Driving The Dialogue On Grid Reliability

With grid challenges coming into focus, our local power leaders are working to chart a path forward. 

In the wake of devastating outage events over the past year – from a heatwave that crippled California’s electric grid to a February deep freeze that left Texas without power for days – leaders of Minnkota Power Cooperative (Nodak’s power provider) have been communicating the importance of grid reliability and resiliency with the nation’s top regulators and policymakers. As the electric utility sector navigates one of its most transformational periods, questions remain on how ambitious environmental goals may affect affordable and dependable service. 

“It is an exciting time for our industry, but it can also be daunting,” Mac McLennan, Minnkota president and CEO, told members of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy during a June 23 hearing. “We all want to push for it to be a better product – more reliable, more resilient, affordable for every household and as clean as possible. To reach these goals, we need to work together.” 

About 42% of Minnkota’s generation capacity comes from carbon-free sources such as wind and hydropower. Although Minnkota has added a significant amount of renewable energy, coal remains a critical resource to ensure reliability. 

North Dakota energy leaders, policymakers and regulators discussed lessons learned from recent national outage events during the Midwest Energy Summit on June 8 in Fargo, where McLennan participated in a panel focused on grid reliability. 

While North Dakota is looking for solutions to ensure its residents have 24/7 power, it is part of two multi-state grids where the decisions of other entities have enormous impacts. Minnkota participates in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) market, where renewables currently account for about 10% to 12% of the grid’s resources. MISO Executive Director of External Affairs Brian Tulloh said challenges begin to emerge as that percentage increases. 

“We begin to see, at above about 30% renewable energy penetration, significant stability issues in the grid,” Tulloh said, referencing MISO’s Renewable Integration Impact Assessment. 

Grid stability challenges quickly become an issue of public safety and security, North Dakota Public Service Commission Chair Julie Fedorchak said. “What I took away from the February event was if we don’t have power, our society quickly becomes pretty unmanageable,” she said. 

Minnkota also recognizes the need to make reductions in carbon dioxide (CO) emissions. The cooperative and its members are currently evaluating Project Tundra – an effort to install carbon capture technology at the coal-based Milton R. Young Station near Bismarck, N.D. 

Stacey Dahl, Minnkota senior manager of external affairs, provided an overview of Project Tundra during a June 3 meeting with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan. Regan said the Biden administration has a “positive viewpoint” of carbon capture technology. 

“There’s no doubt there’s huge potential,” he said of carbon capture during his visit. “And right here in North Dakota we’re seeing leadership.”

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An E-Bike For Everyone

Have you been curious about electric bicycles (or e-bikes) cruising around your community? If you’re wondering how they work or why you would even want one, you’re in good company – we’ve heard the same questions from our members. We decided to check in with the Grand Forks Scheels store to learn more about this newly trending technology. 

John Vojacek, Scheels service shop manager and e-bike expert, says his store has carried battery-powered bikes for more than six years. However, they’ve become more mainstream in the past year or so as people begin experiencing the wide range of benefits for every age and activity level. Vojacek loves hearing stories from customers whose lives have been enhanced by a little electric pedal assistance. 

“One gentleman who winters in Arizona, he would sit on his porch and every morning he’d watch a bike group go by – just a simple coffee ride,” he recounted. “He said there was no way he could keep up, but now with an e-bike, he can ride with that group down to the corner to get coffee. It’s exciting, on our side, to know that we can help folks fit in or keep up.” 

E-bikes have three levels of classification. Class 1 e-bikes give electric pedal assist only, with the motor simply amplifying the rider’s pedal power up to 20 mph. Class 2 e-bikes have the same 20-mph cutoff, but they are also allowed to have a throttle, allowing the motor to fully propel the rider forward. Class 3 are higher-performing e-bikes, with a drive system that will assist pedaling up to 28 mph. 

Scheels usually stocks Class 1 and Class 3 models, with prices ranging from around $1,500 for the Electra Townie Go up to $3,150 for the popular Verve 3 Trek. There are models on the market that are more expensive (some up to $7,000 or more), and there are also some that are less. However, Vojacek urges potential buyers to seek out a store with an e-bike-trained service staff (like Scheels) or a knowledgeable independent bike shop to ensure you are purchasing a safe and durable bike with a UL-listed battery. 

“E-bikes in Europe are huge, and have become one of the main ways people get around. That technology is now making its way over here, and they already have all of the kinks worked out. They’re super reliable and super easy to use,” he said. 

