Great Lakes Energy receives more than $200 million loan from USDA for electric infrastructure

Great Lakes Energy linemen work on lines during a winter storm.
Great Lakes Energy linemen work on lines during a winter storm.

NORTHERN MICHIGAN — The United States Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it will be investing $2.7 billion into expanding and modernizing the U.S. electric grid and increasing the grid’s security through the department’s Electric Loan Program.

One of the 64 electric cooperatives and utilities to receive funding is Great Lakes Energy Cooperative, which is based in Boyne City. Great Lakes Energy will receive a $262,796,000, 35-year, fixed interest loan, which will go towards building and improving 438 miles of power lines and installing 2,420 miles of fiber backbone.

Great Lakes Energy serves 26 counties in western and northern Michigan including Emmet, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Otsego, Ottawa and Allegan counties. The cooperative serves around 128,232 customers and has over 4,649 miles of power line.

The investment is primarily aimed at building and improving infrastructure in rural areas that have struggled to keep up with advancing technology. It will strengthen electric infrastructure for more reliable power sources and improve access to high speed, broadband internet.

“The president has been pretty clear that in order to strengthen our economy, we have to build a middle class from the bottom up. One way of doing that is by improving infrastructure that services America, particularly in rural areas,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said.

“Key to all of this, to any economic opportunity that could be developed in rural America, is reliable and efficient utilities. And so we have had a strong relationship with rural electric cooperatives for many, many years to help build a reliable and predictable electricity system that provides power. And over time, we've seen the rural cooperatives extend and expand their reach to include also offering fiber optic high speed internet.”

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Particular emphasis is being placed on smart grid technology which connects the supply and demand for electric power so it communicates through the internet, according to Vilsack. This will improve the security of the system, improve access and allow customers to see when it is most expensive to use electricity so they can save on their utility bill.

“This is a project that's improving utilities, electric utilities, and is utilizing new technology to make those utilities more efficient. As an additional benefit, it's providing the opportunity for broadband access to be expanded,” Vilsack said.

Northern Michigan’s rural areas have lagged behind the southern part of the state for years when it comes to broadband and electric infrastructure, but this issue became strained even more in 2020 after COVID-19 required students and many employees to work from home. With remote work as an option, many people came to Northern Michigan for trips more frequently and even moved to the area permanently. This influx of remote workers led to further stress on the system.

As Northern Michigan continues to try and expand its seasonal economy to one that is more year-round, it is also trying to attract businesses and workers to make Northern Michigan their home. Strong utilities are essential to businesses and daily life, so improving the power grid is vital for expanding the economy.

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“You, as a business owner, can make the decision to locate your business or expand your business because you know you're going to have reliable, secure power at an affordable cost,” Vilsack said.

In addition to improving access to power for businesses and individuals, the various projects that will be funded by the loan will provide temporary and long-term jobs.

Details of where the projects will be located, when they will start and when Northern Michiganders can expect to see a change has not yet been released by Great Lakes Energy, but information will be shared as the cooperative solidifies its plans, now that it has the funding. The terms of the loan do require borrowers to begin using the funds within four years.

— Contact reporter Tess Ware at Follow her on Twitter at @Tess_Petoskey.

This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Great Lakes Energy receives loan from USDA for electric infrastructure