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For more than 50 years, Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO) based in Le Mars has been conducting co-op member tours to power plants. The tours give energy end-users – including many electric co-op members in Iowa – a firsthand glimpse into electric generation and an opportunity to meet the people responsible for providing the power that is delivered directly to their homes, farms and businesses. Because of its northwest Iowa location, NIPCO’s member cooperatives receive power from neighboring cooperative resources. Co-op members learn how coal is a valuable part of America’s energy mix, while showcasing how environmentally responsible power is possible within a carbon-constrained world.

During three educational and fun-filled days, members are immersed in rural electric cooperative history, the co-op business model, and the Touchstone Energy® brand as well as gaining a deeper understanding and pride about the cooperative difference. Each year and during two tours,  participants include 90-100 members from eight different distribution cooperatives and several municipal utilities, all with a common bond of belonging to and advocating for the rural electric cooperative industry.

Serving up electricity

What began as a single day tour to the Oahe Dam and Powerhouse in Pierre, South Dakota, evolved into a three-day journey in the mid-1980s. The event grew when NIPCO began to supplement its hydroelectric (water) power supply with power purchased from Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a generation and transmission (G&T) power cooperative headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Today, NIPCO receives approximately 80% of its power supply from Basin Electric and 20% from Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), which markets power generated from the Missouri River Dam System. NIPCO’s generation portfolio includes electricity generated from coal, water, wind, natural gas and other sources. Because of the resource diversity, NIPCO and its member cooperatives want co-op members to have an opportunity to see and understand the electricity sources powering their lives. NIPCO facilitates the tours, with its member cooperatives sponsoring travel costs for tour participants. In many cases, the trip is offered at no cost or for only a nominal fee to their member-consumers who express an interest in the journey.

Every tour begins by offering this analogy to tour participants: “Electricity works a lot like ordering food at a drive-thru window. When you order a hamburger and fries at the speaker, you expect it to be ready for you when you pull up to the window. There is an expectation that the food will be affordable, of good quality and available to you immediately. The electric power supply is no different. When you order up your power at the switch, you expect it to be delivered to you. That electricity isn’t stored in the switch plate. When you flip that switch, that power must travel hundreds of miles to reach your location at the exact time you demand it.” How that electricity is “served up” to your light switch takes a cast of thousands. Tour participants experience the passion, innovation and dedication of each of NIPCO’s power providers as representatives from every aspect of power supply and delivery act as tour guides and answer questions from the group.

The Energy Trail Tours showcase generation facilities that include hydropower at the Oahe Powerhouse and Dam in Pierre, South Dakota, and the coal-fired Antelope Valley Station in Beulah, North Dakota.

At Dakota Gasification Company, located adjacent to the 900-megawatt Antelope Valley Station, tour participants learn about the method of carbon-capture and coal gasification and the many products manufactured through this process, including fuel additives such as diesel exhaust fluid and fertilizers used in agricultural production, such as anhydrous ammonia, ammonium sulfate and urea.

Caring for the environment

The Coteau Properties Company Freedom Mine in North Dakota allows co-op members to see the mining process of the area’s lignite coal. Land that is mined is carefully returned to its original contour and reseeded to return to its original use. Whether it’s going back to a natural prairie or cropland, it’s monitored for several years. Often, members catch a glimpse of the deer, foul and antelope that graze on the reclaimed acres.

Energy Trail Tour participants also learn about wind generation and the importance of renewable energy resources in America’s overall energy mix. Iowans are very familiar with the fact that their state leads the way in wind generation. As such, the tour includes a mobile classroom on the process of wind generation and how a turbine works.

Showcasing safe, reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible power

Education about power generation and delivery is an important element in the way NIPCO and its member cooperatives engage with member-consumers. For decades, energy trail tours have served as a powerful way to deepen co-op members’ understanding of how energy reaches them and strengthen the relationship with their local cooperative.

“This trip reinforced the need for a balanced approach to meeting our future energy needs, one that protects our environment, our communities, U.S. jobs and the reliable electric service that our industries need – and our citizens have come to expect,” says Fred Wirtz, a member of Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative.

Gregg and Zolene Streck, members of North West REC, echoed those same sentiments, “We were so impressed how land was put back for use – even better than it was and the efficiency of coal use. We definitely will encourage others to take the trip.”To learn more about the Energy Trail Tour, visit

NIPCO’s Iowa-based electric distribution cooperatives
  • Harrison County Rural Electric Cooperative – Woodbine
  • Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative – Estherville
  • Nishnabotna Valley Rural Electric Cooperative – Harlan
  • North West Rural Electric Cooperative – Orange City
  • Western Iowa Power Cooperative – Denison
  • Woodbury County Rural Electric Cooperative – Moville

Angela Catton is the manager of member relations and development for NIPCO.

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