E-bike batteries can typically be charged from depleted to full power in three hours, giving 30-80 miles in assisted range, depending on performance setting. Some daily commuters (who arrive to work sweat-free) will plug in their bike or battery pack at their desk and have a full charge for the ride home. The effective range of the battery does decrease slightly in colder temperatures, but the batteries are water resistant for off-roading experiences that take a rider through puddles or rain. 

“If you’ve never ridden one before, come in and take one for a test ride. We always see guests with a ‘perma-grin’ when they get back, because they’re so much fun to ride,” Vojacek said, adding that they are a great way to work toward health goals. “It makes it enjoyable to get out and ride. If you enjoy the activity, you’re going to do it a lot more than if it’s a chore.” 

Our Scheels expert doesn’t yet have an e-bike at home – but he’ll soon be one of the many taking a seat. “I have two young boys that are into racing BMX right now. When they get into high school, there’s no way I’m going to be able to keep up with them on a bike, so an e-bike is going to be my jam,” he said with a chuckle.

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New Substation, New Level Of Service

Recently energized Berg substation elevates opportunities for Nodak Electric Cooperative

On April 16, several teams assembled at the Grand Forks site of Berg substation, the newest to be integrated into Minnkota Power Cooperative’s system of more than 255 substations across North Dakota and Minnesota, and the latest to join Nodak’s division of more than 50 distribution substations. After months of planning and construction, it was time to bring life to the lines and metal. 

The anticipation? Electrifying.

“Everybody wants it to be perfect,” said power delivery substation engineer Kara Laframboise as she and other power pros from Minnkota and Nodak performed their final checks. 

When power began to flow through Berg substation that day, it became the next link in a regional electric grid that rapidly has become more connected, intelligent and reliable – due in large part to the deployment of distribution automation (DA) technologies. 

“With distribution automation, it’s not your typical substation anymore,” said Blaine Rekken, Nodak Member/Energy Services manager. “Our members should know that we’re actively working to advance our substations. Berg is the newest with this technology, but we’re also working with Minnkota, our power provider, to retrofit many of the older ones.”

Distribution automation uses state-of-the-art telecommunications equipment to allow control center operators to access more grid information remotely. Operators can see an issue as it happens – such as low or high voltage, blown fuses, overloads, etc. – and then either resolve the problem themselves or send the correct crews to the site immediately. Before DA, the control center had to rely on the “guess and check” method of dispatching crews, which could lead to longer outage times.

“This technology is going to create a more reliable system and safer environment,” said Minnkota System Operations superintendent Reed Daws. “If we deem something is wrong in a sub, we can de-energize it while we wait for someone to get there, and they can go in safely and see what’s going on. Instead of losing high-investment equipment like transformers, we might be able to de-energize them and save them. In the end, it’s going to be very valuable, not only on the financial side, but also keeping people with safe, reliable power.”

“Minnkota is putting more DA into more substations to make them smarter,” Rekken said. “Our collective goal is to provide power, and to do it with the least amount of disruptions. This is one of the ways we’re doing it.”

The new Berg substation is not only a smart substation – it’s a necessary one. The sub is energized for extra capacity for a growing Grand Forks area, relieving pressure on the existing system. It will also add needed redundancy and the ability to move power from one substation to another in the event of an outage. That means minimal outage times for members.

“We’re continually seeking ways to increase reliability. Our members are always at the forefront of our minds,” Rekken said. “When we add new substations, our members usually don’t see that – along with all of those other innovative things that happen behind the scenes. But we want to celebrate those advancements, because they help us meet our mission of providing the highest-quality electric service.”

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Avoid Utility Scams

Scammers will threaten you with everything from shutting off your power to your home to legal action. Don’t fall victim to these types of scams. 

Our employees will never show up at your door to demand payment. Never give personal information to an unknown caller or visitor. Our representatives have access to the details they need to service your account. Demands for immediate payment by wire transfer, cryptocurrency, gift cards or cash reload cards should immediately raise red flags. 

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Energy Efficiency Tip Of The Month

During summer months, run large appliances that emit heat (like clothes dryers and dishwashers) during the evening when it’s cooler. This will minimize indoor heat during the day when outdoor temperatures are highest. 

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Investment In Reliability

At Nodak Electric, we have a fairly straightforward mission of providing our membership with affordable, reliable electricity that provides the best energy value in the region. While affordability is still paramount, as our society continues to modernize, the reliability component is becoming increasingly important. Every day, more of life’s conveniences run on electronics that require a constant flow of power, more manufacturing processes depend on computers that demand a steady flow of power, and even many things that are needed for survival are dependent on electricity, like your home heating system. Regardless of the fuel source, your heating system most likely depends on thermostats and fans that are powered by electricity. In most cases, you can’t even pump fuel for the transport of goods and services without electricity, as the fuel delivery systems require electricity to run. As power systems fail, our society quickly becomes unmanageable. This February, many of the people in southwestern United States unfortunately experienced this firsthand. 

