Northern Valley Beacon

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Monday, August 01, 2005


Corporate petulance and the cost of energy

It is a story that still has relevance. It is the reason that farms were electrified by co-operatives, not by private utility companies. When electric companies came into rural areas, they were dismayed that many farmers rejected the service. Many who accepted it wanted service only for their dairy barn so that they did not have to fool around with kerosene lanterns on the dark, cold winter mornings. They could just walk into the dairy barn, flip a switch, and get to milking. The electric companies pointed out that they could not afford to run miles of electric wire just to service one or two light bulbs in dairy barns.

The electric companies were unhappy with the rebuff of their services and dismissed the farmers as too backward, frugal, and unintelligent to step into the age of electricity. But that is not why farmers were so reluctant to wire up for electricity. Independence and self-reliance were the issues. Farmers saw the electric lines as a symptom of farms getting tied to corporations that would take certain decisions away from farmers. A driving idea behind family farms was autonomy and the right to live as the families saw fit without intrusion and supervision by others. In America, people who worked the soil were finally free of feudal overlords and a class system that held them to the role of serfs. Commercial electricity compromised that independence and freedom.

Farmers wanted relief from drudgery but not at the expense of freedom and self-determination. Electric co-ops in which the users of the electricity are the owners of the companies were the solution. Once co-ops were established, rural America became electrified, and the farmers wired up because they had a voice in the operation of the co-ops.

The struggle between farmers and utility corporations has flaired up in a different form in Dickey County, North Dakota, just north of Aberdeen. Farmers have agreed to have a company from Florida erect 13 wind turbines in the county as part of a wind farm project the company is building in North Dakota. However, the supervisors of one township saw some potential problems and worked up some zoning rules so that wind turbines on one farm will not interfere with a neighboring farm's right to put up wind generators. The zoning rules require set backs from property lines, which will require some access roads and additional transmission line. However, if neighbors agree to a different arrangement, the rules can be suspended. The township officials say the simple rules are to protect the rights of both hosts of wind turbines and their neighbors.

The Florida company got miffed. It said it had negotiated costs and having to deal with roads and additional transmission lines was not something it can swallow. So, it has let the folks in Dickey County know that it can, and very likely will, go elsewhere. The company wants the right to do things its way without the people in the township imposing some rules for order that can prevent conflicts among neighbors.

The co-op that is contracted to buy the power produced also is delaying. It is a Minnesota energy utility. Minnesota has set a goal to have so much energy produced from renewable resources by 2015. Although the energy will be produced in North Dakota, the company wants it applied to its Minnesota quota. It is holding back to get a ruling from the Minnesota utilities commission.

A board member of the co-op that serves the Brown County area, who is a farmer-rancher, said it would have been better to work through a co-op rather than some outside company to begin with on the project. It's an old story with a different twist. And our utility and fuel bills have gone up almost 300 percent of what they were last year.

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