The real war of electrical co-ops

Our Coming Reality: The Trickle of the (Once) Mighty Colorado River

by Michael Bowman

There is a coming war on the western economy.  Not the fake war promoted by our federally-subsidized rural electric system but a real one, waged by a formidable opponent: Mother Nature.

If there was ever an argument for a transition to a 21st-century energy infrastructure, look no further than our current challenges with the economies that have been built on the backs of the Colorado River.

Glen Canyon Dam, a component of the Colorado River Storage Project, requires a minimum lake elevation of 3,450 ft to provide enough hydraulic head to maintain its generation capacity.  Today, that level rests at approximately 3,550 feet msl (mean sea level); it is projected to fall below the required minimum of 3,450 feet in 2015 and to remain below the operational levels beyond 2020.

The once-mighty Colorado: a treasured, western resource that serves the water demands for the majority of Colorado’s 5 million residents.  Glen Canyon Dam, located in the Upper Basin of the Colorado, supplies the electrical needs to 5.8 million people including a significant number of Coloradans.  Two of the top five, long-term energy purchasers of Glen Canyon hydro-power are Tri-State Generation & Transmission and the Platte River Power Authority.  System wide, four million people rely on the Colorado River Storage Project.  Irrigators from Wyoming to Mexico tap the resource for crop production.  The combined metropolitan areas served by the project would be the 12th largest economy in the world with $1.7 trillion in Gross Metropolitan Product.

Not only are Colorado’s water managers becoming gravely concerned, so are Colorado’s electrical purveyors: Tri-State pays around 2 cents per kilowatt hour for Colorado River Storage Project power.  If Glen Canyon loses its ability to generate power (1,300 megawatts), one mitigation option would be to replace the lost power with spot market power, which can fluctuated from $0.05 to $1.50 per kw/hr depending on demand.  If the Lake Mead power pool in the Lower Basin becomes inoperative, another 1900 mega watts of federally-subsidized power production will be lost.

 An abandoned fishing boat on the dried up Colorado River delta in MexicoThe potential loss of 3.2 gigawatts of hydro-power seems daunting unless one understands the vast potential of solar and wind energy in the six-state region. Like all crises, weaknesses are exposed – and opportunities emerge.  While our rural cooperatives, municipalities and regional power authorities have enjoyed decades of federally-subsidized power, this begs a question: why in this day and age, with the cost-competitive technology that exists, would we bet the resiliency of our local economies on the generation of an electron in Utah when we are literally drowning in energy in our own back yards?  In an era of increasing concern about terrorist attacks on our largely-centralized electricity grid, why would we not quickly transition to system more distributed in nature.

Instead of a discussion of how we, at nearly any cost, maintain Upper Basin levels that assure the short-term operational capacity of Glen Canyon Dam, why not take that issue off the table?  Why not envision a plan that displaces that capacity with new energy resources?  The cost of building this new capacity would be a drop in the bucket of the $1.7 trillion GMP of the system.  By separating the water needs of the system from the energy needs, we can have a very different conversation.

There is no shortage of federal programs that could make this transition possible.  USDA-Rural Utilities Service is rich in programs that would support a rural electric’s transition to a local, distributive model.  This transition would provide significant opportunities for job creation and new, sustained economic activity.  The plus side? When the Colorado River Storage Project returns to its pre-1999 levels we’ll have the benefit of a new hydro-system that can then balance the loads of a vast regional solar and wind system; a new paradigm that manages it’s supplies for water-based demands (irrigation and municipal use) other than electrical generation. We will have transitioned this system from one of decades-old base load power approach to one that provides a much more valuable service: load following.  A great deal for the taxpaying American public.

It’s important that we protect the use of Colorado River water and guide our state primacy over Upper Basin Water Management.  While we would benefit from synergistic efforts with the Lower Basin – a position best achieved if we can actively manage water elevations in Lake Powell – by taking a proactive lead on bifurcating the demands of the system is a win-win for everyone in the system.

Water advisors from the six Colorado River Basin states have begun a confidential brain-storming exercise to develop an emergency response plan.  Their task: to develop a plan that will likely include the options of voluntary lease-fallowing, deficit irrigation and weather modification. The group will also have the daunting task of navigating the technical and legal challenges of the existing laws that govern the Colorado River.

This is no small challenge – but with it comes extraordinary opportunities.  Let’s hope this brain-storming exercise delivers John Q. Public a path forward that provides everyone in the basin with increased resiliency, new ways of thinking about our contemporary challenges, and opportunities develop our vast, untapped renewable energy resources.   Let’s stop being held hostage by a scarcity mindset – and focus on our vast abundance.

In the middle of this dry lake bed let’s understand we’re drowning in opportunity.

This was originally posted March 10 on ColoradoPols and has been reposted with permission of the author.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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