As a means of creating enhanced reliability as well as additional capacity in our highest growth region, the Berg substation was recently added to our system in south Grand Forks. This new addition provides redundancy for our members in the Grand Forks region in case something catastrophic happens to one of our other substations and provides additional capacity for growth in the areas in and around Grand Forks. 

The name Berg may sound familiar to some of our long-term members, as the substation is named after my predecessor – the former president and CEO of Nodak, George Berg. George served Nodak with dedication and distinction for 37 years as a Nodak employee, 24 years of them as the president and CEO. During George’s tenure he helped guide the merger with Sheyenne Valley Electric Cooperative, managed the downsizing of the military presence in the region when the Minutemen II missiles were removed from our service area, and helped bring our largest load online – the Keystone Pipeline. Reliability and affordability were two of the guiding principles that George believed in, so naming this important new piece of our system after him is well deserved and appropriate. 

Last year, our member-owners had power available an average of 99.97% of the time. That statistic is one to be proud of as it places us in the upper one-third of all cooperatives across the country. What makes it especially noteworthy is that our cooperative, with over 8,000 miles of distribution line, is over three times the size of the average cooperative across the United States, making it even more difficult to maintain that amount of reliability. What makes this level of reliability possible is partially the investment we make in our distribution system, partially the deployment of lineworker personnel throughout our distribution system, but mostly the commitment and dedication of our lineworkers to quickly respond and take care of any problem day or night. The power we have is in the people we serve and in the people we have in place to provide those services. 

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Benefits Of Tree Trimming

Clearing trees and overgrown vegetation is vital to provide safe, reliable power to our members.

We clear certain areas in our service territory, known as rights of way, to: 

  • Keep power lines clear of tree limbs
  • Restore power outages more quickly 
  • Keep crews and members of our community safe
  • Reduce unexpected costs for repairs

Vegetation management improves service reliability for you – our members!

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Nodak Electric Cooperative Pays Out $2 Million To Its Members

Nodak Electric’s board of directors recently granted approval to retire $2 million of capital credits, which were applied as a credit to the active members’ May power bill. Members who received electric service from Nodak Electric in 2002-2003 but no longer have active accounts were sent a check to the last known address.

In addition to the retirement of capital credits, an allocation for the 2020 margins was made in the amount of $2.9 million. Any remaining profits or “margins” collected after expenses are returned to our member-owners. The distribution of those margins is based upon the patronage for the previous year – the amount spent with Nodak Electric for the member’s electric service. Those allocations represent equity or ownership of the cooperative and just like the retirement that just occurred for the years 2002-2003, those 2020 margins will also be retired later.

The capital credit retirement of $2 million is the third consecutive year of retirements of that magnitude. Over the course of our history, over $50 million in capital credits has been returned to our membership. Ownership of your cooperative has benefits!

Capital Credits 101

Nodak Electric is collectively owned by its members. Our mission is to provide electric power at the cost of service. Any remaining margins are returned to our member-owners and that ownership is called equity with the cooperative. Nodak Electric uses that member equity to offset the cost of debt for construction and maintenance-saving interest expense that would otherwise be factored into the cost to provide electric service to our members through their electric rates. It is a continuous cycle of the member building equity with Nodak and then eventually being paid for usage of that equity.

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Picture Yourself At A Co-Op

Did you know that cooperatives power 56% of our nation’s landmass, serving 42 million people in 48 states? Rural electric co-ops are the backbone of our economy, especially in states like North Dakota and Minnesota, where many consumers live in rural areas. Electricity is vital to enhancing our communities, small and large – and you can be a part of it with a career at a cooperative.

Not sure what you or your recently graduated student would do in the energy industry? The options are nearly endless! Electric co-ops offer diverse career tracks, both at your local distribution utility – Nodak Electric Cooperative – and at the regional co-ops that generate and transmit electricity, like Minnkota Power Cooperative.

Here is just a small segment of the opportunities:

Engineers – From electrical to civil to mechanical and beyond, co-ops need a wide array of these technical innovators.

Environmental Scientists – Co-ops take environmental stewardship to heart, and this team helps maintain the highest levels of land, water and air quality.

Lineworkers – Day or night, these height-defying heroes make sure power lines are well maintained and working properly.

Information Technology Specialists – Whether it’s PC networking, power system operating or cybersecurity monitoring, IT experts are vital to the electric industry.

Project Managers – Cooperatives have to juggle several projects at once to keep power flowing, so these planners make sure things stay on budget and on schedule.

