A century later, Range towns seeks to regain energy independence

Hibbing PUC
Hibbing Public Utilities plant in 2021. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

In old North Hibbing of 1913, the village hired a man to shoot spent horses before dumping the carcasses in a pen full of ravenous hogs. Nevertheless, the most controversial municipal function in the history of Hibbing might be its public utilities department.

In recent decades, contention over the power plant arises from failing infrastructure and rising rates. But in its earliest years, the plant’s very existence faced strong opposition from the mining companies that employed most of the town’s workers.

In 1916, the old power and light plant was a claptrap smoke barn dangling over a mine pit on the edge of town. Nevertheless, a confederation of mining companies filed an injunction to stop the Hibbing Public Utilities Commission from building a new one.

Their argument then, one you sometimes hear today, was that the town could buy its electricity at lower prices from a regional power provider. That company, the Great Northern Power Company, was actually the forerunner to Minnesota Power, the investor-owned utility from which modern-day PUC critics say Hibbing should buy power. As the adage goes, history may not repeat but it certainly rhymes.

The companies eventually abandoned their efforts to block the power plant when they needed to clear out North Hibbing for mining activity in 1918. By 1920, construction of the power plant and installation of a village-wide steam heating district had begun. Both remain in use today.

Progressive mayor Victor Power couldn’t resist celebrating another victory over the mines, even as he was lambasted by all sides for supporting the company’s plans to rebuild Hibbing at its present location. As he ran for re-election in the spring of 1921, Power cited the village’s newly bargained assets as an enduring antidote against the ups and downs of the Iron Range economy. The centerpiece of his plan was to sanctify these investments as part of a city charter, elevating the village to a more durable style of government.

“While I don’t advocate it, and I am certain you wouldn’t approve of it, but just to illustrate the latitude allowed in the framing of a charter, you could put in a provision giving yourselves free light and water,” said Power, according to a Nov. 21, 1921 story in the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

His point was that when a town generates its own energy, rates are driven by cost, not the market. Even though times and technology are different today, leadership at the Hibbing PUC wants to renew this spirit.

On Nov. 10, the Hibbing Public Utilities Commission celebrates the century mark of its municipal power plant by renaming the facility as the “Hibbing Renewable Energy Center.” The Hibbing PUC undertook a dramatic shift in strategy last April as it renegotiated an old contract with Minnesota Power that officials say stuck the Hibbing ratepayers with higher bills. 

How does a facility designed for coal call itself a renewable energy center? The answer, in all its 19th century glory, is wood.

This year the Hibbing PUC fired up its restored high efficiency wood boiler. Hibbing buys wood waste from a pallet factory in Aitkin County. I spoke with someone from Savanna Pallets at the Northstar Logging Expo in Grand Rapids who said they ship seven trucks of wood waste every day for wood boilers like Hibbing’s.

On Sept. 15, the Hibbing PUC hit 35 megawatts of generation on its wood boiler, nearing its 40 megawatt capacity. The next day, I spoke with Luke Peterson, the general manager of Hibbing PUC operations about his goals for the future of the utility. 

Peterson acknowledge skepticism over past failures of the Laurentian Energy Authority, a scheme in which Xcel Energy took control of woody biomass power production at the Hibbing and Virginia municipal energy plants. Now, Peterson said the city wants to use its power plant how it was first intended, as a public asset to deliver lowest-cost service to its customers. At the same time, he argues this plan brings cleaner energy to Hibbing consumers.

“No one thing is the answer,” said Peterson. “Right now we’re paying a lot less for local wood than we would for solar panels. The money we spend goes directly to local loggers.

Peterson continued, “We have to think about the societies we create with our actions. We have wood products and can help our people while keeping the money local. We also have local autonomy and independence. [100 years ago] risk-takers took chances on things. Right now, we have control over our own future.”

Peterson said the energy industry’s move toward natural gas generation comes with increased automation and more distance between the customer and the companies that electrify their homes. Natural gas markets can be manipulated by big companies and market forces outside local control. But good old wood is all around us, his argument goes, along with a local logging industry all too happy to harvest it.

“We can disagree about politics and still agree about taking care of our energy future,” said Peterson. He said he’s a proponent of using infrastructure reform to heal societal wounds. For him, it’s about local jobs and lower rates.

“Our incentive is community service, not profits,” said Peterson.

There are two ways to look at the newly dubbed Hibbing Renewable Energy Center. On one hand, burning wood is not a particularly innovative way to create energy. While wood is renewable, it is chock full of carbon. 

On the other hand, high efficiency wood boilers like the one in Hibbing burn much cleaner than grandpa’s wood stove and both cleaner and considerably cheaper than coal. Furthermore, locally generated renewable fuel makes a huge difference in the overall carbon impact by eliminating loss from long transmission lines and using coal only as an emergency fuel. Perhaps most important to residents of Hibbing, this approach could save customers money if Peterson’s math works out. 

Peterson said other forms of renewable energy could be added later. But to him, it’s less about checking green boxes and more about creating affordable energy independence for a small town on the Iron Range.

Victor Power argued for a city charter in 1921, in part to allow things like the public utilities plant to receive modern upgrades in the century to come. Misfortune would deny him a city charter in his lifetime. In fact, Hibbing would not become a city until 1980. But Power’s words sound familiar.

“I want you to particularly keep these things in mind,” he told the packed hall at the old armory in 1921. “You do it yourself, you alone have the right to change it, and no one in any other part of the state or country can do anything to change it.”

This is the same sentiment behind Hibbing’s new push for energy independence. Too idealistic? We’ll know soon enough. But just like early Range politics, it’s something worth watching. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


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