Another Benefit of Hydro: Bringing Hydro Home

Minnesota Power launched “Hometown Hydropower” in May 2014 to help raise the public profile of the 11 hydroelectric stations that make up its fleet. The initiative came about two years after historic floodwaters raced down the St. Louis River, severely damaging the 72-MW Thomson plant, the heart of the company’s hydropower system, and forcing it offline.

In advance of Thomson’s return to service in November 2014, Minnesota Power decided to rededicate its entire hydroelectric system by highlighting individual hydro stations and reservoirs. “Hometown Hydropower” recognized the important role hydroelectric operations play in providing renewable energy to customers and celebrated more than a century of producing hydropower.

The initiative included a series of facility tours and public events at communities that host Minnesota Power’s hydro stations and reservoirs, creation of a commemorative medallion and time capsule, development of a website devoted to Minnesota Power hydropower, creation and distribution of a variety of educational fact sheets, installation of an outdoor informational sign at the popular Island Lake Reservoir and donations totaling almost $90,000 to various community projects and organizations.

Background

Minnesota Power has invested heavily in its hydroelectric system in the past decade, especially at Thomson, the electric utility’s largest hydro station. After being damaged during the historic flooding in June 2012, company personnel worked to repair, renew and modernize the facility.

The flooding and related repairs brought a new level of public awareness to Thomson and by extension to Minnesota Power’s entire hydroelectric system. For decades, the hydro stations and associated reservoirs had quietly provided electricity and recreational opportunities. Here was an opportunity to publicly celebrate the company’s historical commitment to renewable energy and to the customers it serves.

Minnesota Power has 11 hydroelectric stations and 17 reservoirs, including six headwaters storage reservoirs, on three main river systems in Minnesota. The company has been producing hydropower for more than a century. Combined, Minnesota Power’s hydro projects generate about 120 MW of energy.

Hydroelectricity plays a vital role in how Minnesota Power is meeting the state of Minnesota’s renewable energy standards. The company’s EnergyForward strategy relies on hydropower, together with investments in other renewable energy, to build a more sustainable energy future.

Challenges

The company’s hydro facilities and reservoirs span hundreds of miles and operate in communities of varying size and demographic makeup. Minnesota Power called on employees throughout the hydro system to help personalize each event to the community or facility, while still tying in the key themes of delivering renewable hydropower, upgrading and rebuilding for the next century of service, and being proud to serve the customer and community. A simple ice cream social was appropriate at 1.1-MW Prairie River while the company participated in a longstanding community festival in Ely, Minn., to highlight its nearby 4-MW Winton facility.

The rededication of the Fond du Lac station in May 2014 included tours of the powerhouse as part of Minnesota Power’s Hometown Hydropower initiative.
The rededication of the Fond du Lac station in May 2014 included tours of the powerhouse as part of Minnesota Power’s Hometown Hydropower initiative.

A steering committee directed overall planning and employees were responsible for ensuring the success of each of the nine events. All of the communications – from event invitations to website development – were researched, written and designed by Minnesota Power employees.

Innovation

Minnesota Power took an operations challenge – returning the flood-damaged Thomson facility to production – and used it as a springboard to help educate the public about hydro and the company’s hydroelectric system and strengthen relationships with customers and other stakeholders.

“Hometown Hydropower” told the story of the utility’s system through a variety of platforms, including facility tours, ice cream socials, barbecues, and printed educational materials. While the events and celebrations are over, other aspects of the initiative such as the popular commemorative medallion and website, mphydro.com, will continue to help generate interest in hydropower for some time.

“We would like people to know that we represent more than just power,” Minnesota Power Chief Operating Officer Brad Oachs said. “Our management and employees value the land, lakes and trees and natural beauty that make our home base a special place.”

Results

“Hometown Hydropower” got off to a strong start in May 2014 with an event at the company’s 12-MW Fond du Lac Hydro station. About 100 dignitaries, employees, community members and others turned out for lunch, speeches and tours of the station and adjacent dam. By late summer, reports from other tours and events suggested that people were interested in hydroelectricity and its role in providing power. A company official at the event in Little Falls noted that many tour-goers were “amazed that we had so many hydro facilities.”

Over the course of about six months, hundreds of people learned about how Minnesota Power produces hydroelectricity near the communities where they live and work. The series of community events elevated the public profile of the hydroelectric system and strengthened Minnesota Power’s relationships and goodwill with residents, customers and other stakeholders.

In 2015 the National Hydropower Association named the initiative a recipient of an Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters award in the public education category.

– By Christopher Rousseau, manager of renewable business operations for hydro, Minnesota Power

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