Great River Energy: Investing in community and technology
Wednesday, January 24, 2018
After the recession, job growth in rural America has lagged behind that of its cities. But the outlook for rural regions remains promising. Research indicates that rural areas have higher levels of entrepreneurs than their metropolitan counterparts. And rural start-ups are typically more resilient.
Tom Lambrecht has dedicated much of his career to finding ways to help rural Minnesota thrive. Since Great River Energy’s inception in 1999, he has headed up the Minnesota-based electric cooperative’s economic development services.
It might seem unusual for an electric company to focus on economic development, but Great River Energy isn’t just any electric company — it’s a cooperative. The consumer-owned entity is driven by a set of cooperative principles, one of which includes concern for community.
“I like working for a co-op because it’s a community-based utility. Our members are also our owners. While we are focused on delivering competitive and reliable electricity, we also get to work on great economic development projects making significant community impact,” says Lambrecht.
The co-op’s community impact
Lambrecht leads Great River Energy’s economic development team. His staff works with the co-op’s 28 members throughout the state.
“We act as an extension of those co-ops, helping position them to grow businesses in their areas,” he says.
Encouraging business growth has ripple effects on the economy. When businesses grow and become more successful, they invest more in the community and create more jobs.
Under Lambrecht’s leadership, Great River Energy has provided over $40 million of direct financing in the form of zero and low interest loans to 118 projects throughout the state.
The loans support building and expansion projects for a range of entities, from manufacturers to hospitals and hotels. Many of the funded projects are small but see oversized results. In Grand Marais, Great River Energy and Arrowhead Electric Cooperative helped finance vital community assets such as a local food co-op grocery store, radio station and fire hall.
The co-op has made a number of loans for rural community centers. The multi-use, community gathering places can host public safety services and serve as rental venues for events like weddings and retirement parties.
Attracting data centers with virtual site tours
Although Great River Energy’s members mainly serve rural residential members, they also provide power to industrial areas and business parks. Bigger customers benefit everyone because they typically have energy efficiency goals and load profiles which utilize electricity efficiently.
When Lambrecht first started at Great River Energy, he worked mainly on financing projects. These programs have evolved and continue to assist in economic growth. He’s also focused on carrying out an economic development strategy focusing on business attraction and expansion.
One of the innovative methods Great River Energy is using to distinguish Minnesota is with a tiered site designation data center certification program. It was the first in the state to begin offering fully vetted data center sites in 2014.
Data centers have large but consistent electrical loads, which makes them ideal co-op members. But since data centers have stringent requirements and security specifications, certifying sites is a complex process. In addition to being a favorable distance from certain risk factors, sites need to pass a battery of tests, including environmental assessments, archeological surveys and soil sampling.
This makes pre-certified sites exceedingly attractive to companies. Great River Energy has several certified sites and is working on a second round of certifications — all are within target distances of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
There’s stiff competition on the national level to attract data centers. Great River Energy staff members attend trade shows around the country to educate people about opportunities in its service area.
They typically use print materials and the website to communicate detailed information about the sites to prospective companies and site consultants.
But seeing photos of a site and reading about its specs doesn’t convey a full picture. Site visits are required to get a more comprehensive view.
With an eye on the technology of the future, Lambrecht and the cooperative have partnered with Golden Shovel Agency to use PlaceVR to create a virtual site tour with 360 video to highlight Great River Energy's data center sites.
This pioneering marketing approach provides an immersive experience for viewers. It allows Great River Energy to distinguish itself from the national competition and to fully showcase available sites.
Lambrecht says he’s been talking to site consultants about this new technology. Even without seeing a video, they’re impressed with the idea, as it could provide a convenient visual way to review sites early in the site selection process before conducting an on-site visit.
Great River Energy’s early adoption of this technology for virtual site tours places it at the forefront in a competitive landscape.
"It shows we’re technologically advancing the marketing of our sites. I think it will provide a simple yet sophisticated tool for showcasing our best development locations,” says Lambrecht.