Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership
On June 30, Great River Energy announced that it planned to sell its Coal Creek Station power plant to Rainbow Energy, a North Dakota company. This plan contradicts Great River’s pledge, made a little over a year ago, to shut the coal plant down due to its high cost to consumers and substantial climate impact, in line with its broader promise to cut emissions.
Great River Energy had planned to switch over its generation to wind and other sources, saving consumers money and helping transition away from coal. Under the terms of the sale, the utility will be moving away from coal generation on paper. But it plans to simply buy the power back from Rainbow. The divestment from coal is a legal fiction – a rigged shell game. And while Rainbow claims that carbon capture and storage will mitigate the climate impact of the plant’s continued operation, that solution is unproven at best, as well as expensive for consumers, especially relative to ever-cheaper wind prices.
A lack of transparency
Great River is the second-largest utility in Minnesota in terms of power generation (after Xcel) and is the state’s largest not-for-profit power cooperative. The co-op is owned collectively by 28 smaller co-ops throughout the state and serves more than 700,000 consumer-members. Its decisions on power generation thus have an enormous impact, and are in theory accountable to those members – though this does not necessarily ensure transparency in Great River’s decisionmaking.
As MEP Member CURE has detailed, Minnesota’s electric co-ops are notorious for their lack of transparency. They provide little public information on energy generation, governance, or how members can exercise their ability to influence their co-op or run for the board of directors. And because Great River is a co-op of co-ops with these issues, it has several layers of insulation between its top decisionmaking and the interests of the Minnesotans who buy its electricity.
It appears that local politics and short-term gain have had a greater influence over this decision that Great River’s members. Coal Creek is the largest power plant in North Dakota, and local government officials in the area are opposed to the plant’s closure, going as far as to disrupt plans to increase wind production in McClean County where the plant is located in order to prop up the obsolete, expensive plant. Rather than work to break the impasse and protect consumers and the climate, Great River has taken a route that is easy for its leaders in the short term and harmful down the line, to the planet and to people living near Coal Creek.
Not a done deal
Great River and Rainbow have presented this sale as an inevitability, making it appear as if there is no way for its customers to dissent. But this is not the case – there is still time to stop the sale. If a sufficient number of its co-op members oppose the deal, Great River can be forced to live up to the promise it made last year to shut down Coal Creek. Connexus Energy, a co-op that serves parts of Central Minnesota and the Twin Cities Metro, already voted against it.
Among the largest and most influential co-op member of Great River is Dakota Electric Association, serving more than 100,000 customers in Dakota County. Dakota Electric will be holding a board meeting on July 29 at which it will consider the sale. If Dakota Electric’s Board chooses to join Connexus in opposing it, it will be a strong signal to Great River to reconsider.
Great River’s leadership doesn’t want its co-ops to vote against the decision to sell, and has made the process opaque and difficult to follow for consumers. The regulations and systems that govern electric co-ops largely favor this top-down model. But at the end of the day, the utility must still be accountable to its owner-members, and responsible for its impact on our climate and air quality.
How you can help
Use this action alert from our friends at MN350 to contact Great River Energy co-op leaders and ask them to stop the sale. It’s especially impactful if you are a member of one of Great River’s co-ops – contact Great River directly or reach out to your local co-op to express your opposition to the continued operation of Coal Creek Station. If not, reach out to people you know who may get their power from the utility. If enough like-minded consumers stand against this sale, this sale can still be stopped.