Colorado climate compact moves ahead in Denver suburb

A February sun sets on the Medicine Bow Range that defines Colorado’s North Park, as seen from near Gould. Photo/Allen Best

Climate compact birthed in Aspen has coming out party in suburb of Aurora

by Allen Best

One recent morning I boarded a bus headed for downtown Denver, sure I would miss the first session of the Colorado Communities Symposium: Advancing Clean Energy & Climate Preparedness but confident of soon seeing familiar faces at a familiar destination: the Hyatt Regency. I’ve been to conferences at the hotel across the street from the Colorado Convention Center a dozen times.

I was wrong. There were no familiar faces. An old e-mail explained why. The meeting was at the Hyatt Regency Denver Conference Center, which is in Aurora. I need to read my e-mails more carefully.

Several bus rides and hours later, I got to the hotel near the Anschutz Medical Campus in time to hear Gov. John Hickenlooper make some jokes.

I tell this story partly so you can laugh at my ineptitude. But it’s instructive in this way. It gave me cause to wonder why the familiar had been forsaken. One reason, I learned later, was that the environmental practices at the Aurora location were considered better than the downtown hotel. The parking garage, for example, had charging stations for electric cars.

But I got two of the three right on my own. One was that the suburban location came cheaper. Also, it was in the suburbs, not in Denver—and certainly not in Boulder.

This was a symbolic calculation. As one former state official told me, all of Colorado’s political battles are won or lost in the suburbs. Earlier in the weekend, I had attended an event in Lakewood at which Leslie Glustrom prepped people in how to submit testify before the  Colorado Public Utiltiies Commission in line with her thinking.  Her precise argument before the PUC here is less important than her observation that “one letter from (Denver suburb of) Westminster is worth 3,000 from Boulder).

This e-magazine from which this website posting was extracted, Mountain Town News, is for mountain towns, not Denver suburbs, but the story about this conference began in a mountain town about this time last year. Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron had been to Paris in late 2015, and he returned home with an idea and a zeal. He wanted to move the needle on climate change action in Colorado.

Aspen is already a member of a group called Colorado Communities for Climate Action, an advocacy group with many of the familiar suspects: Boulder, Fort Collins and Telluride, but also Vail and several other mountain towns and counties along with several Boulder suburbs. The group takes positions at the State Capitol. It is administered by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization.

The new group that came out of the meeting one snowy day last May in Aspen is called the Compact of Colorado Communities.

Broadening the tent

There were familiar suspects, but it was not strictly a meeting of mountain town people. There were a couple of Denver suburbs, even a city manager from a farm town. That farm town from a deeply red part of Colorado never has joined, I don’t think, but there was at least interest.

Aspen organized the conference but Daniel Kreeger, the Miami-based director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, was immediately the administrator.

Then, in July, Hickenlooper announced an executive order that put at least some meat on the bones of his soft-pedaled declarations about the need to address climate change. It provided some specific goals, even if many activists I talked to then seemed to think that Hickenlooper has failed to show true leadership relative to the risk of climate change.

It’s relevant to this story to note that when Hickenlooper made his announcement at Red Rocks Amphitheater, among those in attendance was Steve Hogan, the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s third most populous city (Colorado Springs is second).

The new Colorado Compact got together with the state government to create the conference, which is to be an annual thing, as per the charter of the Colorado Compact. But the state has more resources than does the Colorado Compact.

As for Aurora as the site of the first conference, Taryn Finnessey, the lead person in the Hickenlooper administration on climate change, confirmed that Aurora’s suburban location was a careful calculation. Cost was the primary motivation, but there was also a message: this was just not a Denver-focused event.

Finnessey said that the state recognizes that action cannot solely be driven by gubernatorial executive orders. Towns, cities and counties under Colorado law have reserved authority, such as over building codes. There has to be conversation, Finnessey said.

The conference lineup of speakers and panelists was impressive: Hickenlooper and Jim Lochhead from Denver Water and many others. More impressive yet were those in-the-trenches people, such as the panel that talked about how to integrate carbon reduction into agriculture.

Did this event broaden the tent? Yes, it seems, if only modestly. Many of the faces were familiar, those people from places deeply concerned about climate change. Mountain towns were amply represented, suburbs somewhat less so. But I hear that the city manager of Craig, a coal town, was there, as was somebody from Grand Junction.

Nobody from Colorado Springs showed up, according to what I heard, and there were no cowboy hats that I noticed, no confusion with a American Farm Bureau gathering. (Not to be confused with the Farmers Union, which is much more accepting of climate science, I think).

Talk about other reasons

I asked one assistant city manager of a suburb between Denver and Boulder what it would take to get some of his purplish neighboring jurisdictions to such a conference.

“Don’t talk about climate change,” he said. “Talk about why doing this stuff makes sense for other reasons.”

In one of the sessions, I heard the same thing: get rid of the words “clean energy” and instead talk about resilience.

One individual, a county commissioner from Saguache County, in the San Luis Valley, one of the state’s poorest regions, said that economic vitality trumped concern about climate change. Understandably so.

But for Vail, as town manager Greg Clifton pointed out, the changing climate that already seems to be shortening winters and replacing snow with rain, is an economic threat, too.

It’s a conundrum that continues to perplex me: How do you address climate change while not talking about it? But yes, it’s true—for some people, climate change sours any potentially constructive conversation. The protocol for this conversation is complicated.

Has this tent in Colorado broadened? Yes, that was apparent at the conference. But it’s still a relatively small tent. And, as one county commissioner from the I-70 Corridor said to me, when do we get beyond talking to action?

That’s always the question coming out of call-to-action conferences. Will good come out of the hallway conversations, the bullet points of to-do actions for energy, transportation and other subject areas taped to the walls?

Chris Menges, a climate and sustainability analyst/planner for the city of Aspen, says the Compact of Colorado Communities offers members resources.

“The Compact is about giving member communities in Colorado the resources and capacity they need to do this beneficial work without being prescriptive about what the motivations should be and without being prescriptive about what exactly implementation should look like.”

In other words, he adds, the Compact provides the tools and resources to leverage the opportunities of the clean energy economy in each community in the way that makes most sense for them.

The curriculum offered by the Compact was developed by experts over several years to increase the core competencies of staff members of organizations belonging to the Compact. One of the next steps for the Compact will to begin rolling out this capacity-building approach to member communities.

Aspen, he added, helped launch the Compact, “but we never administered it. The members do, and we are one of more than 20 members.”

Finnessey says the action items are being assembled, with a report expected during the week or two. That summary should help identify the actions around energy, rural development, and economic vitality that state officials will prioritize for action during Hickenlooper’s final months in office. He is term-limited, a new governor to take office in January.

Traction

What has come out of this talking that Steve Skadron instituted a year ago except for more talking?

It’s hard for me to say, except to offer my hunch that yes, the needle is moving. Menges had the same intuitive sense about this conference devoted to the intersection of state and local government, private-sector utilities and NGOs.

Fast enough? I’m an optimist who reads all the pessimistic reports about climate change. What I heard encourages me.

As for the Aspen-Aurora link mentioned earlier, I am reminded of John Denver. He was and still is strongly associated with Aspen, his adopted home. But his funeral in 1997? It was in Aurora, where his mother was living.

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A setback for dark sky in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley

A barn near Westcliffe in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley.
Photo/Mike Pach of www.3peaksphoto.com

Dark week for star-gazers as Colorado county rejects limits on lights

by Allen Best

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – Dark sky proponents in Colorado’s Custer County had hoped to become the first international dark-sky reserve in North America certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

They were buoyed in their effort by the great success of dark-sky designations for Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, the two adjoining towns in the Wet Mountain Valley.

It didn’t happen, though. Idaho earned that distinction late last year for a broad swath of the state that includes the headwaters of the Salmon River as well as the land around Ketchum and Sun Valley.

But even being No. 2 may now be out of the question. Last week the local planning commission rejected a resolution to change the definition of light pollution.

