Infrastructure bill represents significant opportunity to support public power

Infrastructure bill represents significant opportunity to support public power
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As Congress and the Biden administration close in on a deal to pass a significant investment in our nation’s infrastructure, the not-for-profit, community-owned electric utilities that power close to 2,000 towns and cities nationwide have a major stake in the contours of the final legislation. 

Public power utilities serve more than 49 million Americans, power 2.6 million businesses, and employ 96,000 people. For some context, the population of Canada is 37 million people.

As the voice of these utilities, the American Public Power Association (APPA) supports many of the provisions in H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, currently under consideration by the House of Representatives.

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Throughout the debate over this legislation, there has been widespread recognition that state and local governments often bear the primary responsibility for building and maintaining our nation’s critical infrastructure.

In no area is this responsibility more apparent than the responsibility of these local governments to provide safe, reliable power to their residents. Cities and towns own most public power utilities, but many are owned by counties, public utility districts, and even states.

With that perspective in mind, public power utilities are closely watching several provisions in the bill’s latest version. 

The bill includes significant investments in energy infrastructure, such as electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the transmission and distribution systems that make up our electric grids, cybersecurity, and federal research, development, and deployment of cutting-edge energy technology. Robust federal support remains critical as public power utilities continue to transition to cleaner energy resources while simultaneously keeping their rates affordable and ensuring reliable service for their customers.

As an example, APPA strongly supports the creation of a Department of Transportation grant program for entities, including public power utilities, to deploy alternative fuel vehicle infrastructure such as electric and hydrogen vehicle fueling stations. This funding, and grants to states for electric vehicle charging equipment, will help public power utilities as they support the specific transportation needs of their local communities.

Additionally, the bill funds essential programs to prevent outages and increase grid resiliency, deploy innovative smart grid technology, and add appropriations for the Weatherization Assistance Program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to assist low-income families with their energy costs.

These common-sense programs will help ensure millions of public power customers continue to receive safe, reliable power in the face of growing and varied challenges that can cause service disruptions. These challenges range from cyberattacks on critical infrastructure to extreme weather — both of which have made headlines this year.

With regards to cybersecurity, a reliable energy system is paramount. In partnership with the federal government, the electric utility industry has made strides in addressing cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities in recent years. But we must remain vigilant and redouble our efforts to keep pace with the changing grid and security threat landscape. This need is why APPA strongly supports the bill’s increase in funding for energy sector cybersecurity.

Of particular importance to APPA members is the bill’s requirement that the Secretary of Energy carry out a program to promote and advance the physical security and cybersecurity of electric utilities, prioritizing those with fewer resources. This provision builds on the existing successful public-private partnership between APPA and the Department of Energy (DOE) to bring greater resources, training, and cyber and physical security tools to small- and medium-sized electric utilities. By empowering the DOE, we can ensure that all appropriate resources keep our utilities and electricity infrastructure safe.

As public power utilities continue their efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, public power utilities appreciate that the infrastructure bill builds on the success of the Energy Act of 2020 to fund DOE research on a host of innovative technologies, including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, energy storage, advanced nuclear, and solar power. Maintaining and enhancing hydropower as a generating resource will also be critical to ensuring reliable power during this transition. APPA strongly supports the provisions of the bill that increase incentives for hydropower production and improvements.

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Public power utilities genuinely appreciate that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act recognizes the importance of energy infrastructure. It is no exaggeration to say that our energy infrastructure is the lifeblood of our economic and national security and is vital to the health and safety of all Americans.

We urge congressional and White House negotiators to continue to treat energy infrastructure as a front-burner issue in the infrastructure bill by supporting public power utilities in their mission to provide reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity to the American people.

Joy Ditto is president and CEO of the American Public Power Association.