When I was a younger man than I am today, I had a vision of the Great Plains transformed: buffalo roaming across great tracts of tallgrass prairie studded with wind farms that powered the whole Midwest. Tribal communities, farmers and ranchers and young people all working together to develop an economy that could sustain the people and restore the land. Maybe even a little folk school, something like the Highlander Center in east Tennessee, to bring everyone together to sing and dance and strategize together.
As I’ve learned, usually the hard way, big visions only become reality through perseverance, hard work and often a bit of luck or good timing. I only lasted six months in Grand Forks, North Dakota, all of which were somehow during the winter, but one of the things I remember best was that any of the plans we devised had to contend with the 800 pound gorilla in the state. Basin Electric, a rural electric cooperative with 2.8 million members across Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming was the populist face of big dirty coal. Headquartered in Bismarck, ND, they seemed to run state politics and they weren’t interested in wind.
So when I saw the headline “Rural Electric Cooperative Completes $240 Million Wind Farm in 4 Months” I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. This 115.5 MW project will be the largest wind project entirely owned by a consumer cooperative, AND IT WAS COMPLETED IN JUST 4 MONTHS!! Basin, which got 94% of its power from coal in 2005 (and only 1% from wind) now has a goal to reach 20% wind by the end of the year.
As we work towards a rapid and massive ramp-up of clean energy across the country, we should look to consumer cooperatives and municipally-owned utilities, both of which are non-profit, community-controlled structures with jobs and revenues that stay in the communities they serve. In 2008, rural cooperatives expanded wind energy capacity 65% compared to just 25% nationally, and municipal utilities, like in Long Island and Austin, are implementing some of the most innovative and aggressive renewable energy and energy efficiency programs in the country. Check out the American Public Power Association, which represents over 2,000 community-owned utilities, for more information.