Partly at issue has been the intensity of new energy efficient LED lights. With less energy, they produce more light, and more disruptive white light. Dark sky proponents in Custer County wanted to throttle down the color temperature to 3,000 Kelvin, a warmer and less intense light. A regular incandescent or Halogen light has a “color” of about 2,700 Kelvin. More industrial settings, such as the lights you often see on the sides of warehouses, use 5,000 Kelvin lights or even stronger.

John Barentine, director of conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association, says removing all reference to light pollution in the county ordinances, as county commissioners want, “would be a significant step backward.”

Barentine tells Mountain Town News that he’s dubious the Wet Mountain Valley will achieve designation as a dark-sky preserve. “It would be a very uphill effort, if not outright impossible,” he said by e-mail.

For Idaho to achieve the designation, it took amended regulations in three counties as well as towns.

The Wet Mountain Tribune reported a packed courtroom for the meeting. In persuading the planning commissioners, opponents warned of government over-reach. “We don’t need the strong arm of government,” said one individual, who instead advocated voluntary compliance. Opponents of the limitations on light-pollution also fretted about fines imposed and possible jail time meted out to offenders.

Jim Bradburn, president of the Dark Skies, Inc. of the Wet Mountain Valley, said he and other proponents will continue to make their case. The valley’s ranchers opposed the proposed restriction on high-intensity lights. He says that as American’s shift their diets away from beef, the valley will need economic development strategies. The dark sky is an asset that can be used to draw overnight visitors from Denver, three hours away, and from Colorado Springs, about 90 miles away.

“They all love dark skies, but when you ask them how are they going to preserve it, nobody seems to have an answer,” says Bradburn of the rural property owners. “The voluntary thing is great, but we have been doing voluntary now for 10 years, and the lights keep showing up. … It’s not working,” he tells Mountain Town News.

Located along the Sangre de Cristo Range in south-central Colorado, Custer County has often had fractious political fights. In November, two of the three county commissioners were recalled.

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Patrick Brower on why “Killdozer” operator was no hero

Patrick Brower talks about writing Killdozer and why the dozer operator should not be regarded as a hero

by Allen Best

In 2004, Marvin Heemeyer fortified a Komatsu bulldozer in a garage on the edge of Granby, Colo., and sealed the cab before setting out to seek revenge  on those he felt had done him wrong. Among those people was Patrick Brower, editor of the local newspaper, who fled his office from the backdoor even as the bulldozer blades smashed into the front. Here, he talks about writing the new book “Killdozer: the True Story of the Colorado Bulldozer Rampage,” who he believes the real heroes in his town were and how that June day that began so pleasantly in Granby has changed his community for the worse even now.

The title of your book, “Killdozer,” is curious in this way. Marvin Heemeyer never actually killed anybody. Why did you choose that title?

Three reasons. First, the bulldozer used in the rampage quickly came to be known as simply the “killdozer” in the utterings and writings about the event shortly after it happened. The public imagination just ran away with that word: killdozer. The name was first used in a campy, Grade B, made-for-TV movie during the early ‘70s. I heard it all the time then and read it many times on line.

Second, while Marv Heemeyer never did kill anybody, I don’t believe he avoided trying to kill anyone. He fired his rifles at least three people: He shot at a state trooper, he shot at least nine times at Cody Docheff, and he fired twice at Sgt. Rich Garner.

If that doesn’t demonstrate an indifference to killing, then his attempt to blow up the propane tanks and perhaps incinerate a Granby neighborhood where senior housing was located certainly suggests a rather extreme indifference to killing.

And how could he have known that I wasn’t crushed, for example, when he plowed into my newspaper building? I was in there at the time and luckily escaped by running out the back. If I had tripped, I might not have lived to write the book.

Marv has become “sainted” because he didn’t kill anybody. It’s clear to me and many others that Marv must not have cared one wit if he had killed anyone.

Patrick Brower

Had you ever, in your several encounters with Marvin Heemeyer, said to yourself: This guy really stands out as different? Had you formed a strong opinion of him?

He was brooding and slightly ominous. My strongest opinion of him centered around a financial dealing I had with him when he became very insistent and threatened to sue, which I thought was an odd reaction over such a trivial matter.

In general, Marv and I worked together in person in what I thought was a cordial manner on letters to the editor that he had composed about the batch plant proceedings and over some advertising. But he had threatened one member of my staff, and that prompted me to be circumspect when dealing with him.

You were running out the back door of the Sky-Hi News as the bulldozer was coming in the front door. Why did it take you so long?

I was staying in the newspaper office to cover this event. I had taken some photos as it rumbled down the highway in the direction of our office but I never imagined that it was being driven by Marv Heemeyer. At that point it was all speculation. I fully expected it to just keep driving right by our office building. I was wrong.

Every dramatic story has heroes and villains. The villain here is clearly Marvin Heemeyer. Who were the heroes?

Undersheriff Glen Trainor for clearly risking his life in an attempt to stop the dozer by climbing atop it as it rolled through town. Law enforcement stumbled at first, telling people to stay inside homes and businesses. They quickly realized that was a bad idea. They got people to evacuate quickly. That’s one of the reasons nobody was killed. Remember, there were children in the library only minutes before it was destroyed.

Cody Docheff battled the dozer at his batch plant for a long time, risking life and limb to try and stop Heemeyer. He continued fighting dozer even after his machine had been hit at least nine times by bullets fired by Heemeyer. I think that makes him a hero too.

Other heroes could be the Granby Town Board members. If unwittingly, they had subjected themselves to much danger simply by agreeing to take on one of the most thankless roles in our democracy: Being a small-town board member.

Glen Trainor, undersheriff of Grand County, Colorado, unsuccessfully tried to find a way to disable the bulldozer or its operator. The operator later committed suicide when the dozer fell into the mini-basement of a Gambles store in Granby.

Nobody in this book cries, nobody curses. Did people in Granby cry? Did they curse?

I avoided using some of the cursing in Marv’s tapes just because it didn’t seem necessary, but it’s there.

There was crying for sure, as when Casey and Rhonda Farrell stood in front of their completely demolished business the Saturday after the rampage. I chose to leave that out. I would be willing to guess that other victims cursed and cried, I just never got it on the record.

If you were initially mystified by what Heemeyer did, you surely were also angry. How was that anger manifested and how did that anger change over time?

I felt fear, dread and mystification. I was afraid for us all that we can live in a society where this sort of thing can happen, even in small-town America. I truly felt fear at the moment.

My sense of dread was over two issues: What had I done to prompt this reaction and how in the world was I going to be able to get the business and my livelihood back up and running?

My mystification came down to a belief based on my mostly firsthand observation of the back story. Nothing was done to justify this sort of an out-sized reaction by Heemeyer. Sure, he lost a zoning fight with the town. Sure, he didn’t agree with the newspaper over gambling in Grand Lake. Yes, he wasn’t able to sell his property at highly inflated prices to his neighbors, as he makes very clear in his tapes and scribblings. (I think the core motivation behind his actions.) But did this justify such a reaction?

The anger I have felt centers around the way people are idolizing Heemeyer and making him into an “American folk hero.” The facts reveal he was no hero.

It strikes me that there are advantages and disadvantages of writing a book about your own community. On one hand, you know it. You know the sort of jokes people are likely to tell, which you used to good effect in recreating scenes. You didn’t have to be everywhere all the time to describe scenes as they likely happened. But does it also constrain you? Did it cause you to come up short in what you might have said?

Yes, I think there’s the natural tendency to empathize more with “my” community than, say, the community of Heemeyer. But much of that was tempered with an honest attempt on my part to understand Heemeyer’s motivation and frame of mind.

There’s a reason Heemeyer is seen as a hero to many, and I present that in the book. The truth is that in the narrative Heemeyer would have the world believe Granby and Grand County are pretty awful: Corrupt government, back-stabbing locals who “hate” newcomers and a bunch of “window-peeking” perverts. Those are Marv’s words, by the way. Hmmm. That’s not what I have observed living in this community, and covering it as a reporter and editor for many years.

