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​​Electric co-ops have been finding ways to work together since Day 1, with shared personnel, combined services, co-ownership of equipment, purchasing partnerships, mutual aid. Even as the first co-ops were being organized in the late 1930s, the federal Rural Electrification Administration was helping groups of farmers join forces with their counterparts in neighboring counties to create more robust utilities that had a better chance of surviving.

Come forward to 2005 and two distribution systems in North Dakota whose lines crisscrossed 14,625 square miles in the eastern part of the state had formed a unique alliance structured so they shared everything from general managers to bucket trucks.

“What we’re doing here is structuring a co-op for the next generation,” Jay Jacobsen, one of the co-general managers, said in the spring of 2006. “And that means serving fewer and fewer co-op members per mile of line because the state is losing population.

Having seen some business alliances fail for lack of a formal structure for sharing resources, Jacobsen of Dakota Valley Electric Cooperative in Edgely, and his counterpart Lowell Stave of Northern Plains Electric Cooperative in Cando, pushed their boards of directors to form a limited liability company, Cooperative Alliance Management LLC. Two directors from each co-op oversaw it.

“It developed into one of the best fits for our culture here in the Dakotas,” said Stave. The co-ops shared services while maintaining their identities as separate business that the members’ “fathers and grandfathers and they, themselves, have helped form and grow,” he added.

The managers of the engineering, operations, member services and IT departments were overseeing the work of employees at both co-ops, while the business accounts and business development departments remained separate.

The two co-ops shared specialized equipment, and were exploring combining document storage. Lineworkers from each co-op were being trained on the equipment.

This proved its value when Dakota Valley Electric was pummeled by an ice storm on November 27, 2005, a Sunday. The next morning, crews from Northern Plains Electric were out rebuilding lines and transformers incased in five inches of ice, leaving 15,000 consumers without power.

“This was a good feeling for us,” Stave says, referring to the mutual aid effort.

Soon after the storm, Dakota Valley Electric received a bill from Northern Plains Electric every bucket truck and hour of a lineworkers' time had a defined value in the shared resources agreement between the two utilities.

For some employees there were dramatic changes in work routines. Joint Operations Manager Craig Rysavy, for example, was responsible for 11,597 miles of line and 56 substations spread across 14 counties. The 52 employees under him were based in 16 different locations.

He faced more weekly windshield time than ever before in his career – 800 miles in one two-day period. Like his bosses, Jacobsen and Stave, he found communication to be the key.

Weekly work plans helped him coordinate the work of his crews, who got an email from him every morning. Throughout the day he used his BlackBerry to keep in touch.

He had a bigger workload but a simpler one: no longer was he responsible for engineering or load management. There was greater specialization among all department managers than before the alliance.

“There’s going to be a benefit to providing more of those specialized skills in these areas,” Jacobsen said.

It’s the difference between wearing six hats and three, Stave added.​