly app features a continually updated, searchable database of contact, staff and committee information as well as district maps, photos, leadership roles and social media profiles for members of the Tennessee House and Senate. The app also contains information on the governor and his cabinet and the Tennessee congressional delegation. The app was developed through a partnership between the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association and Bass, Berry & Sims PLC.

The free app is available for iPhone, iPad and Android devices and can be found by searching for “Tennessee General Assembly” in the Apple App Store or Google PLAY Marketplace.

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association submitted feedback regarding the Rural Utilities Service’s e-Connectivity Pilot Program during a comment period provided by the RUS.

The e-Connectivity Pilot Program was was made possible by a $600 million appropriation from Congress in the Consolidated Budget Act of 2018. The USDA is working to create new funding and finance offerings through this pilot program to expand rural broadband in underserved rural and tribal areas.

Comments made by TECA to the RUS highlighted the successes of Tennessee’s electric co-ops in broadband and the need for additional funding to speed deployment. TECA affirmed comments made by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and requested consideration of seven additional suggestions:

  • Projects that achieve universal service inside a provider’s service territory should be incentivized over similar projects that leave significant gaps in coverage between communities
  • Projects that leverage additional investment in broadband infrastructure beyond the receipt of a grant itself should be incentivized over a similar project(s) that rely solely upon the program itself for its existence
  • Allow applicant(s) an opportunity to rebut any challenges of eligibility by third parties
  • Allow flexibility to award funds to any party participating in a partnership or other project that involves multiple eligible parties
  • Allow grants to be payable in multiple awards, rather than a single payment, if so desired by the recipient
  • Allow a small percentage of grants to be usable for start-up expenses of subsidiary entities
  • Provide loan products inside the pilot program at an interest rate below what is otherwise available by existing RUS programs, including FFB loans, or other more advantageous terms.

“We believe that the RUS’s e-Connectivity Pilot Program has the potential to have a meaningful impact on the expansion of broadband in rural Tennessee,” says Mike Knotts, vice president of government affairs with the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association. “We appreciate Secretary Purdue and the team at RUS for considering the input of Tennessee’s electric cooperatives.”

You can read TECA’s full comments below.

[pdf-embedder url=”https://www.tnelectric.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/TECA-RUS-e-Connectivity-Comments.pdf” title=”TECA RUS e-Connectivity Comments”]