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Energy co-operative aims to adapt to 'green' movement

This is an artist's rendering of People's Cooperative's planned new headquarters in Oronoco.

People's Cooperative Services , which serves 15,300 customers in rural southeastern Minnesota, and its La Crosse, Wis.-based power supplier are attempting to keep pace with the nationwide "green" movement.

People's Cooperative's power supplier, Dairyland Power Cooperative, is spending millions of dollars to install scrubbers and other equipment at its coal plant, said Elaine Garry, People's Cooperative president and CEO, who has worked for the co-op since 2007.

In addition, about 10 percent of the energy that People's secures from Dairyland Cooperative is generated by renewable sources such as wind, biomass, and hydropower, she said.

As part of its environmental effort, People's Cooperative is planning to construct solar panels and a wind tower at its new headquarters in Oronoco, to be completed in 2012. The panels and tower will be used largely for educational purposes.

The co-op is also developing an energy audit program to help customers fine-tune their energy efficiency. And the co-op's rebate program, which rewards customers who use energy-efficient appliances, attracted a record number of participants last year.


Annexation reduces customer base

People's, which is celebrating its 75th year, lost some customers in the last decade because of annexation by the city of Rochester. The co-op's customer base dropped from more than 16,000 to 15,300.

People's serves customers in Olmsted, Mower, Dodge, Winona, Wabasha and Fillmore counties. About 85 percent of its customers are residential.

Energy sales grow

People's energy sales are growing at about 1 percent per year as new homes and businesses are constructed, Garry said. The co-op currently sells more than 233 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

Recently, the co-op added five people to its staff, giving it 54 full-time employees.

The co-op this year is making $8 million in improvements to its electrical plant, including installation of new transmission lines.

Charitable efforts


People's runs a program called Operation Roundup, by which it asks customers whether they'd like to round up their bills the nearest dollar and have the difference donated to charity.

The co-op also awards about $25,000 a year in scholarships to graduating seniors in area high schools.

"We are a cooperative, so our members own us," Garry said. "The gains we make go back to the members. That's the reason we implement these programs."

Operation Roundup has been generating $18,000 to $25,000 a quarter, said Teresa Whitcome, director of member and employee relations.

In the last quarter of 2010, some of the larger Operation Roundup donations were made to Habitat for Humanity ($5,000), Southern Minnesota Youth Orchestra ($2,500), the Oronoco Fire Fighters Relief Association ($2,400), the Rochester Chamber of Commerce Foundation ($1,500) and Hayfield Elementary School's library ($1,000).

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