Inching along toward renewables in mountain towns

Taos-based Kit Carson Electric has been rapidly installing solar farms in its four-county service region of northern New Mexico. Photo/Kit Carson Electric

Slowly, surely, electricity moves to greener sources in mountain valleys

by Allen Best

Taos co-op adds another solar farm

Taos-based Kit Carson Electrical Cooperative in early August announced that a new 1-megawatt solar array had begun producing electricity.

That’s relatively little electricity compared to the giant coal-fired power plants that can generate 300, 400, or even 700 megawatts of electricity. But in these small, incremental steps, a major transformation is underway in how we produce and consume electricity.

Kit Carson announced plans earlier this year to eventually provide its 30,000 members with 100 percent of renewable energy. This new array, located 32 miles from Taos at the community of Tres Piedras, is the first of 35 solar plants that the co-op plans to erect within the next five years. Several more are planned near the ski areas of Angel Fire and Eagle Nest.

Solar for Vail and Aspen

In Colorado, Holy Cross Energy—like Kit Carson, a co-operative—has now received bids for a 5-megawatt solar plant to serve the Vail and Aspen areas. The largest solar array that Holy Cross currently has is 1.7 megawatts, on a farm near Carbondale. The Aspen Daily News reports that this next solar plant will cover 25 to 40 acres.

The plant is likely to be located along I-70 near Rifle, about 68 miles from Aspen and 90 miles from Vail but also within the Holy Cross service area. It’s sunnier there and, perhaps more important, land prices are much, much cheaper.

Holy Cross hopes to reach 30 percent renewable generation by 2020 and 35 percent by 2025.

Breck and 100% renewables

Breckenridge elected officials last week heard from a group that wants the municipality to formally commit to 100 percent renewables. That figure, as a goal, has now been embraced by Salt Lake City, Moab, and Park City in Utah as well as Boulder, Fort Collins and Pueblo in Colorado, among dozens of cities in the United States.

The Breckenridge for 100 Percent Renewable Energy Campaign Committee asked the town council to commit to achieving 100 percent renewables for town facilities by 2025 and the town as a whole by 2035.

Absent a clear roadmap for getting there and a strong grasp of the costs, the town council was reluctant to make the commitment. The Summit Daily News cited the comments of Councilman Mike Dudick, who was comfortable only with the word “goal” as opposed to “commitment.”

But Dudick was careful to point out that his company, Breckenridge Grand Vacations, is the second largest purchaser of solar power in Breckenridge. The town is the lead purchaser.

Breckenridge has pushed local production of solar energy but gets most of its electricity from Xcel Energy, an investor-owned utility. Xcel is known as one of the most progressive utilities in the country. First pushed by state requirements and now pulled by plummeting prices of renewables, Xcel has been rapidly expanding its carbon-free portfolio and has enunciated plans for even more aggressive purchases of wind power in Colorado and other states.

But Xcel has a long, long way to go to substantially shift away from reliance on coal-based generation. One relatively new power plant, which went on line in 2010, is not expected to be decommissioned before 2070.

But municipalities do have leverage with Xcel—as Boulder is trying to achieve with its talk of divorce from Xcel.

The 100 percent group is reported to be regrouping with a somewhat lesser ambition in mind.

Crested Butte & 100 percent: Yes

In Crested Butte, few people have signed up to get their electricity from new solar arrays. “There are a lot of hypocrites in the community,” said Greg Wiggins, a director of the local Gunnison County Electric Association at a recent meeting covered by the Crested Butte News.

Nonetheless, the town council there seems ready to plunge forward into a commitment to fueling the demand for renewables. It wants to do this by purchasing what are called off-sets, which would cost the town about $1,500 a year. This does not provide the town with carbon-free electricity, but it does provide the demand so that that somebody on the electrical grid is getting carbon-free electricity, such as those delivered by solar arrays.

Crested Butte is trying to decarbonize its economy. It’s a far more formidable challenge than just switching from coal to renewables for production of electricity. Homes are commonly heated with natural gas, also a carbon fuel, and our cars, trucks, and buses almost exclusively burn carbon fuels.

After first adopting a goal of 20 percent reduction by 2020, Crested Butte has put some effort into improving energy efficiency in buildings. Just how much it has achieved, however, seems to be unknown.

The town council seems agreeable to the proposal by Mayor Glen Michel to hire a new and permanent town employee responsible for measuring and monitoring greenhouse gas reductions and probably more.

Meanwhile, the local co-operative pushes for consumers to take advantage of off-peak pricing. Mike McBride, the chief executive of Gunnison County Electric, says consumers who use power other than between 5 and 10 p.m. on Monday through Saturday, can save the co-operative and ultimately the customers money. It also allows for greater integration of renewables.

Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric has reached its 5 percent cap on electrical production by harnessing the power of water flowing in the South Canal. Photo/Allen Best

Tri-State’s 5% cap

Local electrical co-operatives in western Colorado will have to wait at least two years before they can increase the amount of locally generated electricity.

Tri-State Generation and Transmission delivers power to 43 co-operatives between New Mexico and Wyoming, including those that service Telluride, Crested Butte, and Durango.

As of the end of 2016, Tri-State reported that 43 percent of its generation came from coal, 21 percent from natural gas, 24 percent from renewables and 12 percent from contracts. Much of the renewable generation comes from the giant dams of the West, although Tri-State—like other electrical providers—has been investing in wind and solar.

Several local co-ops would like to accelerate the transition to renewables. Last year, Kit Carson Electric—which delivers electricity to Taos and several other smaller ski areas in New Mexico—left Tri-State in its quest to rapidly accelerate toward 100 percent renewables. Both San Miguel Electric, which serves Telluride, and Durango-based La Plata Electric have asked to be exempted from the existing 5 percent cap. They proposed being able to generate as much as 10 percent of the electricity themselves.

Delta-Montrose Electric has already reached its 5 percent cap, primarily through development of hydroelectric power on the South Canal diversion from the Gunnison River.

At an August meeting, directors of Tri-State ruled that the 5 percent cap on self-generating power will remain for at least the next two years.

What does Tri-State have against this? If the local co-ops produce more of their own energy, they will pay less to Tri-State. That leaves the other co-ops on the hook for higher costs of operating existing infrastructure.

Lee Boughey, spokesman for Tri-State, points out that the local co-ops can generate as much electricity as they want and sell it to Tri-State or to a third party. If sold to Tri-State, however, they receive less than the electricity they get from Tri-State costs.

Boughey reports that the Tri-State and its members delivered to  consumers in 2016, 27 percent came from renewable energy (including hydroelectric from the Bureau of Reclamation’s big dams of the West), about 53 percent came from baseload coal, about 2 percent came from natural gas, and the rest was purchased power, primarily fossil fuel.

Alex Shelley, a spokesman for San Miguel Power Association, tells the Telluride Daily Planet that the work during the next two years is to persuade other co-operatives of the wisdom of the shift to a higher cap. Tri-State was created by the co-ops and directed by the co-ops.

Allen Best