Power That Persists: Power of Transformation
October 25, 2022
AS AN ENERGY COOPERATIVE, STEARNS ELECTRIC ASSOCIATION HAS PROUDLY DISTRIBUTED THE ELECTRICITY NEEDED TO POWER HOMES, FARMS AND BUSINESSES THROUGHOUT OUR SERVICE TERRITORY SINCE 1937. OVER THE LAST 85 YEARS, THE INDUSTRY HAS CHANGED IMMENSELY. WE CONTINUE TO ADOPT IMPROVING TECHNOLOGIES AND TRANSFORM OUR ELECTRIC SERVICE TO FIT THE NEEDS OF MEMBER-CONSUMERS.
Before Stearns Electric Association was founded by members, the concept of bringing electricity to rural areas in Central Minnesota was difficult to comprehend. For some farmers, it took weeks or months to finally agree to join the local electric cooperative. They were hesitant to sign up and fund this new service that would take years to even reach them, unsure if it would indeed electrify their homes and farms as promised.
After many months of waiting to be approved for a loan under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration, Stearns Electric Association was chartered as a corporation by the state of Minnesota on August 20, 1937, and work quickly began constructing the first power lines.
Nearly one year later, on August 15, 1938, the culmination of years of planning and organization came together as 118 miles of line were energized; the Stearns Electric energy distribution system was officially powered on.
POWER LINE CONSTRUCTION
Over the last 85 years, Stearns Electric’s engineering and operations team has grown and maintained a reliable distribution system for our members. In 1938, there were 118 miles of power line. Today, there are over 4,180 miles of lines.
Extensive planning goes into growing our distribution system to safely provide reliable energy to our 28,000 members and ensure the Cooperative is not making enhancements too quickly. A team of engineers constantly prepares the local distribution system for the future implementation of new technologies, such as solar panels and electric vehicles. It is a delicate balance.
“Our members continue to adopt new technologies such as solar panels and electric vehicles, but they are not as quick to do so as other areas of the country,” Matt O’Shea, Vice President of Engineering and Operations, explained. “Behind the scenes at the Cooperative, there is a lot of research and planning by our engineering and operations departments that goes into preparing our distribution network for the future.”
“For example, we know over the next 20 years there will be an increase in the number of electric vehicles being charged by members on our distribution system. This will likely require upgrades to some of our electrical distribution equipment, especially in residential areas where there will be multiple vehicle chargers,” Manager of Engineering James Pachan said. “Though we know these upgrades will be required, we are not ordering a ton of new equipment or planning to upgrade the distribution network immediately. These adjustments will happen over time and as needed.”
“Our Cooperative’s mission is to serve our members with competitively priced and reliable energy. We work every day to make sure we upgrade our equipment and grow where and when it is required, but don’t grow too fast and become a financial burden to our member-owners,” O’Shea reiterated.
WHOLESALE POWER ADJUSTMENTS
Local energy cooperatives distribute energy throughout their service territories, but the electricity is generated by other entities. Stearns Electric Association has been a member of Great River Energy (GRE) since 1999. Prior to that, Stearns Electric was a member-owner of Cooperative Power Association, which merged with United Power Association to become GRE. Today, GRE provides electricity to 27 member distribution cooperatives throughout Minnesota.
Throughout Stearns Electric’s history, the majority of electricity generated by the Co-op’s wholesale power providers has been by coal. Due to legislative mandates and the requirements for energy generators to reduce their carbon emissions, the Cooperative has experienced rapid changes in wholesale power generation by GRE.
Over time, this has included adding wind and solar generation to its energy mix, creating and offering energy-saving programs for GRE member cooperatives and most recently, announcing an aggressive plan to become over 80% carbon free by 2025.
Currently, GRE is on track to add 560 MW of wind energy by the end of 2023 and modify the 99-MW coal and natural gas-based Spiritwood Station power plant to be fueled by natural gas. Additionally, GRE is working with Form Energy to install a 1-MW long-duration battery demonstration system.
“We are building a power supply portfolio that will serve our member-owner cooperatives with clean, affordable and reliable energy for decades,” GRE President and CEO David Saggau said.
ELECTRICITY USE OVER TIME
Stearns Electric has adapted to these power generation adjustments over the years and has worked to stay on pace with the changing industry. A few ways that Stearns Electric has done this is through our residential EnergyWise® programs, Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural (CI & A) grant opportunities, and offering innovative energy resources. In the early days when electricity was brought to rural farms in our service territory, electricity was used for basic amenities like lights, refrigerators, stovetops and washing machines. Over time, enhanced technology has increased the need for electricity to power appliances, tools, vehicles and other commodities. Therefore, energy demand has greatly increased.
“Our residential EnergyWise® and CI & A programs were formed both to help increase overall energy sales, but also to reduce energy load across our service territory when demand, and consequently energy pricing, is at its highest,” John Pantzke, Energy Services Supervisor, explained. “By enrolling in a program, members agree to let the Cooperative, through GRE-initiated time frames, control their heating, cooling and/or water heating systems at times when energy pricing or demand is at its highest. In return, participating members pay a lower rate for energy or receive a monthly bill credit.”
Another significant change to the industry over time has been our member preference for renewable energy. As GRE and other power generation companies work to reduce their carbon footprint, there are some members working to do the same. To meet their needs, Stearns Electric offers the SolarWise community solar and Wellspring renewable wind energy programs.
“Our members are on many different levels when it comes to their views on energy. We do our best to meet the members where they are at and serve them with electricity that works for their lifestyle,” Pantzke concluded.
Though the need for Stearns Electric to deliver power to members throughout our service territory has stayed consistent during our 85-year history, much has changed in the electric utility industry and will continue to do so. Stearns Electric is, and always has been, committed to adapting to ongoing changes and serving our member-consumers.
Throughout 2023, Stearns Electric will be featuring residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural EnergyWise programs, rebates and other cost and energy saving…