Section 4: Basin Electric Power Cooperative

Basin Electric is a cooperative that supplies wholesale power to its customers in nine states. It was organized in 1961 to help meet the growing need for electric power on farms and businesses in North Dakota, South Dakota, and other states. (See Document 3.) Like other electrical cooperatives, Basin is member-owned by 137 co-op members who serve 2.8 million electric consumers.

Document 3. Basin Electric Power Cooperative

Recently, two executives of cooperatives discussed their experiences in building and working with electrical cooperatives. They spoke about the development of Basin Electric Power Cooperative to generate sufficient power to meet the needs of North Dakota electrical cooperatives as well as cooperatives in other states.

Ron Harper, retired Chief Executive Officer, Basin Electric Power Cooperative (Mr. Harper was interviewed January 2014)

“When you look at the cooperatives in the state of North Dakota where the distribution cooperatives were formed, and they formed Central Power [Generating and Transmission Co-op] but . . . the distribution member owners of those organization came together and formed Basin. Because they could see that hydro[power] facilities were going to be limited – I think they were told, we can no longer meet our needs with hydro and we need to get out and figure out a way to do it collectively. And that’s where Basin came about. . .

Gary Williamson, retired manager, Central Power Generation and Transmission, Minot (Mr. Williamson was interviewed September 2013)

“When we were running out of power we created Basin Electric, which became a nine-state [power generating co-op]. The technicians and engineers might have put it together at that point, but it was the [Helge] Nygrens, and [others] that were the ones who sold it. They said, ‘we’ve just go to get bigger. We are running out of power and hydropower is running out and we are growing.’ . . . Sometimes people would say to me, ‘what do a bunch of farmers know about building power plants?’ But they had a vision and a dream and they hired the right people to design the plants and do all that but it was their vision and their knowledge of politics as well. All these guys grew up in the country and they knew about politics and how to get the job done. They’re the ones who went and lobbied and did it.

“Before Basin came along we were running out of power so the cooperatives in Central [Power]did what Basin later did, but on a smaller scale. . . . We figured that Basin was the generator, we were the transmitter and the member cooperatives were the distributor.

“During the [Governor Art] Link administration the [electrical] coops in Minnesota wanted to build a power plant in North Dakota and they eventually did [build Great River Energy near Underwood]. It was us North Dakota cooperatives that wanted to help out the Minnesota cooperatives. Gov. Link demanded some pretty stringent things, not just from them but from everybody, to make sure that all environmental [regulations] were met, coal reclamation land would be met, all those things. For us it was a cooperative helping a cooperative and eventually it was done and we’ve got their plant here now serving the needs of their Minnesota coops.”

When the rural electric co-ops started in the 1940s, they thought that the power generated by hydro-electric dams would provide for growth. However, by 1960, hydro-power on the Missouri River had been used to capacity. Leaders in electrical co-ops in several states decided to build a power generating and transmission cooperative which would continue to make cheap electricity available to rural consumers.

Basin and its generating plants were located in North Dakota because of the lignite coal resources in the state. In 1966, electricity generated by Basin’s plants traveled along a system of high-voltage lines to seven states. With a new source of electricity, farm electrical usage continued to grow while the kilowatt hour price continued to decrease.

Today, Basin has expanded its operations to include ownership of Great Plains Synfuels Plant in Beulah and the development of wind energy “farms.”  Basin also generates electricity by capturing and utilizing flare-gas in North Dakota’s oil fields.

Several factors led to North Dakota being the home of Basin Electric Power Cooperative. One factor is the commitment North Dakotans have made to cooperatives as a solution to the distribution of electrical power. Another factor is coal. The state’s rich coal deposits make it possible to generate a lot of power. Much of the power is shipped via transmission lines to other states. Another factor is the Missouri River. The dams on the river provide hydro-power, but hydro-power cannot expand as fast as the growing need for power. North Dakota electrical co-ops were soon aware that they would have to look after their own energy needs. Basin Electric Power Cooperative was the answer.

Why is this important? Basin is another example of how the cooperative business model works. The development of Basin Electric involved expanding the cooperative model from local organizations to a multi-state generation and transmission electrical co-op. This was a huge vision, but it was carried out by the same people who believed that they could bring electricity to the countryside.