SKIBO, Minn. - Television time is restricted in David Fondie’s house. Surfing the internet has time limits, too.
That’s because the remote Iron Range hamlet where he lives has no electricity — at least not the conventional kind. Fondie must fire up a generator to produce his own power, as does everybody in Skibo. The town is not connected to the grid.
“My son is in college and he tries to explain to his buddies why we don’t have power,” said Fondie, who lives in Skibo with his wife and daughter. “ ‘How can that be?’ is their reaction. The lines just don’t go that far.”
Skibo, tucked into the Superior National Forest, is home to at least 20 residents, though all but four are seasonal, said Joe Fondie, David’s dad and a sort of de facto mayor of the unincorporated town, which is in the service territory of Lake Country Power.
Cooperatives such as Grand Rapids-based Lake Country brought electricity to the American countryside beginning in the 1930s, stringing wires to sparsely populated places where for-profit utilities feared to tread.
But while data on the topic is hard to find, Lake Country CEO Greg Randa said there are still several rural nooks in Minnesota like Skibo that were never connected.
“We serve a lot of little crossroad junctions,” said Randa.
Lake Country is owned by its 43,000 customers spread over eight counties. But Skibo was always too far and too small to economically justify electric service from Lake Country and its predecessor co-op.
It would cost at least $1 million to string the 16-mile power line needed to serve Skibo, Randa said. “We wouldn’t ask for [Skibo residents] to pay for it all, but we have to make sure existing members don’t subsidize it.”
The Fondies hoped that a recent Canadian National Railway project near Skibo — which required a grid hookup — would finally bring them full-time power.
“We thought it was a foregone conclusion we’d get connected,” said Joe Fondie.
Yet while an underground power cable now snakes along the rail tracks right through Skibo, it is Canadian National’s private electrical network.
Skibo owes its existence to the old Duluth and Iron Range Railroad, created in the late 1800s to serve Minnesota’s then nascent iron mining industry. The town was named for Skibo Castle in Scotland, an ancient estate bought by Andrew Carnegie after the Scotsman became king of the American steel industry.
In Carnegie’s day, railway workers in Skibo did nearby track maintenance. Steam engines stopped for water. Passengers came and went at Skibo’s little rail station. The town, for a time, even had a post office, a small school and a sawmill. That’s all long gone.
But the railroad is still busy. Six to eight trains brimming with taconite pellets barrel through Skibo each day on their way to Two Harbors. Joe Fondie gets a panoramic view of them through his kitchen window.
Canadian National decided that connecting with Lake Country in Skibo was too expensive. Part of its operations, though, are in another utility’s territory, so the railroad effectively ran a miles-long extension cord down its tracks.
Skibo residents don’t have the same option, both because of the money it would take and the fact that none of the village falls outside Lake Country’s service territory.
A native of nearby Aurora, Fondie, 73, started building his compound in Skibo in 1980 and moved there full-time in 1993 with his wife, Diane. They have a 4,000-square-foot home — its interior lushly paneled in pine and spruce — and several outbuildings.
The Fondies worked around the power problem. While Joe was employed as a financial controller at several companies, he’s also a tinkerer with electrical know-how, once owning an Aurora company that made electronic parts.
At first, Fondie tried to illuminate his Skibo home with gas lights (powered by propane). That lasted until gas leaked and a cabinet caught fire. Now, he has a 12,000-watt diesel generator and bank of 84 industrial-grade lead-acid batteries.
It cost Fondie nearly $5,000 a year to fuel the generator, so he invested about $6,000 in a 15-panel solar array. Sun power cut his diesel fuel bill to less than $1,000.
But the system has its limits. The clothes washer is run only on sunny days. The refrigerator, another power-sucker, operates on propane — an inferior technology, the Fondies said. Joe has a big mechanical shop, but his electricity often comes up short for welding.
“And if the power goes out, we have to fix it,” said Diane Fondie.
Joe and Diane have the Rolls-Royce power system in town. Most electrical setups are more like David Fondie’s.
He’s got a 3,000-watt gasoline-powered generator and four backups; generators go out a lot and they’re particularly finicky in winter, said David, who works at a taconite plant in Silver Bay. He has two marine batteries, which are used to run his water pump and to charge cellphones (plus a booster to even get phone service). Otherwise, the electricity is on only when the generator is running.
“We are running it for lights and TV and a heat bulb for the chickens,” said David, referring to his hen house.
Electricity rolls by
Joe Fondie had asked Lake Country Power on and off for years about a grid connection.
Then in 2016, the Canadian National decided to build a new signal system between the Iron Range and Two Harbors. The project called for several 6- by 6-foot signal houses along the track, including three in Lake Country Power’s service territory and one on Minnesota Power’s turf.
The railroad asked Lake Country about running a line to Skibo for the signal houses. Such a project would have also allowed Lake Country to finally serve Skibo residents at a reasonable cost, Randa said. But Canadian National balked at the price tag.
Instead, it built an in-house electrical network for its signal stations, including its own underground line that extended right up to a Minnesota Power pole not far from Hoyt Lakes.
Lake Country filed a complaint with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), accusing Minnesota Power of violating state service territory rules. Minnesota Power argued that Canadian National had a choice because the railroad’s facilities straddle two power service areas.
The PUC earlier this year dismissed Lake Country’s complaint against Minnesota Power, saying the railroad can transfer electricity from one utility’s service area to another on its own private network for its own use.
Joe Fondie walks over Canadian National’s underground power line when he crosses the tracks to visit his son — a regular reminder of Skibo’s lack of electric service.
Fondie said the PUC should have stipulated that since Canadian National ran a line through Skibo, the railroad should give local residents access to electricity. But the PUC says it doesn’t have regulatory authority over railroads, and it’s unclear whether state law would allow such a resale of electricity.
The Fondies seem resigned to life off the grid. They chose to live in Skibo, and they love the area for its wide-open spaces and fishing, hunting and snowmobiling grounds.
Still, Joe has taken out a power insurance policy of sorts. From 1993 to 2011, he was a full-time Skibo resident. But after he retired in 2009, he built a second house in Aurora, about a dozen miles away and connected to the grid.
Maintaining his Skibo compound’s elaborate power system “is like a full-time job.”
“I am getting older, and in case something happens, I don’t want [Diane] to get stuck with this,” he said.