I’m curious about your technique. In normal reporting, you triangulate character profiles through observations of others. The New Yorker, for example, does this all the time. I didn’t see that here. Why not? Why so few other voices?

Much of the characterization came out through my own, firsthand observation of and experience with the characters as the story unfolded, even though we didn’t always know it was unfolding at the time. I actually lived this story and really did sit through town meetings, interview Heemeyer, run from the rampage and live the aftermath in the first person, if you will.

Now, if I had helicoptered in here from another place and decided to write this story, I would have had to rely on that approach you mention simply because I wouldn’t have known the people and the setting.

I’m curious about the snowmobiling chapter, where Marv saves somebody and is deemed a hero. Was that a hard chapter to write?

That chapter was based on a published article about the avalanche that appeared in a snowmobiling magazine. Back at the time, before the rampage, we had talked to people involved in the event for the newspaper and people had told us about it, although we never published an article. Remember, this was before we knew anything about an impending rampage perpetrated by Marv. So, while it wasn’t easy to write, it was based on a published account and the comments of people involved.

Marvin Heemeyer before his rampage displays bullets he later fired from the Komatsu bulldozer.

What was the hardest part of this book to write?

When I came to terms with the content of the two-and-half hours of tapes left behind by Heemeyer. He presents a version of reality in those tapes which, if true, would have rendered my life, livelihood and craft meaningless. Many people believed the point of view of the tapes. I had to convey that I actually went through an honest rejection of Heemeyer’s narrative based on real self-examination and community examination.

In writing about Marvin Heemeyer and the hurrahs for his spiteful actions, you studied the dark side of human nature. But in truly understanding that darkness you came to the brink and turned away, simply unable to understand—like so many others before. Tell us about that struggle to understand.

I spent two months of my research interviewing psychologists and one psychiatrist about Heemeyer and this event. It was to have been a chapter in the book. No one was willing to render any “diagnosis” or even strong opinion about his psychological state of mind that I felt good about. I read books about sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists, and it all came up flat.

What was evil then, about Marv? It was his own personal vulnerability to the vigilante-as-martyr heroic trope that abounds in dramatic narratives today. I feel he really did decide he was going to carry out this act because God wanted him to show the people of Granby the error of their ways. And he decided, with pride and a smirk, to do so in a way that would be remembered for many, many years.

When the rampage occurred in 2004, the war in Iraq was little more than a year old. The attacks of 9/11 were not yet three years old. Do you think any of this played into what happened in Granby?

I could not find any connection, although I have often wondered if Heemeyer had originally intended to carry out his rampage on the anniversary of the D-Day landings, which would have been June 6 rather than June 4.

I wonder how this changed you and how you view the outside world? Did it change how you heard the news about the attempted New Years’ bombings in Aspen several years later, the shootings in Aurora, those in San Bernadino or even the car bombings in New York, London and other places on the front lines of terrorism?

It has greatly changed my view of how people, particularly in America through the lens of the Internet, absorb and react to violence and violent rampages. My view is that many people aren’t actually very worried or sympathetic about violence in America today. When they do search for explanations they fall back on their basest instincts and biases to explain away the unexplainable.

I studied closely the on-line reactions to these events you refer to above (with the exception of the Aspen event) and I was disturbed by the trend of thinking and sympathy that many people voice on-line; not for the victims, but for the perpetrators.

Many of the villains became heroes. Just think of Ted Nugent telling the world that the Aurora theatre shootings were really a plot hatched by the government to attack gun rights, implicitly taking the shooter off the hook? It goes on and on . . . It’s also brought into focus the anti-government inclination of many of the people who are likely to make Heemeyer a hero.

Is Granby different today as a result of the bulldozer rampage, other than the physical changes?

Yes, Granby is different. The town has something like a backward looking inferiority complex because there are many out there who feel as if Heemeyer was a hero and that he must have somehow been justified in what he did. Some people even want to celebrate and memorialize an event that cost $10 million in damage and only by luck didn’t get anybody killed.

It was a very difficult, expensive and gut-wrenching event for many people in the town. And yet many well-meaning locals still would have preferred to have kept the dozer and put it on display in the town park?!

The town and the townsfolk worked quietly and diligently to bring things back to “normal” without whining and casting aspersions. And yet, we hear it all the time: “Granby, the place where that guy went nuts in a bulldozer. The town must have really done something wrong to make him mad. (There’s a chuckle.)”

But really, the town and people didn’t do anything to justify that. So the town struggles with living through a dubious distinction indeed: The place where Marv Heemeyer and his Killdozer went on a rampage, a rampage that many think was probably “justified.”

And then there’s the sort of snide comment uttered by people up-valley who think of the rampage as a then much-needed sort of urban renewal that somehow made Granby a better place. One cartoonist even referred to Granby as Colorado’s least interesting mountain town. It’s no wonder that most Granbyites are humble and restrained when the rampage topic comes up.

See also:  On the dark side of bright-eyed paradise in mountain towns

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Tom Hale remembered as crafty, capable contributor

Tom Hale led wave of newcomers in Telluride then managed towns

Thomas Henry Hale, the first “newcomer” to Telluride elected to public office in San Miguel County and then later manager of several mountain governments, died Jan. 23 at the age of 73. He had battled brain cancer for nine months.

Hale was born in 1944 in Boston. HIs family had roots in New England beginning with the Mayflower. His ancestors had established the oldest law firm in the United States, today called Wilmer Hale. Another ancestor, Sarah Josepha Hale, was known as the “grandmother” of Thanksgiving and author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Another had been in Congress, another a state supreme court justice, and so forth.

Hale attended boarding schools before graduating from the University of Minneapolis in 1967 with a degree in forestry and land use. He then moved to Colorado, first to Aspen, where he worked on the ski mountain and in construction, building his first house at Snowmass.

Tom Hale

Deciding that Aspen was ’too crowded,” he moved to Telluride in 1969. It was still a mining town. The ski area did not open until late 1972. Four years later, in 1976, he was elected a San Miguel County commissioner.

Art Goodtimes—a journalist who arrived several years later, going on to become a county commissioner himself—says that progressive newcomers drawn to the emergent ski area economy took over town government in the mid-1970s.

“But the Board of County Commissioners was a more difficult nut to crack. Tom Hale was the first progressive elected to a very conservative board.”

Goodtimes confirms what the obituary printed in various newspapers said about his savvy skills in his eagerness to work with even the most bitter of rivals.

“As a cub reporter covering county affairs, I thought he had a great knack for making motions that got just a bit (not too much) of his agenda into the motion, while satisfying his colleagues’ concerns. In fact I learned through Tom that making a motion first was often a more powerful position than serving as chair,” says Goodtimes.

“He was an inspiration for me when I got elected to office, especially when I stepped outside the county to work on committees for Colorado Counties Inc. and the National Association of Counties. I was always in the liberal minority. But I used the skills I learned from Tom to shape motions, find common ground and get a little piece of my agenda into positions I didn’t usually agree with.”

In Telluride, Hale spearheaded the creation of the town’s historical commission that preserved its past and mandated that all future buildings were in line with its heritage; pushed through laws that guaranteed low-income housing within town limits; and ensured the creation of the United States’ first and only regional gondola transportation system to connect the town of Telluride with its sister town, Mountain Village.

This latter achievement is environmentally noteworthy, as Hale fought for the gondola to be a free service so that it would help prevent skyrocketing car traffic between the two towns. It still is.

After moving to Denver in 1985, Hale worked at Colorado Counties Inc. and the U.S. Census Bureau then returned to the mountains in 1995 to pursue his passion: local government.

For several years, he was administrator of Chaffee County, whose principal towns are Buena Vista and Salida. Then, from 2000 to 2008, he was town manager of Granby, followed by a short stint as vice president for town relations at Granby Ranch ski area. In his final post, he was town administrator of Georgetown from March 2010 until he resigned in October 2017.

