Cass County Electric Cooperative members should be the ultimate decision-makers. Right now we aren’t.

by Sonja Kaye

Recent events make it clear that Minnkota Power Cooperative and Cass County Electric Cooperative revere The Seven Cooperative Principles in word only; we have lost sight on what it means to truly implement the Principles.

The Seven Cooperative Principles are highly revered philosophy, dating back to 1844, that delineates the nature of a cooperative and informs cooperative directors on the best practice of running the cooperative. These principles are so important to the bedrock of cooperative operations that a copy of these principles is included in the Director Election Information Packet given to each candidate running for board. Board elections are a cornerstone of cooperatives, outlined by the Seven Principles, that allow members to run their cooperative through representatives that work on the members’ behalf.

According to the Seven Principles, members are also the ultimate authority when implementing substantive new policies or projects.

Minnkota Power Cooperative, a cooperative of 11 distribution cooperatives including Cass County Electric, has been studying a huge project over the past few years in cooperation with the Lignite Energy Council, coal suppliers like BNI Coal, and governmental entities like the North Dakota Industrial Commission. It’s called Project Tundra.

You can go to the Energy & Environmental Research Center website to see all the sponsors. You can, also, go to the Lignite Energy Council’s website to pull up videos of the Minnkota CEO discussing Project Tundra with the executive director of Western Dakota Energy Association, which is an organization dedicated to oil and coal-producing entities.

Photo of Sonja Kaye
Sonja Kaye is running for a seat on the Cass County Electric Cooperative Board of Directors.

Allowing special interest groups, like the ones listed above, to influence the decision-making process undermines the cooperative business model. This influence from outside entities on Minnkota’s decision making process is deeply troubling and is a threat to Minnkota’s financial future.

Project Tundra is yet another decision, in a long string of decisions by Minnkota, to invest in coal assets at the expense of both diversifying its portfolio and adding more flexible sources of generation. Coal- fired power remains the cooperative’s only fully dispatchable power source.

Minnkota pitches Project Tundra as the “savior” of reliable power and the key to its global success. However, California has proven that coal is largely irrelevant in today’s reliable grid, as that state produces less than 1 percent of its power from coal and experiences fewer power outages per capita than North Dakota. As far as global success is concerned, Minnkota’s mission is to serve its members in North Dakota and Minnesota, not the global market. It appears that no time or consideration was given to other investment options prior to the decision to proceed with Project Tundra.

That’s very troubling considering how Tundra falls short on any number of measures, be it cost, opportunity cost, carbon footprint, flexibility or reliability.

Unfortunately, members do not have access to comprehensive information on all options and do not have an opportunity to engage in making challenging business decisions such as the decisions about Project Tundra. In doing so, the cooperative is denying members their right to democratic control. Members do not even have access to communication with the board of directors. Furthermore, I know of three members, including myself, who tried to communicate with board members but were met with unwillingness by these board members to enter discussions regarding the direction of the cooperative. Lively debate and accountability to members are hallmarks of the Seven Principles. Yet, members are neither privy to board meeting agendas, nor are they invited to board meetings to provide input. Monthly cooperative newsletters are filled with information designed to sell members on the idea of Project Tundra with no opposing viewpoints.

The third Cooperative Principle outlines members’ rights to democratically control the capital of their cooperatives, and their responsibility to choose sustainable and practical projects that optimize the benefits from cooperative decisions for current and future stakeholders. Yet, Minnkota representatives speak on behalf of the coal industry rather than the cooperative’s members.

My vision is to increase member involvement and to stop the prioritization of special interests over the interests of our members. Our assets need to be functionally relevant in today’s electricity market. Only functionally relevant assets will truly benefit members.  

I am running for a board position to address these issues and I hope other members will be compelled to do the same next year. It will take many voices to make significant changes.

Let’s recapture the spirit of cooperatives together. Vote Sonja Kaye for district five.

If you would like to vote absentee, click here to request a ballot, then vote by mail in time to have your ballot arrive by June 18, 2021. You can also attend the 2021 Annual Meeting and cast your ballot there. For information about how to register, contact Cass County Electric Executive Assistant Karen Egeberg at 701-356-4405 or kegeberg@kwh.com. The annual meeting will be Thursday, June 24, 2021, beginning at 5 p.m. at Delta Hotels by Marriott, 42nd 42nd Street SW, Fargo, N.D.

For more information about me and my candidacy, please visit my Facebook page. If you have any questions, please contact me at kayesonja@gmail.com.

© 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.

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