Power Plant Technicians – These industry pros ensure the machinery of generating energy is running smoothly, safely and efficiently.

Member Services Representatives – If members have questions about their electricity, these are the friendly voices who guide them to savings and efficiency.

Electricians – You can’t have electricity without electricians, so these folks assemble all of the connections that get power from point A to point B.

Business Professionals (Human Resources, Accounting, Communications, etc.) – Cooperatives are filled with people who run numbers, write newsletters and hire new employees to round out the cooperative team.

A career with an electric co-op is rewarding in many ways. You get the satisfaction of knowing you’re part of a not-for-profit organization that prioritizes reliable member service. Plus, employees enjoy competitive salaries and benefit packages to ensure individuals and families are supported along the way. 

Consider a career at an electric cooperative. Visit careers.electric.coop

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Committed To Keeping You Safe

Safety is an everyday thing, especially for line crews; however, spring and fall are times when we tend to talk about it more with our members. Farmers are back in the fields, homeowners are eager to get out of the house, and kids are outside riding bikes and playing in the parks. All of these things require additional vigilance on everyone’s part to ensure we all stay safe. 

Our farmers will be spending long hours using heavy equipment that can be inherently dangerous.  Homeowners will bring out saws, mowers and ladders as spring cleanup begins, and our kids will be crossing busy streets, riding bikes to school and play. With all this activity going on, we need to be reminded to follow safety instructions and to watch out for each other at the same time.  

May is National Electric Safety Month. As a member-owned electric cooperative, we are committed to keeping members and employees safe. Electrical safety is a common topic with the employees of Nodak Electric Cooperative, but May is a time when we make an extra effort to educate and inform our members about the dangers of electricity. 

While electricity is a necessity in modern-day life, the same electricity used to power our daily lives can be dangerous, even life-threatening if used improperly. We regularly print articles in this publication with tips on how to avoid being hurt by electricity. I would encourage you to take a few moments and read those short articles and ask yourself if you are following those potentially life-saving tips. 

One recommendation we don’t stress often enough is to have a qualified electrician tackle all of your wiring projects. Not only will they ensure your project is done properly, they will notice if something is not up to current Electrical Code. 

The standards for safe electrical wiring can change from time to time. Even though your system may have been installed correctly according to the code in effect at the time it was put in, it may not adhere to today’s National Electric Code. For example, your wiring may have been done before GFCI (Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets were required but, depending on their location, they may be required for new construction today. A qualified professional would notice such a departure from current code requirements and suggest you change them out. 

Seemingly simple improvements like this can make a dramatic difference in securing your family’s safety. For their sake and yours, consider hiring a qualified electrician for your next project, no matter how big or small. 

For those of you who partici-pated in our annual meeting by voting for the board of directors, thank you for taking the time to participate in your cooperative’s business. We had 2,053 members cast votes in our board of directors election through mail-in ballots.  Congratulations to David Brag and David Hagert, who were reelected to new three-year terms, and welcome to our newest board member, Ryan Benson, who is beginning his first three-year term. This meeting also marked the end of the long career of director Paul Sigurdson. Paul served your cooperative with distinction for more than 30 years. I would like to thank Paul for his strong commitment over the years and wish him well in his new endeavors.

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Power Over The Market

Energy marketers combine reliable resources and demand response to avoid a cold-weather crisis

In mid-February, millions of Texans were learning how to get through brutal winter temperatures with no electricity, while many more were researching how to pay for suddenly enormous power bills. 

During that same subzero-weather event, a group of energy marketers at Minnkota Power Cooperative (Nodak Electric Cooperative’s wholesale energy provider) was getting a lesson on how to protect the cooperative’s members from facing similar ice-cold consequences. And they skillfully passed the test.

“We’ve seen some extreme temperatures locally, and we know how that plays into what we do day-to-day,” said energy marketer Mark Fulbright, who has been with Minnkota less than two years. “But during this event we had the opportunity to see extreme temperatures spread across the country, and how that can add a new dimension to how we handle operations here.”

The “we” that Fulbright refers to is a trio of fairly new additions to Minnkota’s power supply and resource planning department. Along with Fulbright, energy marketers Amber Langemo and Isaac Hoffart were all hired within the past two years, all three missing the last polar vortex event in January 2019. They join experienced energy marketer Dan Trebil, an 8-year veteran of powering through climate anomalies.

“They handled a very stressful situation very well,” said Todd Sailer, senior manager of power supply and resource planning. “Trying to incorporate our demand response, managing the wind forecasts and understanding how the markets work – this was one of those experiences that will end up being very valuable for them in the future.”