Among his most trying episodes might have been one in Granby. During his time there, Marvin Heemeyer bulldozed the town hall and 13 other buildings in the town in the aftermath of a zoning dispute from the 1990s.

Patrick Brower, then editor and publisher of the local Sky-Hi News, recalls Hale as a “top-notch manager who helped to run the town with a sense of humor and a common sense approach toward government.”

Brower says that Hale orchestrated the annexation of what is now all of Granby Ranch into the town limits (doubling the geographical footprint of the town to include the SolVista ski area and a golf course) and took the first steps toward protecting Granby’s downtown corridor despite outlying development pressure that threatened downtown. He also worked closely with developers of Grand Elk, bringing that real estate and golf course into the town limits along with a new City Market grocery store.

Hale, says Brower, “was unfairly and unceremoniously fired by Granby Mayor Ted Wang (a mere letter left on Tom’s seat in the temporary Granby town hall).”

Among current town managers who knew Hale was Virginia Egger, now of Avon. She was in Telluride in the mid-1980s when she first met Hale at a meeting. “He arrived smartly dressed, replete with a bow tie and tweed jacket. His East Coast accent powered his deservedly boasting views and sense of purpose as an elected official in one of Colorado’s newest ski town darlings, Telluride,” she says.

Many years later, when he was at Georgetown, she met him again at an I-70 Coalition meeting.

“Anyone who knew Tom benefitted from his wicked wit, keen insight and often voiced alternate view. He was a gem and will be remembered.”

He is survived by his wife, Nancy Service Hale, also of Boston, whom he met in Telluride and married in 1979, and also sons, Mark Christy Brooks Hale, of Granby, and Christopher “Kip” Robert Fairbanks Hale, of Washington, D.C.

 

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Grasping at straws and other polystyrene products

Photo/Sierra Club

South Lake Tahoe grasping at straws and other polystyrene products

by Allen Best

Anybody who has walked along a creek or river has undoubtedly seen the discarded foam cups and other detritus of our throw-away plastic culture. Some people are disgusted by the sight of litter, but what is more worrisome is what cannot be seen.

The plastic disintegrates into tiny particles but biodegrades very, very slowly. Fish take in these tiny particles of plastic. Frogs do, too. The bits of foam and other types of plastic are everywhere. And they’re not going away. Rather, all this continues to accumulate, most notably in that big swirl in the Pacific Ocean.

Should polystyrene products be banned? A growing number of local jurisdictions in coastal states have taken a hard line against polystyrene, including Styrofoam and other foam varieties. Now, mountain towns are starting to do so, too.

In California, South Lake Tahoe’s five-member council this week unanimously agreed to push along a proposal to sharply restrict use of polystyrene products in restaurants and stores. A more precise proposal is scheduled to return to the council on March 20.

In Colorado, the Avon Town Council is also expected to take up the matter of polystyrene in March.

Berkeley, Calif., banned polystyrene foam in 1988, the first such ban in the United States. Now, 114 towns, cities, and counties in California have enacted bans; the state has 498 municipalities altogether. Jurisdictions in other, mostly coastal states, both along the Pacific and Atlantic, have also adopted restrictions.

See Surfrider list of ordinances in California, Maine, New Jersey and other states.

Manufacturers have stoutly resisted, showing sufficient muscle that they have stalled any such ban in New York City and put up a good fight in Los Angeles. California’s state government has twice chosen not to adopt a state-wide ban.

The argument generally comes down to whether the product needs to be banned. Industry and business groups have argued that stepped-up recycling and anti-litter programs will sufficiently handle the problem. However, in op-eds in the Los Angeles Times and on HuffPost, they have presented no evidence that such efforts have worked anywhere.

The Sierra Club argues that while polystyrene products cost less than other alternatives, that ignores environmental costs. There is no need for this because there are many alternatives that are readily available.

First, a note about terminology. Such bans are often mistakenly called bans on Styrofoam. That’s a brand name, like a Chevrolet. Nobody yet has singled out Styrofoam, a product of Dow Chemical first created in 1947. Another expanded polystyrene foam was also marketed under the trade name Dylite.

Foam products are generically called expanded and extruded polystyrene.

Polystyrene was first discovered by a Germany apothecary in 1839. It was first commercially manufactured in 1930 and, in 1937, Dow Chemical introduced it into the U.S. market. Not all polystyrene is foam. It can be a hard plastic, too, as is the case with straws and lids. For recycling purposes, both are No. 6 in the triangular symbol.

Just how easily they can be recycled is another matter, one that was at the center of debate when New York City considered a ban. The city adopted a ban but it was overturned in court.

In California, the 114 cities and counties who have adopted restrictions have most commonly cited environmental effects, according to a report prepared by the staff of South Lake Tahoe for elected officials.

This environmental impact has two groundings. First, it is made from non-renewable petroleum products. Second, these foam products are “uniquely problematic when they become litter as EPS (expanded polystyrene) is a lightweight, durable material that is not biodegradable. Its foam structure allows it to break easily into small pieces, making it difficult and expensive to remove from the environment,” according to the staff report given city councilors this week.

The California Department of Transportation finds that expanded polystyrene foam comprises 15 percent of storm drain litter.

At Lake Tahoe, the polystyrene products are a major problem. Two local environmental groups, the League to Save Tahoe and Keep Tahoe Blue, have sponsored cleanup of the lake’s 182 miles of shoreline. From 2015 to 2017, volunteers picked up 35,516 pieces —a good many of them polystyrene.

The intent of South Lake Tahoe is to lead local efforts to crimp the proliferation of polystyrene. It’s the only municipality along the lake, but there are three counties—Placer, Eldorado, and Washoe—with jurisdiction. The city intends to take the case for regulations to the other jurisdictions, according to Tracy Sheldon, communications manager.

The direction given by the council this week was for drafting of an ordinance that will ban use of polystyrene products at take-out restaurants and also in retail sales, such as for coolers as might be sold at Kmart, as well as single-use food containers sold at retail stores. Alternatives to the food containers can be obtained for an incremental cost increase of 1 cent per coffee cup to 8 cents for the clam-shaped containers typically used by restaurants for take-home food.

South Lake Tahoe intends to exempt polystyrene products with food that come pre-packaged at stores, such as Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup and similar products. Also exempted are egg containers and the foam used to sell meat products. Grocers are working on alternatives.

In Colorado, the Avon Town Council last year levied a 10-cent charge on all paper bags while banning single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. Separately, the town looked at a ban on polystyrene products. Preston Neill, the deputy town manager, says the town council has asked for a proposal to address polystyrene. But the town staff has not yet figured out what that proposal will look like.

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Why can’t this California biomass plant get off the ground

Spring 2016 operations at Squaw Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Biomass plant proposed near ski area just can’t get off the ground

TRUCKEE, Calif. – A biomass plant to generate electricity by burning wood from forests and other woody debris would seem to make lots of sense. But one proposed for the area between Truckee and the Squaw Valley ski area has again been shelved.

The problem, explains Brett Storey, of Placer County’s planning services department, is simple economics. Biomass plants cost more, even if there is wood available, and the electricity comes in at a much higher price than other renewable sources, particularly wind and solar.

“It’s the right thing to do for the forest, but the problem is that nobody who purchases energy will pay the cost,” he explains. The cost of biomass electricity comes in at 10 to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, but other sources of electricity cost just 3 cents a kilowatt-hour on the wholesale market.

Colorado has a biomass plant that began operations several years ago between Vail and Glenwood Springs. It depends upon an undisclosed price support from Holy Cross Energy and has also benefitted from grants. Even so, biomass plants have had a hard time getting going in Colorado. 

Placer County—which extends from the exurbs of Sacramento to the Nevada border, taking in the north shore of Lake Tahoe—has been pursuing a biomass plant for a number of years. The buyer of the electricity would be Liberty Utilities, which has a goal of dramatic reduction of its carbon content of electricity. In 2016, it eliminated coal from its mix and a year ago added a 50-megawatt solar farm in Nevada to its portfolio. It estimates that 36 percent of its power comes from renewable sources.

