After 41 years, John Jacobs hangs up his hard hat

A man of integrity. Fairness. Respect. Consideration. A true servant leader. All these words have been used to describe John Jacobs, Basin Electric senior vice president of Operations. Jacobs retired on May 29 after a 41-year career at Basin Electric. 

Being in charge of the department that generates the very electricity that powers the cooperative and its members is a big responsibility, but Jacobs is a humble man, saying he worked for his employees and the members at the end of the line. And that is exactly what made him such a successful leader, according to Paul Sukut, Basin Electric CEO and general manager. “I want to take the opportunity to congratulate John on his 40-plus years at Basin Electric and thank him for his leadership of the Operations group over the past six years,” Sukut says. “He provided solid leadership that contributed greatly to the success of our ever-changing resource portfolio.”

Jacobs was hired as a civil engineer in 1979, fresh out of college, recently married, and hired to work on the construction side of Antelope Valley Station (AVS) in Beulah, North Dakota. It was an exciting opportunity for a young engineer because he was able to be involved in the construction of the largest boiler in physical size in the entire world at the time and a unique intake structure bringing him 350 feet under the surface of Lake Sakakawea. 

While Jacobs says he has many memories of that time, one of the most vivid is the traffic. With construction going on at Antelope Valley Station, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant, the Freedom Mine, and Coyote Station all in the same area at the same time, there were over 1,000 workers traveling the same two-lane road. “At quitting time, all four lanes (two in each direction) were full of cars all going in the same direction. You better not have wanted to be going the opposite way!” he says.

Jacobs says he was initially hired for a three-to-four-year job, but Antelope Valley Station “became my life,” he says. “Nothing happened at that plant that I wasn’t involved in – 
from the first shovel in the ground until I walked out of the building on my last day at Basin Electric.”

As those three or four years at Antelope Valley turned into 35, Jacobs’ roles shifted from civil engineer to administrative supervisor of construction, then maintenance superintendent, then plant manager, a position he held until being promoted to senior vice president of Operations in 2014, an achievement he says was the “golden ring of his career.” 

Jacobs says each of these positions were rewarding and challenging in their own way, but there is one time in particular when he saw both extreme challenges and rewards in one project. “There was a time in the 1980s when we didn’t know if we were even going to build AVS Unit 2 because loads were down,” he says. “Virtually all the equipment was onsite, but everyone else in the industry was scrapping their construction projects. Ultimately the board decided to build it even though it meant our system would be overbuilt. For a little while there was a  lot of surplus, but then the market picked up and we were the only ones that were built and ready to go. The members stuck with us even though we worked through some very hard financial times and it turned out to be a great decision, much like the challenges we are facing today. That was just one example of the foresight I’ve seen at Basin Electric over the years.” 

Jacobs says of all the positions he held over the years, he never had a real favorite because each was different, exciting, and challenging. “That’s what I always enjoyed about working for Basin Electric. There are always new opportunities if you want to step up and get involved – it’s a virtual career smorgasbord,” he says.

And just as when you go to a smorgasbord not knowing exactly what you’re going to get, when you work in a power plant, you don’t always know what’s going to come up during your shift. Jacobs says there were many days that didn’t go as planned during his tenure at Antelope Valley Station. One of those times was during the winter of 1984. 

“Wouldn’t you know it that the first-ever tube leak on Unit 1 happened on Christmas Eve. I was working and couldn’t get anyone to relieve me. We couldn’t get ahold of any of the contractors because of the holiday, so I was in charge of the tools, people, and materials,” he says. “I worked for 40 hours straight with no sleep and had to watch my daughters open up their Christmas presents on a video.” 

It’s because of situations like these that Jacobs says plant workers should be valued. “They are the ones who are there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and during holidays, storms, and even global pandemics to make sure electricity is reliable and available for essential services such as water treatment, hospitals, and communication.”

It is because of the importance of electricity and the people who work to provide it that Jacobs says labor union contract negotiations were one of the most important parts of his job as senior vice president of Operations. 

“These people are a highly trained and professional workforce whose sole purpose is to solve equipment problems and generate electricity at the lowest possible cost,” he says.

“There are no politics, and there are no credit takers – just a genuine, selfless, get-it-done mentality. Because of this, I did my best to be fair to everyone. Every worker has specific things they’d like to see, and they might be totally different from others in different positions, but it is our job to be fair to all of them. It’s not ‘we’ versus ‘they’ – we are all Basin Electric employees so decisions need to be win-win, because at the end of the day we are all on the same team and we all work for the same people.”

Jacobs says he learned a great deal during his years at Basin Electric. “This journey taught me that I work for everyone that would typically say they work for me, and to truly be successful it is the other way around,” Jacobs says. “If I couldn’t give the time, resources, and direction that makes everyone in the Operations department successful, then I failed.” 

But fail he did not. Jacobs has earned the respect of those with whom he worked. Chad Edwards, current Antelope Valley Station plant manager, says he has “had the pleasure of working with Jacobs for the past 30 years. He is a man of integrity who shares the same passion for coal. John represented us well and kept the best interests of the coal plants in mind,” Edwards says. 

“Working for John has been a great learning experience,” says Jamey Backus, plant manager of Leland Olds Station. “His professionalism and commitment to Operations is second to none.” 

“John was always supportive of me and the entire Dry Fork Station staff,” says Tom Stalcup, Dry Fork Station plant manager. “With his background in power plants, his technical background was very helpful to run concerns or issues by and visit about future plans for the plant. He is pro-coal and supportive of testing being conducted at Dry Fork Station for carbon capture and storage using the Integrated Test Center and CarbonSAFE projects.”

Troy Tweeten, former Laramie River Station plant manager and the person who has taken the reigns of senior vice president of Operations from Jacobs, says, “One thing I really appreciated was that at the end of our calls he would always say, ‘Hang in there and thanks for all you do, I really appreciate it.’ I took it as his way of saying thank you and I knew he was there to help and support me whenever I needed it.”

As for retirement, Jacobs says after being part of a department that is on call 24/7/365, life is really going to be different. 

“I’m told every day is Saturday and while I don’t know what that’ll be like, I’m sure it will be centered around family, traveling, hunting, fishing, and golfing. I might even be convinced to fit in a honey-do here and there,” he says. “There were a lot of family events and activities I missed over the years, so I’m looking forward to spending time with my family and not having to worry about work. In this profession it is important to have a supportive family, and I could always rely on my wife, Anne, and daughters, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Kaity to provide that support. They have always been my reason to go to work every day regardless the weather or situation that might await me when I got there.”

In true John Jacobs fashion, he compares retirement to starting up a power plant for the first time. “It’s bittersweet. Both are the end of something you’ve worked hard at for a long time and the beginning of a new chapter. But like the startup of a plant, it’s time to hand the controls over to someone else who will take it from here,” he says. “There are so many talented employees waiting for an opportunity to add their personal touch and apply their talents to make Basin Electric a success story. I am so impressed with the professionalism and drive I see in so many of them. That true cooperative spirit that has been with us since our inception is what will carry Basin Electric successfully into the future.”