We’ve always lived somewhere with room to breathe, somewhere open and close to water. We grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan, spent time in Alaska, and, now, Lutsen is our home base — along the big, wonderful, chilly waters of Lake Superior. Being close to nature gives a sense of freedom. We watch deer and birds and sometimes even wolves outside our window, and we hike in places where there’s pretty much no one else around.
Unfortunately, even in the remote parts of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, coal pollution can follow.
Our electricity comes from Arrowhead Cooperative, a local utility that is accountable to its member-owners and not to big banks or Wall Street investors. Arrowhead’s website highlights the democratic ideals of electric cooperatives and the autonomy and independence that electric co-ops enjoy. We appreciate being member-owners of a utility that focuses on community, with a mission to provide “safe, reliable, and environmentally friendly utility services.”
Electric cooperatives like Arrowhead often buy electricity from larger generation and transmission cooperatives, in this case Great River Energy. We are member-owners of Arrowhead Cooperative, and Arrowhead is a member of Great River Energy. And for all the same reasons we are proud to be Arrowhead member-owners — democratic ideals, independence, and environmental responsibility among them — we are concerned about Great River Energy’s plans to sell its Coal Creek Power Station.
By Great River Energy’s own accounting, Coal Creek loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and it simply doesn’t make economic sense to keep the plant operational. Great River Energy originally planned to retire Coal Creek and replace it with clean, renewable energy. So why does Great River Energy now plan to sell Coal Creek to Rainbow Energy and then turn around and buy back the same electricity generated at Coal Creek? If the plant is losing so much money, what secret knowledge does Rainbow Energy have that would make this potential purchase anything other than a bad deal?
And while Coal Creek is located in North Dakota, 100% of the power, and lots of the air pollution, generated at Coal Creek gets sent to Minnesota. Why, when Minnesotans overwhelmingly support clean, renewable energy, is Great River Energy planning to double down on coal?
Perhaps there are good answers to some of these questions, but this entire process has failed to live up to the transparency and democracy that are supposed to be at the core of how electric cooperatives operate. For months, there were rumors that Great River Energy wanted to sell Coal Creek to some unnamed buyer. Finally, in June, news came that the buyer would be Rainbow Energy, a private company based in North Dakota that has seemingly never operated a coal plant, particularly one as large and uneconomic as Coal Creek. Now Great River Energy is pressuring cooperatives like Arrowhead to rush through an approval process that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many member-owners like us.
Great River Energy is right in saying that we need a stronger, more resilient electric grid. But the way we do things now — with big power plants like Coal Creek sending electricity across hundreds of miles of high-capacity transmission lines — can and should change. In rural areas like the Arrowhead, we should be pursuing self-sufficiency through locally generated clean energy and, when local generation is not possible, we as member-owners should require that the energy we purchase is clean and renewable. We have an opportunity to benefit our communities, here and across the state, by investing in clean-energy jobs that provide us all with electricity that is reliable, affordable, and environmentally friendly.
For all these reasons, Arrowhead Cooperative, and the 27 other electric cooperatives who are members of Great River Energy, should say “no” to selling Coal Creek to Rainbow Energy. Great River Energy should be held to its original plan to retire Coal Creek, and it instead should invest in clean, renewable energy.
Geoff Kehoe and Amy Hubbard are retired and live in Lutsen. Kehoe is a painter and worked in arts administration, and Hubbard worked in the arts and business. They submitted this commentary in association with the Sierra Club.