Storey says Placer County gave a little, and Liberty Utilities gave some, too, but they couldn’t make the numbers work.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “You go to Scandinavian countries, and that’s all they have. But their energy costs are so high.”

The announcement from Placer County came the week before Squaw Valley and Liberty Utilities announced they intended to collaborate to deliver Squaw and its adjacent ski area, Alpine Meadows, with 100 percent renewable energy by as early as December 2018.

Renewables constitute just 25 percent of liberty Utilities’ current power mix, but the utility has added 150 megawatts of new solar-generating capacity. To meet the carve-out for Squaw, according to a press release, Liberty Utilities will push for other renewables, but particularly solar. South Lake Tahoe, also served by Liberty Utilities and located about 50 miles away, also has a goal of 100 percent renewables.

Liberty Utilities  and Squaw Valley also announced they will be working on creating a microgrid, using new battery storage technology to create a new way to store surplus energy. A press release said discussions have also involved Tesla.

Cap-and-trade bucks go to Sierra forestry work

AUBURN, Calif. – Last fall’s wildfires in California have renewed focus on the flammability of the forests in the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile, the state continues to bear down on strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Can the effort to reduce wildlife risk and reduce greenhouse gas emissions be dealt with in the same program? CalMatters reports that a small state agency called the Sierra Nevada Conservancy is getting $5 million to address forestry management around Lake Tahoe.

The money comes from the state’s cap-and-trade regime. Large polluters can continue to pollute in excess of emissions caps but are required to pay into funds. That money is then used to achieve carbon reductions in various ways.

By thinning forests, the remaining trees are expected to grow more readily, sucking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they do. But this process also stabilizes soils that hold water and reduces the risk of large wildfires.

CalMatters notes the smallness of this grant in comparison with the enormity of the work, though more funds may become available in the future.

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Sobering reminder spurs new Summit County wildfire regs

Smoke billows from last summer’s Peak Two Fire near Breckenridge. Photo/Summit County

Summit County ups its wildfire game after last year’s sobering reminder

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. – After the big drought year of 2002, public officials in Summit County got wildfire religion. That year the giant Hayman Fire charred 138,000 acres just across the Continental Divide in the foothills southwest of Denver. In Colorado that same summer, big fires howled at Glenwood Springs and north of Durango.

Instead of resisting any and all timber cutting, public officials in Summit County began pushing for selective cutting, began requiring defensible space, began focusing on what is often called the wildland-urban interface. Almost all of the homes in Summit County fall in that category.

Still, there was another fire last summer, when a billowing blaze in the Tenmile Range seemed to be heading straight for Breckenridge. It didn’t get there. The weather intervened. But it was a stern reminder that communities of Summit County were vulnerable.

See: “The day that Breckenridge  got lucky.”

Now, Summit County’s government has stepped up the effort to reduce wildfire hazard with the most comprehensive update to the Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 10 years.

The effort began before last year’s fire, but Dan Gibbs, a county commissioner as well as a wildland firefighter, said the Peak Two Fire was a “sobering reminder of how real the threat of wildfire is in Summit County. We’re very fortunate that the fire didn’t make its way into our neighborhoods, but we have to be proactive in taking concrete steps to reduce our exposure to those types of risks.”

Wildfire hazards and potential mitigation measures must be assessed when updating master plans and as part of any new rezoning, planned unit development, or subdivision application.

New landscaping regulations promote a more wildfire-resilient community through defensible space requirements. The changes also address the placement of combustible materials, such as wood fencing and firewood piles, which can indirectly lead to home loss from wildfire.

“We arrived at these changes through a rigorous review and analysis by numerous wildfire experts, community stakeholders and county representatives,” said Lindsay Hirsh, senior planner.

Since 2006, more than 150 wildfire hazard-reduction projects have been completed through partnerships among Summit County, the U.S. Forest Service, local towns, residents, and landowners. Other partners in forest-thinning projects include Denver Water and the Colorado Forest Service.

Denver Water last February committed another $16.5 million to efforts to address forest stands in Summit County, from which it draws water for metropolitan Denver. — Allen Best

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Warm winter days and then thoughts of summer fires

The Sangre de Cristo Range that serves as the backdrop for Taos had little snow on its summits in late January, nor has it snow much since then. Photo/Allen Best

As sunshine and warm days continue, thoughts shift to wildfire season

TAOS, N.M. – Sunny skies were forecast for Taos yet again this week, a town and a ski area that desperately needs snow days.

The situation is sufficiently dire that last week Lorenzo Trujillo, in a letter published in the Taos News, proposed that the town council appeal to the Taos Pueblo Elders to see if there is a snow or rain dance ceremony that could be done.

Actually, members of the Taos Pueblo did perform such a snow dance at the Taos Ski Valley in early December. Maybe a second time is the charm?

Taos has lots of company across the drought-stricken West. In a general way, common in La Niña years, those to the north have fared better than those to the south.

Even in Colorado, ski areas just a few hundred miles apart have dramatically different situations. Summit County was close to average, even before this week’s snow. Snow helped Southwest Colorado, where Telluride on Tuesday reported 12 inches of snow in 12 hours.

But as of late January, local river drainages in the San Juan Mountains were just 34 to 36 percent of average. Farther north, near Grand Junction, the Powderhorn ski area cut back its operations to Thursday through Sunday, to better conserve snow.

“There are some parts of the state that are in dire situations,” said Jim Pokrandt, of the Colorado River Water Conservation District.

California has it tough, too. At Phillips Station, south of Lake Tahoe, hydrologists last week found just 13 percent of average snowpack, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Only twice since record-keeping began in 1946 has there been less snow: 2014 and 1963. No skis were necessary to get to the site; boots were sufficient.

The problem lies off the shore of California in the form of what climate scientist Daniel Swain of the California Weather Blog calls the “strong, persistent, broad and anomalous ridge of atmospheric high pressure.” Several years ago he coined it the “ridiculously resilient ridge.”

In a Feb. 1 posting, he reported a snow drought across most of the mountainous interior of the American West caused in part by below-average precipitation but more importantly by above-average temperatures.

It’s been sizzling in Southern California. Daytime temperatures have soared above 90, overnight lows stayed above 70. In the Sierra Nevada, the temperature range was different, but the band of temperatures was also anomalous.

Swain predicts that the ongoing warm and dry spell will likely melt what little snow currently exists below about 8,000 feet in elevation.

Base elevation of Northstar is 6,330 feet; Squaw Valley 6,200 feet; Heavenly 6,255 feet. Mammoth is at 9,000 feet, although the town center is 7,500 feet.

Swain warns against expecting the atmospheric high pressure to dissipate before mid-February—and maybe not then. “It’s still possible that a robust storm sequence in late February (or another “Miracle March”) could bring a remarkable turnaround in short order. But while that possibility remains on the table the odds are long.”

In New Mexico there are already questions about potential for forest fires. If past is prelude, this could be a tricky year.

Dr. Ellis Margolis, a research ecologist, has studied tree rings and photographs of aspen stands, which commonly appear after major blazes, in assembling a history of fires in the Taos area during the last 400 years.

He found that about 90 percent of the fires broke out in spring and early summer, usually in a drought year. Often the drought year or years had been preceded by wet conditions in prior years, which likely promoted the growth of surface fuels that helped the fire to spread.

The study also found that recent forest fires, although hot-burning, have not been particularly large compared to those of the past. Those past fires did not necessarily burn down trees.

According to an account in the Taos News, Margolis advises thinning the lower-elevation ponderosa forests along with controlled burns, to reduce the risk of the frequent fires in that ecosystem.

In the sub-alpine forests found at higher elevations, fires are more rare but burn much hotter.

