Why I’m Running for the Cass County Electric Cooperative Board

I am running for the Cass County Electric Cooperative Board of Directors to introduce fresh perspectives, navigate the world of changing technology and find ways for members to benefit from the decreasing costs of clean, renewable electricity.

The election will be held at Cass County Electric’s annual meeting on June 24. Mail-in voting will begin about a month prior to that.

I am running because I am concerned by the direction my North Dakota cooperative is headed. Like a runaway train, it is accelerating quicker towards the cliffs of outdated thinking. Only fresh voices will stop this train.

Even though renewable energy is now less expensive than coal, the game plan of Cass County Electric’s electricity supplier, Minnkota Power Cooperative, has changed little over the past 50 years. Sure, Minnkota added a good chunk of wind in the 2000s, but its focus remains on burning the estimated remaining uneconomical, 800-year supply of coal left in North Dakota mines.

Minnkota is a wholesale cooperative with 11 distribution cooperatives that make up its membership, one of them being Cass County Electric. Cass County Electric sends one representative to the Board of Minnkota Power; ultimately, my goal is to sit on the Minnkota board, as well.

Photo of Sonja Kaye
Guest author Sonja Kaye is running for the Cass County Electric Board of Directors.

Fifty years ago it was a brilliant business decision for Minnkota to build coal plants next to mines. It eliminated transportation costs, which made electricity very inexpensive, especially considering Minnkota has never had to pay the cost of CO2 emissions. Unfortunately for Minnkota, those days have passed. It will be under increasing pressure not to operate assets that put CO2 into the air. Compounding Minnkota’s dilemma is the fact that the market is challenging them with other resources that are cheaper, namely solar, wind and natural gas.

More difficult still is the expense involved in switching game plans. It seems counterintuitive, after years of investment in coal plants, to suddenly scrap them.

It is comparable to spending thousands of dollars in repairs on your beloved first car that has 200,000 miles on it, then realizing the transmission is failing. It would be tempting to pay for a new engine, but would it be a good investment? Over the past two decades, Minnkota has traded its transmission lines to Minnesota power in exchange for Minnesota Power’s share in one of its coal plants and has spent a large sum installing scrubbing equipment to remove sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

Now Minnkota wants to invest in Project Tundra and its expensive, risky carbon capture equipment. There are many reasons carbon capture is a poor gamble compared to research, development and installation of renewable energy sources and infrastructure. If you’d like to discuss them, please drop me a line or leave me a note on my Facebook page.

Image representing Project Tundra carbon capture project
Project Tundra is a proposed carbon capture project to be located in Oliver County, N.D., near the coal-fired Milton R. Young Power Plant. Cass County Electric and Minnkota Power should be investing in renewable energy research, development and implementation, instead. Image from projecttundrand.com

Overall, I want to challenge old ways of thinking. The future grid is a dynamic place. We need flexible thinking as well as flexible resources. Renewable energy is the lowest cost electricity you can produce, so it is in our cooperative’s interest to maximize the amount of renewable electricity that we produce and consume.

Electricity must be consumed at the same time it is produced. Renewable electricity is intermittent, producing only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. When bursts of electricity are unexpected, our cooperative needs to consume as much of that renewable electricity as possible, either by increasing demand or curbing production elsewhere. Meanwhile, coal, Minnkota’s only dispatchable resource, is not capable of responding quickly to sudden changes. Coal plants are large mechanical monsters that rely on heating and cooling large quantities of water. They operate most efficiently when you keep them at a steady output.

Since scaling back production of coal fired output is not an option, Minnkota must find more demand for its electricity in the market. Unfortunately, it mostly sells at a times when prices are low, at a loss. In fact, Minnkota loses $8 million a year from selling electricity at a loss.

As a result, Minnkota is still heavily dependent on a demand-response program that requires industrial customers to turn on diesel-powered generators during peak hours of electricity usage. While this program is a back-up plan during emergency situations, I fear it is being used as a substitute for having a flexible resource in Minnkota’s mix, such as natural gas or battery storage.

Minnkota would benefit most from an energy storage facility. Storage facilities are expensive, so we might need to start small, but ultimately the payback would be worthwhile, and in the process Minnkota would gain meaningful experience operating a new resource. That experience will put the cooperative ahead of the game in the future.

Large-scale battery facilities are not the only option for storage. Water heaters act like a huge storage system, as well. Members need bigger incentives to utilize water heater demand response programs. Turning water heaters on mid-day would capture the solar power of Cass County Electric’s solar farm, instead of adding to morning peak electricity demand.

Cass County Electric could be incentivizing solar system and group storage partnerships with members, instead. A program like this would make the most economic sense working with coordinated new home construction in a new development. A coordinated effort would bring costs down for everyone. Additionally, I would like roof-top solar consumers to receive renewable energy credits for the electricity they produce, in the form of a monthly credit.

Further, I would like to see the flat fee at cooperative-owned electric vehicle charging stations removed for members using them or, perhaps, a member rate. Members would still pay for the electrons they put into the car, but members would benefit from the use of a member owned charging unit.

Cooperatives across the country are already implementing innovative ideas like these. We can improve the operation of our cooperative simply by studying the trials and errors of other cooperatives.

I recommend that Minnkota become a member in the stakeholder group of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which is the organization that operates the grid and electricity market in our region. A wholesale supplier like Minnkota cannot expect to be cutting-edge if it does not participate in conversations surrounding the grid future.

Minnkota will lose if it continues operating as an island. The grid is dynamic, and strength will come from our ability and preparation to fit into the larger system.

Fortunately, cooperatives are governed by theiur member-customers, like myself. That’s why I am claiming my leadership voice now, and if you’re a Cass County Electric Cooperative member, I humbly ask for your support and your vote.

IV Words wholeheartedly endorses Sonja Kaye
for a position on the Cass County Electric Cooperative Board of Directors.

© 2021, Sonja Kaye. Opinions expressed here are those of the author.

Sonja Kaye is a retired business owner and community activist. She lives in south Fargo with her husband and their two cats, and they have three young adult children. Her hobbies include gardening and studying power systems, including her own roof-top solar production.

Featured image by Peggy Sue Zinn via unsplash.

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