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Mike Jacobs: State, Xcel have much to discuss

Appearances are important in politics, but not everything. Access is important, too.

These two came into conflict at this year's Super Bowl. Gov. Doug Burgum accepted an invitation to watch the game with Xcel Energy executives in the company's suite.

It's not surprising that Burgum would want face time with Xcel executives or they with him. More than a fourth of North Dakotans get their electric power from Xcel. Many thousands buy natural gas from Xcel, too. The company has thousands of miles of powerlines in North Dakota and it has interests in energy production plants. Decisions that its executives make have a huge impact on the state's economy and quality of life.

Burgum said as much last month, well before game time, when he asked business leaders in Grand Forks to join their colleagues in Fargo and Minot to put pressure on Xcel to improve its service. Reliable electricity is vital to Burgum's "Main Street Initiative," which he's made central to his governorship — though so far more as a cheerleader than a policymaker.

You can't have lively downtown areas without electricity.

Newspapers are big users of electricity. The computers must light up and the presses must run, and they depend on electric power. The Herald had several close calls while I was working there, and the risk of losing power was a factor in our decision to move the press facility away from downtown — into the service area of a different utility. It wasn't the only factor, and not the most important one, but it's one we considered.

The Herald's new production plant is west of Interstate 29, within the service area of Nodak Rural Electric. Much of the new growth in Grand Forks, as is common with other cities, is away from downtown areas, and very often, that puts it outside Xcel's service area. This has to do with North Dakota's so-called "territorial law," which governs which companies serve what areas.

The laws effectively limit the public utilities, like NSP, to older, built-up areas while leaving new growth areas to the rural electric cooperatives. The reasons for this are historic; powerful rural interest groups lobbied the Legislature for these laws favoring co-ops.

I know this because loading buses with farmers who would deliver this message was part of my job when I worked for the North Dakota Farmers Union more than 40 years ago. We trained members to refer to utility companies as IOUs, standing for "investor-owned-utilities." This emphasized their corporation ownership. They were the bad guys, in other words.

Rural cooperatives have other advantages in the market for electricity. They have access to low interest rates through the federal government, for example, and their rates are subject to regulation by the Public Service Commission.

Private utilities have always chafed under this system. Jim Dalglish told me this often. For years Dalglish was the local voice of Northern States Power Company, now part of Xcel. North Dakotans shouldn't be surprised if service suffered, he argued; territoriality laws discouraged investment here.

Xcel's interest in North Dakota hasn't diminished. Xcel is a big part of the state's energy production industry. The company buys natural gas from North Dakota, for example, and its coal-fired power plants burn North Dakota coal. Xcel also has investments in wind farms.

The company is moving away from fossil fuels. On Feb. 6, the New York Times reported that Xcel has asked for proposals to build power plants using wind turbines and solar panels. They cost less than updating fossil fuel plants.

This policy may be driven partly by politics in Minnesota, a major Xcel service area. Minnesota requires utilities to diversify their sources and mandates that a greater share comes from renewables. North Dakota has taken a different point of view, seeking to aggrandize coal and oil, especially at the expense of wind power.

So Xcel and North Dakota have a lot to talk about. No doubt the governor thought the Super Bowl would a good chance to get to know Xcel executives. It turned out to be expensive, though. He reimbursed Xcel for two tickets. That cost him $37,000 — about 28 percent of his annual salary.

Some advice: Don't expect Kevin Cramer to reverse his decision to bow out of the U.S. Senate race. Cramer described himself as "a man of the House" when he initially said he'd stay there. His seat is probably safe, and he'll move up in seniority if he's re-elected. This could be especially important since some Republicans have decided not to run again, and others may be vulnerable if this election punishes the party of the president, as off-year elections in first terms have done so often in the past.

An invitation: If you're in Grand Forks on Sunday, drop by the County Historical Society on Belmont Road at 2 p.m. I'm giving a presentation called "North Dakota in the 1840s." It'll be more fun if you're there.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.