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Minnesota Co-Ops Pioneer Methods of Grid Management

image credit: Form Energy
Julian Jackson's picture
Staff Writer, Energy Central, BrightGreen PR

Julian Jackson is a writer whose interests encompass business and technology, cryptocurrencies, energy and the environment, as well as photography and film. His portfolio is here:...

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Though they are often smaller than utilities, Minnesota co-ops have a penchant for innovation and often move forward more nimbly than conventional utility companies. This includes smart meter installations, time-based pricing pilots, load balancing and experimental storage solutions.

Minnesota farmers helped develop the electric co-op model over a century ago, pooling resources to build power lines, transformers and all the other equipment to deliver electricity to rugged parts of the state. Nowadays, forty-four member-owned electric co-ops serve around 1.7 million rural and suburban customers and supply up to a quarter of the state’s electricity.

There are drawbacks. Coal-fired plants are still necessary and moving away from them has been difficult. Some co-ops have tried to use legislation to curb pollution regulations and solar panels.

Where they are creating innovation is with new practices and technology for managing electric grid loads — from load-shifting water heaters to a giant experimental battery system using abundant iron and air. The programs are saving customers money by delaying the need for expensive new infrastructure, and also showing ways to unlock more value from cheap but variable wind and solar power.

“Co-ops have innovation in their DNA,” said David Ranallo, a spokesperson for Great River Energy, a generation and distribution cooperative that supplies electricity to 28 member utilities — making it one of the state’s largest co-op facilities.

The coops tend to be cautious about investing in new generation, as that squeezes their profits, so they push for getting every advantage they can from existing infrastructure. The lighter touch regulatory ecosystem has enabled them to nimbly utilize all their methods to gain advantage. These innovations are studied by academics and utilities, and the best practices taken up by other, larger companies.

Great River Energy members can choose to participate in one or several demand response programs through their electric cooperative. This allows it to “control” or “cycle” their air conditioner, water heater, heat pump or other electric devices for a period of hours on high demand days. In exchange, the member receives a reduced electric tariff. More than 335,000 of these appliances, along with irrigation systems, were enrolled in demand response programs offered by Great River Energy’s member-owner cooperatives in 2020.

The cooperative is also working on an experimental long-duration storage battery system that uses safe, cheap and abundant iron and air, in partnership with Form Energy, and this breakthrough project is expected to be completed in 2023.

There is a lot of good practice in the work of energy co-operatives which could benefit the industry in  general.

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