Upgrading rural electric grids is somewhat of a mundane task. When there are just 1.6 members per square mile of power lines, very few people see the outcomes. But for Traverse Electric Co-Op out of Wheaton, Minnesota, power reliability is everything.
Traverse Electric was one of a handful of companies awarded part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Electric Loan program. About $858 million in loans were awarded to rural companies working to improve the flow of electricity to rural Americans. Based on recommendations from Sen. John Thune and Congressman Dusty Johnson, Traverse was selected and approved for just over $5 million in loans.
Traverse serves roughly 1,010 rural South Dakotans in Marshall and Roberts counties where the previous winter’s storms hit hard. While $5 million may seem low compared to some other loans in the program closer to $80 million, the money will be spent to keep the co-op functioning.
Joel Janorschke, the general manager at Traverse Electric Co-op, said the low-interest, long-term loan will fund the plant directly for the next four years while allocating money to fix poles and upgrade systems throughout their coverage area.
“Roughly 1,000 poles are going to be replaced,” he said.
In addition to poles, Janorschke said customers can expect $625,000 to be allocated to improving their grid systems to allow for better flow of power where it’s needed most.
“We’re upgrading the meter system to help us be more efficient,” he said.
As a whole, the rural electric loan program will help create 3,741 more miles of lines to improve rural electric reliability, according to the USDA. The money was spread among 17 states, although a third of the money was allocated directly to a project in Arkansas.
This money comes from a task force set up in April 2017 by President Donald Trump. After the USDA put together recommendations to President Trump about how money could be allocated, infrastructure repair became a priority with the rural electric loan program.
Even as Traverse and other rural co-ops begin to repair lines damaged in storms and improve reliability with new technology, Janorschke said getting power to rural Americans is still a struggle.
“If they want to build a house, you need to build miles and miles (of line) just for them,” he said.
In addition, as they build and replace more line, their old poles need to be replaced just as fast. Traverse spent about four months working with engineers to find the places most affected by the storm. Even then, Janorschke suggested they’ll need to replace poles all around their coverage area just because the poles are nearing four decades old.
The loan will keep their operation running through 2022, and after that, Janorschke said they’ll apply for the loan again to keep them running even further.
Because of the nature of their co-op and the split operation costs with their customers, he said these loans are necessary for keeping the local co-ops running for their rural customers.
“I guess we’ll see what happens,” he said. “We have to maintain the system.”