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New Mexico Broadband & Smart Grid Summit Working to Overcome Digital Divide and Harness Broadband Technologies

Earlier today at the New Mexico Broadband and Smart Grid Summit in Moriarty, I had the opportunity to tell policymakers, issue experts and industry leaders about Rural Utilities programs (RUS) that are contributing to creating economic opportunity and increasing energy independence through broadband and smart grid deployment.  

Others speaking at the event included: National Telecommunications and Information Administration Deputy Administrator Anna Gomez, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, and Federal Smart Grid Task Force Director Eric Lightner.   Together and with participants at the event, we opened a dialogue to help inform on future policy decisions regarding these important issues and the challenges we face in meeting them.

Here are comments I shared about RUS’s efforts to help rural electric systems maintain & upgrade transmission facilities, enhance reliability, and fund renewable energy projects. 

Our current Electric Loan portfolio is roughly $40 billion and growing.  In FY 2009, the electric programs approved 209 loans and loan guarantees totaling almost $6.6 billion.  Of this amount, we approved 173 distribution loans totaling over $3.7 billion and 24 generation and transmission loans totaling almost $2.8 billion. 

RUS is also the primary lender to the nation’s electric cooperative systems and has funded over $132 million in Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) installations throughout the rural cooperative community.  Our rural electric cooperatives own and maintain 42 percent of the nation’s distribution infrastructure.  And co-ops’ advanced metering penetration increased from 3.8 percent in 2006 to 16.4 percent in 2008. 

Half of the co-ops installed some AMI on their systems, and 30 percent of coops have begun to integrate their AMI with other systems on the grid.  So we are moving forward at a steady pace. 

RUS wants to work with all rural cooperatives and utilities to modernize our electric grid / improve energy efficiency / and spur the growth of renewable energy. 

And RUS is ready and able to provide loan funds to eligible borrowers for purchasing and integrating smart grid equipment into their existing utility plant.

RUS loan funds are eligible to be used as the cooperative’s required 50 percent cost share to the US Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Grants – which are Recovery Act funds.  RUS funds can also be highly leveraged with other funding sources to stimulate investment and accelerate deployment of smart grid systems.  We are currently working with grant awardees that are eligible for RUS loan funds.

Smart Grid applications that will benefit rural ratepayers include:

  • Time sensitive pricing and monitoring in-home energy usage in low income, rural areas
  • Self healing distribution systems in storm and flood prone regions
  • Demand response and automated meter reading to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

In an effort to harmonize with other federal government agencies, RUS participates on the Smart Grid Federal Task Force with DOE.  In addition, RUS staff also actively participates with numerous other groups that include National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Treasury, International Trade Administration, and our friends at NTIA.

In addition, RUS monitors the standards making process in the NIST Smart Grid Interoperability Standards Project to ensure that the resulting standards are relevant to the electric systems owned and operated by our borrowers.  And smart grid related materials and equipment that rural electric cooperative borrowers propose to use in upgrading their power grids are reviewed and evaluated by RUS.

Smart technology will have implications for our Water and Environmental Program as well.  We’re receiving inquiries from rural water system operators who want to upgrade their systems to be more energy efficient and lower their operating costs.  And of course, markets are emerging for more water efficient technologies, as consumers grow more aware of their water consumption. 

It’s imperative that we meet our future electricity needs, and bring sustainable jobs to rural communities.  The U.S. faces stiff competition in the global energy market. 

We need more clean energy industries to be based in rural America.  These jobs will keep our young people in the towns they grew up in; they’ll keep dollars circulating in rural communities; and they’ll give our rural residents the brighter, cleaner future they deserve.

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