What happened?

The nearly two-week February cold snap that essentially crippled the Texas power grid started up north. From approximately Feb. 8-14, Minnkota’s service area experienced some of its coldest temperatures of the stretch. As the polar vortex dropped south, both regional demand and weather-related generation issues began to rise.

Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) – the organization that manages the transmission grid and energy markets of a 15-state region that includes Minnkota’s territory – asked its providers to enter conservative operations Feb. 14-20 and declared a Maximum Generation Event on Feb. 16. Over those days, the combination of expanded regional need and less generation availability (from frozen plants, natural gas pipeline constraints and less production from wind farms across the midsection of the country) made the cost of buying energy from the grid skyrocket.

“We saw prices over $100 all hours of the day starting on Feb. 15, and it lasted four to five days,” Sailer recalled. “We might see it that high for a few hours but, typically, in the last couple of years, it’s been averaging less than $20 per megawatt-hour. So when you’re seeing prices of $200, $400, sometimes up to $900, it completely changes what you’re trying to manage.”

Minnkota had to protect itself from relying on the volatile market. Although the coal-based Young Station continued to provide electricity reliably throughout the event, wind power generation dropped due to low winds and temperatures. Minnkota’s healthy demand response program – through which members volunteer to have certain electric loads like dual-fuel heating and water heaters controlled for a reduced rate – helped Sailer’s energy marketers decrease the demand on the grid.

“Because we’re scheduling our generation resources into the market, we’re making sure we’re scheduling those resources in the right market. If the power plant’s going to be available or the wind’s going to be available, we’re making sure to schedule that properly,” Sailer explained. “With that, you identify where your exposure is in the market, or maybe identify some opportunities in the market related to our demand response program. We’re making sure we’re doing something that is beneficial to our members and maximizing the value of those resources.”

Ultimately, Minnkota came out of the cold snap with few weather-related service interruptions to its members. There were no rolling blackouts as briefly seen in neighboring grid systems, and no days-long outages as experienced in the south. Minnkota used 84 hours of dual-fuel heat control, which helped avoid high energy market costs. The electricity provided by the Young Station covered the remaining demand and added needed power into the national grid.

“Our value of reliability shined through in a moment where others were facing crisis,” said plant engineering and environmental manager Tim Hagerott, adding that the Young Station is specifically designed to operate in North Dakota’s cold-weather climate. “The majority of our equipment is housed indoors in heated buildings. We also have several systems that utilize heat trace that is covered by insulation to prevent piping and equipment from freezing.”

A different situation

In Texas’ unique energy landscape, the situation was starkly different. Many generation resource technologies, including natural gas pipelines, coal plants and wind turbines, could not perform in the once-in-a-century low temperatures. For most of the country, this would mean importing energy from a neighboring grid system operator (such as MISO). However, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is independent of those grid interconnections.

“They’re somewhat of an island when they start having problems on their system, because they’re limited in bringing in other resources from other regions,” Sailer said. “It was obviously a very extreme weather event for them, so some of their units just weren’t prepared for that cold. It wasn’t just one resource – they were nearly all impacted, which resulted in Texas being isolated.”

Additionally, hundreds of Texas power consumers who were enrolled in programs that connect them directly to wholesale power rates were burned by that week’s market volatility, receiving bills that were thousands of dollars higher than normal. Minnkota and its member cooperatives protect their member-consumers from this price fluctuation by using their own generation resources to limit market exposure.

When the polar vortex finally waned in late February, Minnkota’s energy marketers were able to return to some normalcy – regular work hours, stable market prices and infrequent demand response needs. The adrenaline may have faded, but the newcomer knowledge will stick around for the next time it’s their job to help keep power reliable and affordable.

“This is a unique job in the sense that it seems like we learn something new every day,” Fulbright said, surrounded by his fellow marketers. “And that week was tenfold.”

“It was exciting, because we hadn’t seen anything like that before,” Langemo added. “You can talk about these things in theory, but when you’re actually doing them, it’s a lot different. It was a great way to learn, when you have three other people to bounce ideas off of. That’s one thing with our group – we do function well as a team.”

By Kaylee Cusack
Minnkota Power Cooperative

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Osowski Earns CCD Certification

Nodak Electric Cooperative board director Cheryl Osowski recently completed coursework to earn the Credentialed Cooperative Director (CCD) certificate from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Completing this training provides Nodak Electric members with a director who has expanded knowledge in cooperative governance, fiduciary responsibilities and other essential skills. 

Osowski lives on a farmstead northeast of Voss, N.D., with her husband, Robert.

Congratulations, Cheryl, on this outstanding accomplishment!

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