“The challenging part is in upper elevation forests where historically those sub-alpine forests burn in big, hot patches and burn to the ground. Whatever’s in the way could be in trouble.”

One such community in harm’s way is the Taos Ski Valley. Margolis stressed the importance of evacuation plans.

Related: Mindful of last summer’s forest fire, Colorado’s Summit County recently adopted more aggressive regulations intended to protect homes. The county has changed tis attitudes toward wildfire dramatically in the 21st century. “The day that Breckenridge got lucky” sketches that backstory.

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A time of inflection for rural America’s energy paradigms

Twilight of an energy era as supplier of rural co-ops turns back on coal plant

by Allen Best

This story is adapted from  the Dec. 28, 2017, issue of Mountain Town News. Subscriptions are $45 per year.

In March 2017, a decade after it first applied, wholesale electrical supplier Tri-State Generation & Transmission and its Kansas-based utility partner received approval to build a major new coal-fired power plant at Holcomb, Kan. It will almost certainly never get built.

The energy world turned upside down in the 10 years between first application and final approval. Electrical demand, rising steadily at the turn of the century, flattened. Prices of other forms of generation, including natural gas and renewables, tumbled. Had the two plants originally proposed been built, they might have displaced older, less-efficient coal-fired power plants. But such plants are built to last 40 years or more.

If not immediately, the Holcomb plant would have quickly become a stranded asset. Think of the value of a computer purchased in 2007.

Tri-State still has not formally pulled the plug. A 10Q report to the Securities and Exchange Commission in September noted that the air permit granted by Kansas in March expires if construction does not begin in 18 months. “We have assessed the probability of us entering into construction … as remote,” said the filing.

The SEC filing reported $93.5 million had been invested in the Holcomb project through 2016, not including land and water. Those costs, said the filing, are “impaired and not recoverable.”

Ratepayers, most of them in rural areas of four states, will be apportioned the cost. Terms have not yet been defined.

The ambition to build a coal plant at Holcomb reflected the technology and mentality of an era that now seems past. An August 2017 analysis of the future of coal by the consulting firm MJ Bradley & Associates reported that at least 420 coal-burning units, mostly smaller and older, had been retired since 2010 in the United States. But the fall-off in coal production was far sharper than that. Analyzing Energy Information Administration data, the firm estimated that 80 percent of the decline in coal generation was the result of utilities choosing not to use their coal units.

If the era of big coal is ending, the future energy paradigms are not entirely clear for members of Tri-State and other co-operatives across rural America. Aside from amenity-laden places with ski areas nearby, rural American has generally not shared the

prosperity of urban America. That dissatisfaction was evident in the last presidential election. With some exceptions, the ski towns like Crested Butte or broad swathes of northern New Mexico, it was Trump country.

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to bring back coal and turn back the environmental regulations of the Obama administration. Repealing regulations is one thing, turning back technology quite another. It’s a wonder he didn’t promise to restore flip-phones or, better yet, rotary phones.

That comparison is not an idle one. We are at the early stages of a transformation in how we produce and consume energy no less sweeping than those in telecommunications and computers during the last 30 years.

Only recently have we replaced the incandescent light bulb invented by Thomas Edison with new varieties that are cheaper and far more energy efficient. The business models for delivering electricity have changed very little in the last century.

This point was made recently by a member of an electrical co-operative in Western Colorado in response to doubts about the technological ability to integrate renewables.

“I find it hard to think of another industry that has had such a lack of innovation and change for the past 100 years,” said John Gavan, an elected director of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, a co-op serving west-center Colorado. “This sector is extremely ripe for innovation, and there is a huge amount of low-hanging fruit to go after.”

The question, said Gavan, is whether Tri-State will recognize this shift and react accordingly. If not, “they, too, will be left behind.”

That’s the question for rural America, too. Even if no plant is built at Holcomb, will the leaders of rural America realize the opportunities for innovation and how those changes can benefit their constituents? Or will they continue to plow money into technologies and business models that have had their day, as Tri-State did for a decade at Holcomb?

In 2015, signs supporting coal were abundant in Craig, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

Coal, it kept the lights on

Tri-State Generation & Transmission is the result of New Deal legislation passed in 1935. Investor-owned utilities had shunned rural areas because of the high cost of transmission and distribution. George Norris, a senator from Nebraska, shepherded the legislation that delivered low-cost federal loans to electrical co-operatives that were created to generate and distribute power in rural areas.

That legislation still defines the nation’s electrical landscape: 864 electrical cooperatives together provide electricity to 70 percent of the land mass in America, delivering about 11 percent of the nation’s power.

By the 1950s, rural co-ops were unable to keep up with growing demand from their small towns, farms and ranches. Tri-State was formed by co-ops to transmit electricity from the giant new dams being constructed on major rivers of the West. It also built giant new coal-fired power plants of its own. In time, it became a vertically integrated wholesale provider, owning a coal mine and rail cars. It was in the coal business, not just the business of delivering power.

By 2006, when the plants at Holcomb were first proposed, Tri-State had grown to include 44 member co-operatives in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska. Demand was growing at 6 percent a year. Even then, there were calls for energy efficiency as a way of reining in demand growth. Tri-State resisted, suggesting that this was better left to member co-operatives. The local distribution co-ops tended not to have the expertise for their own programs. What Tri-State did understand, though, was what had worked in the past: two 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

That squared with the narrative of the Bush administration. In 2001, a Dick Cheney-led energy task force called for a wave of new power plants lest the nation suffer the rolling blackouts that California had experienced in 2000. Utilities responded with proposals for 200 new coal plants.

For its new plants, Tri-State chose Holcomb, located along the Arkansas River in southwest Kansas, about 30 minutes from the Colorado border. It has a railroad, able to deliver coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin or, perhaps, from Tri-State’s own coal mines near Craig, Colo. It has water, and it had an existing power plant operated by Sunflower Electric, a smaller electrical wholesaler serving co-ops in Kansas. Estimated costs were $3.7 billion.

To ensure markets for the new power, Tri-State asked for 10-year extensions of the 40-year contracts. Only 2 of the 44 co-ops refused.

In western Colorado, directors of Delta-Montrose Electric remembered the fallout of another period of enthusiastic coal-plant building 1979 to 1982. An oil-shale boom that the plants anticipated failed to materialize and the utility that built them, Colorado-Ute, went into bankruptcy in 1991. When that happened, Tri-State picked up Delta-Montrose and other co-ops supplied by the bankrupt utility but also ownership stake in those coal plants at Craig, in northwest Colorado.

In Northern New Mexico, Taos-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative also refused the extension. Almost a decade later, in 2016, it finally got a divorce from Tri-State. Another electrical provider, Guzman  Energy, paid the $37 million severance fee and pledged to assemble a portfolio heavy in local renewables.

In Kansas, there was opposition, too. Why did Tri-State want to build its plant in Kansas? After all, Kansas is on a different grid than Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states. The two grids can be bridged, and they are in several places. But there’s additional cost. Given that additional cost, some environmentalists suspected that Tri-State chose Holcomb and Sunflower as its partner with the expectation that the regulatory bar would not be as high in Kansas.

They were wrong.

Shocking decision

In October 2007, Roderick Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, issued a denial that drew national attention. The grounds were believed to be unique at the time: carbon dioxide emissions.

“It would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing,” Bremby wrote in his decision. Carbon dioxide was not then regulated under the federal Clean Air Act.

Bremby’s ruling drew fierce response. “Without new coal-fueled plants in our state, experts predict that electric bills will skyrocket and Kansans will be more dependent than ever on hostile, foreign energy sources,” said an ad funded in part by Peabody Coal, a major operator of mines in Colorado, Wyoming and elsewhere.

Earl Watkins Jr. then the head of Sunflower Electric Power, insisted that two plants, not just one, had to be built, as just one plant was insufficient to meet the needs of Sunflower’s 400,000 customers.

This claim was made in response to an offer by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, to allow one plant if the utility committed to developing wind farms and energy conservation programs.

