We are just beginning the construction season, and we are hopeful there will be growth in our service area. As in previous years, the best hope for growth is in and around the City of Grand Forks. We have been fortunate that at least some of the expansion of the City has occurred in our service territory. This growth has resulted in our consumer base increasing slightly each year.
Unfortunately, the small area around Grand Forks is the only part of our large geographic service area that consistently provides new electrical services. The vast majority of our service area is rural and has been declining in population. There has been a long and steady migration of people from the rural areas to the four or five larger cities in North Dakota. On the bright side, some of these people who leave the farm and move to town account for the growth we enjoy around Grand Forks. It is more likely, however, we will deliver electricity to their children and grandchildren who find jobs in Grand Forks rather than stay on the farm.
An issue confronting us is what to do with the idle electric services when people move from the farm and disconnect service. Early this spring, we counted the number of idle and inactive service locations and found we have nearly 1,400 such accounts. These are locations where we have installed equipment, but no power is being purchased. Certainly, some of these inactive accounts are temporary, and it is obvious someone will be reconnecting the account in the near term. The majority, however, have no certainty. They are embedded in areas of the region that have been declining in population for decades. While occasionally, a new home or business develops at one of these sites, it is more likely power will never be needed there again.
In many cases, vacant accounts have service availability through overhead lines that are deteriorating and need maintenance. In some cases, these lines are sitting in recently-created sloughs. In other cases, the poles and lines go across fields, which are an inconvenience to an adjacent landowner. Regardless of the situation, we have hundreds of miles of lines serving no active accounts, but still create expense and inconvenience for others.
In response to the increasing number of idle services, we have begun to charge an annual availability fee for the property owner if they want us to leave the service intact. If they do not wish to pay a modest fee for us to leave the line intact, we will schedule the line for removal. This leaves the decision as to the potential for future years in the hands of the property owner. The service availability fee is relatively small. If it is not worth a small investment to the property owner to keep the line in place, we don’t believe the other cooperative members should be burdened with maintaining these facilities.
The issue of idle services is one of many challenges in providing quality electric service in rural North Dakota. It is one of the reasons electric service is not as low cost in our rural area as in a densely populated urban area. Not everyone is happy when we “force the issue” with inactive services. However, it is a businesslike approach we think is necessary if we are going to continue to have affordable electric rates in rural North Dakota.