In mid-August, MiEnergy Cooperative welcomed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to its headquarters in Rushford, Minnesota, for “Co-op Innovation Day.” Several Minnesota electric cooperatives presented how they innovate to keep electric service affordable and reliable for their members.
Innovation is part of the rural electric cooperative DNA. Farmers and other rural leaders innovated to form rural electric coops in the 1930s and 40s to provide themselves electric service when no one else would. Minnesota electric cooperatives average about 6 or 7 members per mile of distribution line, whereas investor-owned and municipal utilities serve much more densely populated areas, averaging almost 35 customers per mile. An electric co-op has to spread its fixed costs over far fewer customers, creating a highly cost-conscious culture. This business model naturally breeds innovation through member governance and necessary resourcefulness.
The Minnesota PUC began “Co-op Innovation Day” with a tour of the MiEnergy facilities and a welcome by Rep. Gene Pelowski, one of MREA’s Legislators of the Year for 2022. Then Minnesota PUC Vice Chair Joe Sullivan called the meeting to order.¹
DeeAnne Norris, the CEO of Renville-Sibley Electric Cooperative in Danube, Minnesota―the smallest co-op in Minnesota―started the day off with an inspiring presentation and video about a project she partnered with Gabe Chan of the Electric Coop Innovation Center at the University of Minnesota. Norris and Chan understand the importance of teaching the next generation about the electric cooperative non-profit business model in the context of historic industry change. After a few weeks of classroom instruction, they took several graduate students on a hands-on tour of electric cooperatives in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota.
Norris emphasized the need for more partnerships between universities and cooperatives, tying this kind of partnership back to the early success of rural electrification in the 1930s.
Following Norris, the commissioners heard from Joyce Peppin, Dairyland Power’s General Counsel. Peppin discussed Dairyland Power’s exploration of the potential for advanced nuclear technology to help maintain a reliable, affordable wholesale power supply in a decarbonizing economy.
Peppin shared details of Dairyland’s work with NuScale Power to evaluate NuScale’s small modular reactor technology that can provide clean, dispatchable, flexible baseload power at a potentially affordable cost.
Next, Brian Krambeer, the CEO of MiEnergy Coop, discussed how his cooperative is driving innovation for his members through partnerships and pilots for electric vehicles, residential battery storage, broadband, home security, distributed solar and more. MiEnergy serves members in Minnesota and Iowa, has a density of less than 4 members per mile, and has the highest penetration of distributed solar in the state. MiEnergy’s experience is a telling example of co-op innovation and the fact that Minnesota electric cooperatives are, in many cases, leading the power sector’s ongoing transformation for the benefit of their members.
Ryan Hentges, the CEO of the Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative in Jordan, MN, shared how MVEC drives value to its members through the sophisticated use of the data from their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems. MVEC uses AMI data in conjunction with data systems and innovative programs to create an ecosystem of innovation that helps ensure highly reliable and cost-effective service to their members. Ryan also emphasized the critical importance of protecting the confidentiality of this sensitive member data. Ryan’s presentation underscored the fact that Minnesota’s rural co-ops are generally far ahead of IOUs in using AMI to benefit their members.
The Commission then heard from Tim Sullivan, the CEO of Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative in Rockford, MN. Tim talked about the importance of beneficial electrification and the work they are doing to pull out all the stops to electrify more of the economy in their area. As electric supply gets cleaner and less expensive than other fuels, using electricity instead of those other fuels drives down emissions and saves members money. Tim also talked about the costs and frustration caused by congestion on the high-voltage transmission network, and asked the MN PUC to stay focused on reliability and share the challenge of the further build-out of transmission in the state.
Electric cooperatives belong to the communities they serve. This localized member-ownership structure not only ensures cooperative decision-making is in the community’s best interest, but also inspires innovation to maintain affordability in the transition to clean energy. We appreciate the time and engagement of the commissioners and cooperative staff and look forward to future opportunities to engage on the vitality of Minnesota’s rural economies.
¹Commissioner Sullivan is well versed in this subject. He was the chief author of a 2017 whitepaper titled “Minnesota Electric Cooperatives: Laboratories of Utility Innovation” when he worked at the Center for Energy and Environment.