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Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative (NIPCO) and its member cooperatives have led thousands of consumer members through the Dakotas on annual Energy Trail Tours for decades. The tour connects western Iowa members with the generation resources and the people responsible for delivering electric power to their homes, farms and businesses.

A powerful history

In the early days of NIPCO, all power transmitted across its service footprint was generated by hydroelectric power produced by water flowing through the Missouri River Dam System. Even then, NIPCO believed in educating members about the process of hydroelectric generation and how electricity generated from the dams was transmitted to western Iowa to power the lives of those living there.

In the 1960s, NIPCO hosted single-day excursions to Gavin’s Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota. The tour also brought members through NIPCO’s office to understand the role a generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative played in sourcing and delivering power to end users.

By the early 1960s, the demand for electric power outgrew the supply that could be generated from water alone, and NIPCO became a member of Basin Electric Power Cooperative in 1966. Basin Electric supplied the necessary power to meet western Iowans’ needs through various fuel sources, including additional hydroelectric power and coal.

With coal becoming essential to providing reliable and affordable energy, NIPCO became a part owner of the Neal 4 coal-fueled generation plant, a joint venture with investor-owned, cooperative and municipal utilities located south of Sioux City. NIPCO’s single-day educational tour grew to include the Neal 4 coal plant.

It wasn’t until 1988 that NIPCO’s Energy Tour expanded to an overnight experience that lasted three days. The “new” Energy Trail Tour format took 23 couples to Oahe Dam and Powerhouse in  Pierre, South Dakota, and on to the Basin Electric Power Cooperative facilities in Beulah, North Dakota. And, except for a two-year hiatus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, NIPCO has hosted Energy Trail Tours each summer since.

Generating understanding

Today, NIPCO purchases 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 blended generation portfolio from these suppliers includes electricity generated from coal, water, wind, natural gas and other sources. NIPCO and its seven member cooperatives feel it is vital to provide an opportunity for their end users to get up close and personal with the source of their electricity. Tours demonstrate the value of an “all-of-the-above” electric generation portfolio as part of America’s energy mix. Three days of experiencing their power providers’ passion, innovation and dedication help educate members about sustainable electric generation in a carbon-constrained world.

Tours showcase generation facilities that include hydropower at the Oahe Powerhouse and coal-fueled generation at Antelope Valley Station in Beulah, North Dakota. Tour participants also learn about the method of carbon capture and coal gasification at Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant, located adjacent to Antelope Valley Station. They also learn about the many products manufactured through this process at the plant, including fuel additives, such as diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), and fertilizers used in agricultural production, including anhydrous ammonia, ammonium sulfate (marketed as Dak Sul 45®) and urea.

A short trip up the road to The Coteau Properties Company Freedom Mine allows co-op member-owners to see the mining process of the area’s lignite coal. From the comfort of their bus seats, participants observe massive equipment, which mines and transports lignite coal. Land that is mined is carefully returned to its original contour and reseeded to return to its original use, whether natural prairie or cropland and monitored for several years. Often, members catch a glimpse of the deer, fowl and other wildlife grazing on the reclaimed acres.

The tour also includes a mobile classroom, which provides a deeper insight into the process of wind generation, how a turbine works and the importance of renewable energy resources as a part of America’s overall energy mix.

In addition to the tours of the facilities, members learn about the history of electric cooperatives and gain a new understanding and pride in cooperative ownership, promoting the cooperative advantage and humanizing the electric generation process.

Re-energizing the cooperative spirit

One Energy Trail Tour participant shares, “The whole experience was eye-opening for me. I came away with a profound appreciation for all the people working so hard to make the ‘miracle’ of electricity appear at my farm, and I am thankful that I am a member of the REC.”

Tour participants become more knowledgeable about the energy generation and delivery process and grow into advocates for their cooperatives. Energy Trail Tours have become a valuable resource for shaping lasting relationships between member-owners, their rural electric cooperatives and the people responsible for providing their power. Now, that’s an experience worth getting energized about!

Angela Catton is the manager of member relations and development for Northwest Iowa Power Cooperative.

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