Kathleen Sebelius

It was a bruising battle in Kansas, one barely noticed in Colorado. Opponents of the plant remember threats. The split in Kansas was defined primarily by geography. Sebelius enjoyed her strongest support in eastern Kansas, where cities and university towns are located. Sunflower serves western Kansas, a place of wheat fields and oil derricks.

Three times, lawmakers in Kansas sent legislation to Sebelius that would have removed her administrator’s authority over the air-quality permit. Just as many times she vetoed the legislation. Once, legislators came within a single vote of overturning her veto.

In her third veto, Sebelius pointed out that Sunflower didn’t actually need as much power as it claimed.

“Kansas would be creating massive new emissions for power we don’t need,” she wrote. She also noted the recent election of President Barack Obama and his plans to regulate carbon dioxide.

“What was a bad idea last year is an even worse idea today,” she said. She instead urged legislators to look into new business models for producing power by Kansas wind and other renewables as well as improving energy efficiency.

One advocate who fought the Holcomb proposal says it was almost like the fight was never actually about energy. Instead, Tri-State’s vertical integration predisposed its solution. “It was like burning coal to make money, not burning coal to make electricity.”

Finally, in May 2009, Sunflower agreed to a compromise with Gov. Mark Parkinson, the successor to Sebelius. Instead of two plants generating 1,400 megawatts, Sunflower was left with a single, 895-megawatt plant with improved coal-burning technology. These changes pared greenhouse gas emissions from 11 million tons of carbon dioxide a year in the original proposal to 3.6 million tons. The compromise also included a provision for net-metering, allowing producers of wind and solar power to send energy over Sunflower’s lines.

A penny saved …

Even then, the energy world had shifted dramatically. Natural gas prices had also tumbled. In Colorado, lawmakers passed legislation outlining a shift from coal to natural gas by the state’s largest electrical provider, Xcel Energy. Underlying the legislation was strong confidence in the abundance of natural gas at low prices.

Prices of renewables had also started dropping. Utilities were learning to integrate intermittent sources into electrical supplies with greater ease than expected.

But demand growth had also stalled when the Great Recession arrived. When economic activity picked up, demand for electricity stayed flat.

This disconnect between economic growth and increased energy use has profound but diffuse consequences.

Brian Deese

At a forum in Colorado during September, former Obama aide Brian Deese recalled informing the president that economic growth had returned without a concurrent increase in energy demand. For decades, economists had been confident that economic growth and energy demand came together, holding hands. When first told the news, Deese related, Obama refused to believe it. Deese rechecked his sources. Indeed, it was a new day in energy, and it still is.

This day had been foreseen decades earlier by Amory Lovins. Then a scholar at Cambridge who had been fond of loping along on hikes with David Brower of the Sierra Club, he wrote a profoundly influential essay in the October 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken.”

Lovins—who in 1982 built a passive-solar home at Old Snowmass, near Aspen—argued in that essay that the dominant energy paradigm was a costly mistake. He rejected the assumption embraced by both government and industry that economic growth correlated directly to increased consumption of energy.

In his essay, Lovins articulated the case for ramped-up energy efficiency, much greater pursuit of renewable energy, and of more local or distributed energy resources. In all this, he argued the case for profit as the driver.

In the 41 years since then, Lovins has never strayed from his core arguments. At long last, efficiency has begun to take hold. It’s just getting started, he said at a conference in October sponsored by the Center for the New Energy Economy.

All of this is pertinent to the role of Tri-State and its member co-ops going forward. They’ve been in the business of selling electrons. Lovins argued that it’s the wrong business model. You don’t care how much electricity it took to chill your beer, he said, only that your beer is cold. If utilities made their money on services, not bulk sales, they would operate very differently.

We’re still coming to grips with the distinction.

Colorado Green, located between Springfield and Lamar, was Colorado’s first, large wind farm. Photo/Allen Best

Renewables have continued to tumble. Lazard, which calls itself the world’s leading financial advisory and asset management firm, in early November issued a report about the levelized cost of energy. That is to say, energy costs without subsidies. The report was full of disclaimers. For example, direct comparisons must take into account issues such as location and dispatch characteristics.

Still, without subsidies, renewables stand on their own very well in this asterisk-ridden comparison sheet:

On-shore wind: $32 to $62

Gas combined cycle: $48 to $78

Coal: $60 to $143

Nuclear: $96 to $137.

Solar PV: $46 to $222.

In future years, solar prices are expected to continue to drop sharply.

Forward looking

Tri-State acknowledges a new order to its world, but only begrudgingly so. Telling was the response of Barbara Walz, Tri-State’s senior vice president for policy and compliance, during a panel discussion at the Western Power Summit, an energy conference in October. When Holcomb was proposed, she said, growth in electrical demand by Tri-State averaged 6 percent annually. Now, it has flattened.

In retrospect, did the Sebelius administration do ratepayers an economic favor by denying the Holcomb power plant on environmental grounds? I asked.

No, she said, Tri-State needs the ability to plan, she said.

That sort of dig-in-your-heels resistance plays well in places like Craig, Colo., where Tri-State still operates three coal plants. Early in his campaign, the reality television star Donald Trump spun out his easy message of bringing back coal by “getting rid of job-killing EPA regulations.”

Craig and Moffat County cast 81 percent of their votes for Trump, a proportion not all that different from the wheat- and corn-growing countries of other parts of co-op country in Colorado.

Tri-State’s distrust of change contrasts sharply with the strategy of investor-owned Xcel Energy, which operates across eight states, including Colorado, where it does business as Public Service Co. of Colorado. Early in the 21st century, it was also moving briskly forward with the old energy paradigm. In 2004, it reached agreement with environmental groups to push energy efficiency more actively while going forward with a major new coal-fired power plant at Pueblo, Colo. Holy Cross Energy, which serves Aspen and Vail, is a minority investor in that plant and its production. The plant began operations in 2010. It was the last coal plant in the United States to begin operations.

Xcel Energy proposes to close Comanche I and II, the smokestacks with the red rings, while continuing operation of Comanche III, the plant completed in 2010. Photo/Allen Best

But in 2004, Xcel also suffered a defeat in Colorado. State voters approved the nation’s first state-wide renewable energy mandate. Xcel had opposed the mandate but then embraced rising levels of renewables with gusto. Many of the wind turbines erected to meet those mandates are located on land owned by members of Tri-State’s co-operatives.

In August, Xcel announced it was ready for more. Subject to approval by state regulators, Xcel will close down two aging coal-fired power plants at Pueblo and replace the lost generation with primarily wind and solar, but also natural gas. By 2025, this will push Xcel’s renewable portfolio to 55 percent.

In making the announcement, David Eves, chief executive of Public Service Co. of Colorado, said the fuel switching is expected to result in rates that will be no higher and could be lower than existing rates.

Several months later, at the Center for the New Energy Economy conference, Eves spoke to the rapid changes in the business of generating and delivering electricity. “It’s here, it’s happening faster and faster. We don’t know where it will go,” said Eves. “This is very different than even five years ago.”

Xcel has its critics. It’s like Tri-State in a fundamental way in that it wants to preserve its role as the energy provider. The difference is on the margins. It recognizes that a new day has arrived. It is experimenting with microgrids and increased use of demand-side management programs. In short, it is a ballroom dancer compared to the heel-heavy stance taken by most co-ops and their wholesale suppliers, including Tri-State.

Electrical co-ops have no oversight from state regulators and, if in the case of Tri-State, no oversight from federal regulators if federal loans have been paid. The sole oversight comes in cases that go before the Federal Energy Regulatory Policy.

Not all co-ops have been so devoted to coal and so resistant to change.

For the last decade, Holy Cross Energy has been carving a somewhat different path. Based in Glenwood Springs, the co-operative serves the Aspen and Vail areas but also the Grand Valley to Rifle and Battlement Mesa. It has its feet in both renewables and coal-fired generation at Pueblo.

