[image-caption title="University%20of%20Minnesota%20graduate%20students%20pose%20in%20a%20massive%20coal%20bucket%20during%20an%20electric%20cooperative%20tour%20sponsored%20by%20Renville-Sibley%20CPA%20and%20the%20university.%20(Photo%20courtesy%20Renville-Sibley%20CPA)" description="%20" image="%2Fremagazine%2Farticles%2FPublishingImages%2Frenville-sibley-thinkingbig-social.jpg" /]
The smallest electric cooperative in Minnesota is having an outsized impact in educating college students about the co-op business model and how power is generated and delivered for co-ops in the region.
Renville-Sibley Cooperative Power Association, a 1,586-member co-op with 13 full-time employees, worked with the University of Minnesota to organize a weeklong tour of distribution co-ops and generation and transmission co-ops in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota for graduate students pursuing master’s degrees in science, technology and environmental policy.
“These students are going to lead us into the future from a public policy and an environmental perspective,” says DeeAnne Norris, Renville-Sibley’s CEO. “It’s important that they understand there’s an obligation to keep energy reliable and affordable while trying to marry that up with renewable energy and sustainability.”
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The mid-May tour began at Renville-Sibley in Danube, Minnesota, with a discussion about broadband, solar energy and farming. It continued with stops at several facilities run by Basin Electric Power Cooperative, the North Dakota-based G&T owned by 131 member co-ops that provide electricity to 3 million people in nine states.
Other visits included Sioux Valley Energy, a distribution co-op in Colman, South Dakota, where students learned about electric vehicle charging and other kinds of beneficial electrification, and East River Electric in Madison, South Dakota, a G&T that supplies power to Renville-Sibley and 23 other co-ops in eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota. Students learned about East River’s load management, economic development programs and co-op relationships.
The tour wrapped up at Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, where students saw the co-op’s creative member-focused programs like wind and solar generation and hydroponic gardening trailers.
[image-caption title="Tour%20participants%20view%20one%20of%20nine%20pulverizers%20at%20Basin%20Electric%E2%80%99s%20Antelope%20Valley%20Station%20Unit%201%20near%20Beulah%2C%20North%20Dakota.%20The%20pulverizers%20crush%20lignite%20coal%20for%20combustion%20in%20the%20boiler.%20(Photo%20courtesy%20Renville-Sibley%20CPA)" description="%20" image="%2Fremagazine%2Farticles%2FPublishingImages%2FRenville-Sibley%20Cooperative-2.jpg" /]
“It’s important for the students to be able to get out there in the field to see the really big energy infrastructure,” says Gabriel Chan, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and co-director of the Electric Cooperative Innovation Center, a new initiative focused on research partnerships with co-ops. “You read about wind, hydro or coal plants, but being there is an entirely different experience.”
Chan had worked with Norris since before the COVID-19 pandemic to organize the tour and used the pandemic delay to create a semester-long graduate seminar called The Energy Transition in Rural America, which brought in guest speakers and included site visits to nearby cooperative facilities.
Sarah Komoroski, a mechanical engineer who is halfway through her master’s degree program, says she felt like “a kid in a candy shop” on the tour as she got up-close and personal with coal boiler, gas turbine and other infrastructure.
“I was just smiling the whole time,” says Komoroski, who describes her passions as climate change and the transition to renewable energy. “Everyone was so nice and so welcoming and so passionate about what they do.
“I think the biggest thing that struck me about co-ops is they’re so unique in terms of their governance structure,” she says. “They’re nonprofit, member-owned, and their goals and incentives are different than a traditional for-profit utility. They’re each tackling the challenges of affordability, reliability and sustainability in a slightly different way.”
Komoroski says she believes co-ops also have the advantage of having a special relationship with their members.
“Co-ops are uniquely positioned to build trust with their members during the energy transition,” she says. “That relationship is the exciting part to me.”
Norris and Chan say they hope to continue the weeklong tour every other year for students in the two-year master’s program. The professor says he would like to hear more from co-op consumer-members, and Norris says she would like to start it a day earlier.
“The students are in their 20s and 30s, but regardless of your age, that was a very taxing schedule,” says Norris, who went on the tour herself.
“It was an intense week,” Komoroski agrees. “We had about 15 stops in five days, with 26 hours of driving.”
Norris urges other co-ops across the country to connect with local universities or university extension offices and plan similar experiences that can raise awareness of energy systems in rural areas and how consumer-centric utilities like co-ops can lead the energy transition.
[image-caption title="Lake%20Region%20Electric%20Cooperative%20marketing%20specialist%20Candace%20Rastedt%20gave%20students%20a%20tour%20of%20LREC%E2%80%99s%20hydroponic%20growing%20facility.%20During%20the%20tour%2C%20students%20learned%20about%20the%20inner%20workings%20of%20the%20hydroponic%20farm%20and%20how%20LREC%20utilizes%20this%20pilot%20program%20to%20provide%20fresh%20produce%20for%20local%20residents.%20(Photo%20courtesy%20Renville-Sibley%20CPA)" description="%20" image="%2Fremagazine%2Farticles%2FPublishingImages%2FRenville-Sibley%20Cooperative-22.jpg" /]
“When I was planning this trip, there was a little skepticism by a few people we wanted to visit,” she says. “But if you don’t tell people what’s happening at your co-op, they’re going to come up with their own story about you, and often it’s not close to reality.
“This experience shows that when we open our doors, we can engage and collaborate with students who are excited about the cooperative business model, who are passionate about the Earth and her resources and are enthusiastic about learning and making a difference.”
Does your small or medium-sized co-op have an innovative program or unique solution to share? Send Thinking Big ideas to Erin Kelly at email@example.com.