From rookie to retiree: the 'transmission' of Tom Christensen

Basin Electric retiree Tom Christensen.

Like the transmission lines that carry electricity from one place to another, Tom Christensen has spent his career working to ensure that vital resource is carried from Basin Electric’s power plants to the homes, farms, and businesses that need it to power their daily lives.

On Dec. 30, Christensen, Basin Electric senior vice president of Transmission, Engineering, and Construction, retired after nearly 40 years of service to the cooperative and its members, leaving behind years of experience, the respect of countless colleagues, and strong relationships with members and others he worked alongside throughout his career.

Christensen began his career at Basin Electric in 1983 shortly after graduating from North Dakota State University with a degree in electrical engineering with an emphasis in power systems. Except for a two-year stint with Iowa Power and Light, he has spent his entire career at the cooperative.

Christensen’s first position was in Resource Planning where he worked for two years before beginning his career in Transmission. As one of his first projects in Transmission Planning, he evaluated transmission systems in northeastern Wyoming, the present Basin Electric Class A member Powder River Energy Corporation system. “In 1987, we actually did some of the original evaluations of our Rapid City DC tie as part of those studies, although the DC tie didn’t get built until over 15 years later,” he says.

After spending two years in Iowa doing transmission and distribution planning for another company, Christensen moved back to Bismarck, North Dakota, and began working on Basin Electric’s Marketing and Power Supply team. While there, he served as Basin Electric’s project manager when Corn Belt Power Cooperative (now a Basin Electric Class A member) built Wisdom Generation Station Unit 2, a unit that is co-owned by Basin Electric and Corn Belt Power.

Then, with some of the transmission tariffs beginning, Mike Risan, former senior vice president of Transmission, hired Christensen and he joined the Transmission department where he focused on projects involving tariffs, substations, and some jointly owned lines that helped serve the Bakken region in western North Dakota.

The skills he gained during those projects were very helpful when Basin Electric joined the regional transmission organization (RTO) Southwest Power Pool (SPP) in 2015 and he had to help get cost recovery under the SPP tariffs, which he says was a challenging process.

When Risan retired in 2018, Christensen was promoted to fill his position as senior vice president of Transmission, Engineering, and Construction. “And thank God for Gavin (McCollam, former Basin Electric vice president of Engineering and current chief operating officer), Pius (Fischer, recently retired vice president of Transmission), and all their employees, as well as the TSM (Transmission System Maintenance) employees who keep the lines and substations operating and in service,” Christensen says. “Together, they are the backbone that get this machine we call ’the grid’ correctly designed, built, and kept in service.”

Throughout his career, Christensen says the concept of cooperation and coordination with other entities has been a central theme. “We have leveraged relationships with so many other organizations that have benefited our membership,” he says. Some examples include contracting with Western Area Power Administration to serve as Basin Electric’s transmission operator and working with investor-owned utilities such as Montana-Dakota Utilities to help us serve member load in areas where the federal transmission system didn’t reach. More recently, Basin Electric has worked with SPP on cost recovery of the 345-kV system. “Working with outside entities on challenging projects was not always easy but it has often saved us money and benefitted the membership, which is why it’s so important to do it,” he says.

Christensen early in his career when he worked in Basin Electric's Planning and Marketing department. He is pictured, left, with LaWayne Buelow, a former Basin Electric electrical engineer. 

Through all the roles he’s had at Basin Electric, Christensen says some of his favorite duties included “the analytical stuff,” and he always liked the analysis associated with resource planning and transmission studies. As time went on, he says he also enjoyed being able to think strategically about the direction of the co-op. “The Dakotas and the areas we serve have a practical nature,” he says. “We’re sitting on some of the best coal resources ever, we’ve got some of the best natural gas resources ever, and we’ve got some of the best wind resources. When you throw all that together, we’re in a pretty favorable situation from both a natural resource perspective and a regulatory perspective. One of the other strengths we have is our geographic location and its impact on our workforce. We have persevered, accomplished, and prospered not in spite of the climate, but to a large extent because of it. We have employees who operate our plants and run our transmission system that are from this area and they are, for lack of a better word, tough. I think that goes a long way.”

“Tom’s long and successful career at Basin Electric demonstrates the commitment he has to our members and the passion he has for getting reliable electricity to the member at the end of the line,” says Todd Telesz, Basin Electric CEO and general manager. “His leadership at SPP has been critical in helping Basin Electric and its members transition to being part of an RTO, and he has been instrumental in our efforts to evaluate a new RTO in the west. Tom’s legacy of leadership is reflected in the strong team of employees he has attracted and built. This team will carry forward the key strategic initiatives he has helped develop. He has truly been a major asset to our cooperative family and we wish him the best in his retirement.”

Christensen says his career with Basin Electric has been very satisfying. “It’s been an honor to be associated with Basin Electric and co-ops in general. Some of the conversations with the membership weren’t always easy, but they were always valuable,” he says.

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