Earlier this year, directors from the Vail, Aspen and Glenwood Springs areas plucked a new manager, Bryan Hannegan, from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Among his work there, he co-founded the Integration Laboratory, described as the place where all the technologies and business models are coming together.

At the annual conference of the Colorado Rural Electric Association on Oct. 30, Henegan—who has a doctorate—showed charts about cost and cumulative capacity for wind utility-scale and charts for LED adoption, expanding electric vehicle sales and declining battery costs and other manifestations of this evolving transformation in energy.

None of these models showed new coal-fired power plants.

Somewhat surprising, perhaps, Xcel, Tri-State and Holy Cross may start sharing electrical generation in the future. They have been operating their own electrical systems, in a somewhat Balkanized manner. This is true of most the West altogether. Elsewhere in the country power supplies are pooled into regional markets, to more efficiently match supplies of lowest-cost electricity with demands. Lately, power providers in the Rocky Mountains have been talking about joining the Southwest Power Pool, helping distribute electricity most efficiently and most economically. This is considered one way to move around low-cost renewable energy most efficiently.

Even in rural areas, change is coming.

Some foresee a reordering of the power around power. Instead of being passive consumers of power, farmers, ranchers and others can be producers, too. This is distributed generation but also it’s part of a broader concept called the democratization of energy.

This idea, not unique to rural areas, should perhaps also be overlaid with the concept of resilience. Both should play well to red-state, libertarian and conservative America.

This is a time of inflection, of change. It’s just not clear where this story about energy models will bend and what role it may play in our Grand Canyon-sized national political divisions.

A center-pivot sprinkler near Wray, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

Rhetoric and reality

Ultimately Holcomb should be seen as an early episode in what will be an extended last-gasp effort by fossil fuel interests to extend their future just a few decades longer. The presidency of Donald Trump is part of that.

Consider the Trump administration proposal in October to prop up failing coal and nuclear power producers with a $10.6 billion bailout through surcharges on the monthly energy bills of ratepayers. The presumed goal was to ensure security against power outages. But as analysts were quick to point out, only a tiny, minuscule percentage of shortages on the nation’s electric grid are due to fuel supply problems. Instead, power outages are almost entirely the result of distribution-level problems, like poles falling over.

Whether that plan goes forward is still to be determined. But note how contrary it is to the principle of competition and open markets that Trump and his supporters have heralded. However, it does coincide with Trump’s vow to bring back coal. The Associated Press reveals communication by coal-producer Robert Murray in which he made a desperate plea for just such help. Murray owns coal mines in Utah and elsewhere.

Rhetoric does not match reality. Republican leaders continue to recite messages taken from their talking-points of a decade ago. Perhaps some actually believe what they say. It seems more to be out of political expedience, a way of telling their followers want they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

The remarks last summer of U.S. Senator Cory Gardner come to mind. He still lives in the same town he grew up in, Yuma, located in Colorado’s northeastern corner, a region almost exclusively served by co-ops and also a region where counties gave up to 85 percent of their votes to Trump last year.

Gardner, at an oil-and-gas conference in downtown Denver, noted that he had supported wind energy in the past but then warned against over-reaching of renewables to the detriment of people on fixed incomes or of farmers irrigating corn and alfalfa fields.

“You don’t have to go so far as to cause economic collapse,” he said.

But is exactly the reverse the greater worry: That by failing to take advantage of new technologies and business models, will the poor and the giant irrigators be hurt?

In this, as in other things, have facts become useless, to be discarded if they don’t fit the narrative? Trump’s campaign illustrated how little facts actually mattered. Whether tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans or health care, facts get run over by the bus of narrative. It’s a narrative that Trump rode to the White house by corralling the electoral votes of farm country allied with the rust-belt regions.

Gardner maintains a home in Yuma, the town of his origin. It’s along Highway 34, which crosses the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park 300 miles to the west. It’s also along the Republican River.

George Norris

In McCook, Neb., two hours downstream along this same river and highway, is a memorial to the George Norris, the Senate sponsor of the legislation in 1935 that yielded the electrical co-ops. He was called the last of the progressive Republicans.

Rural America needs a George Norris or three today, politicians who can look forward, not pay mindless tribute to those things of the past that were never good or have outlived their usefulness. Greenhouse gas emissions pose a real economic and social risk. New technologies have come along to compete with those of old.

Co-ops were created to serve the interest of their members/customers. There’s a good question whether they still do. In an essay published circa 2008, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, made his skepticism large in his title: “Electrical Co-operatives: From New Deal to Bad Deal?”

Tri-State may have moved on from giant coal plants at Holcomb, but the larger question is whether it will help its member co-ops move briskly into the future of microgrids and other cutting-edge, decentralized technology.

As Gavan, the director at DMEA, the co-op long at odds with Tri-State said recently, Tri-State will have to change or cease to be relevant.

 

 

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La Plata Electric evaluating its energy options

Community groups in Durango have pushed for the city to insist upon 100 percent renewable energy.

Electric co-op plans study of its options

La Plata Electric responds to push for low-carbon energy

by Allen Best

DURANGO, Colo. – Electricity products and costs are changing so terribly fast. Solar, especially, but even wind used to be considered expensive. They were.

But that was then. Prices of renewables have been tumbling so rapidly that more and more utilities are sizing up their options.

The latest to make a move is La Plata Electric Association. The Durango-based electrical co-operative is one of 43 co-ops from New Mexico to Wyoming supplied by Tri-State Generation & Transmission. Tri-State transmits electricity from the big federal dams of the West and, to a lesser extent, other renewable resources: 26 percent altogether. Most of the rest comes from coal-fired power plants.

By a 6-to-5- vote, directors of La Plata have agreed to “evaluate likely scenarios” for the co-op’s “energy needs for the next 10 to 15 years.” For each scenario, the committee is to “account for possible costs, risks, benefits and legal and contractual obligations…”

Nowhere is there specific mention of Tri-State, but a press release notes that there have been discussions among directors and the Durango-area altogether about the value of the co-op’s remaining 33-year contract with Tri-State. The subcommittee is expected to research various options by March 21.

The Durango City Council last September received a petition with 1,000 signatures calling for the city government to ensure that 100 percent of its electricity comes from local, renewable sources by 2050.

The contract with Tri-State to 2040 obligates La Plata to get 95 percent of its power from the wholesale provider.

One other electrical co-op has already bailed from Tri-State, although the 2016 divorce cost Taos-based Kit Carson Electric Cooperative $37 million. Kit Carson has set out to achieve 100 percent renewable generation during daylight hours by 2020. Further, directors believe this can be done while actually saving ratepayers money. They are working with a new company, Guzman Energy, which has an office in Denver.

Another co-op, Delta-Montrose Electric, may be leaving. Minutes of the board of directors meeting for January 2017 say that the board adopted a resolution directing the co-op’s chief executive to “negotiate the terms of an exit from Tri-State.”

The current contract calls for Tri-State to supply up to 95 percent of the co-op’s power through 2040. However, in what many saw as a decision with regional if not national implications, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission several years ago sided with the local co-op in a fight with Tri-State. The disagreement was whether the local co-op had latitude to get more than 5 percent of its power from local sources. The electricity in question comes from harnessing of fast-moving water in an irrigation canal.

The background story is that renewables, coupled with natural gas, time and again, are undercutting prices of coal-generated electricity.

A case in point: Xcel Energy announced its plans last August to close two coal plants in Colorado early and replace the lost electrical generation with renewables and natural gas. It said it could do so while keeping the rates flat or possibly even reducing the costs to consumers.

If that change is approved by state regulators, 55 percent of Xcel’s power within Colorado will come from renewable sources.

Xcel provides electricity for Breckenridge and other Summit county towns and is a wholesale provider for various other electrical co-ops, including those that serve Steamboat Springs, Vail, and portions of Aspen.

Even so, the bids of independent power producers announced in late December surprised many, drawing national attention. They are low, low, low. Forget about the reputation of renewables being like Perrier.

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