Growing energy interest reflected in electrical co-op elections

Cloudy skies are rare enough in Colorado’s San Luis Valley to make this photo of this solar farm near Alamosa unusual. Photo/Allen Best

Co-op elections show strengthening interest in electrical transition

by Allen Best

EDWARDS, Colo. – Elections of directors of rural electrical co-operatives in Colorado this spring suggests a heightening interest in energy reform.

Larissa Reed

In the Vail area, Larissa Read’s election to the board of directors of Holy Cross Energy was unusual in that she had to top three other candidates. She got 39 percent of the votes compared to 27 percent for the first runner up.

Elections of directors for Holy Cross and other rural electrical co-operatives have traditionally attracted little notice. This one was no exception in that only 6.9 percent of members voted. In co-ops, members are also customers.

But often there is no more than one candidate, and rarely more than two for any spot. That said, there were 4 candidates in one district in an election in 2018 and 5 candidates in another district in 2017.

However, in neither race was there as much paid advertising nor as many letters to the editor as there were in the Vail-area race this year, reports Jeanna Weatherred, communications director for Holy Cross.

It’s reflective of the times. Across mountain valleys of Colorado, from La Plata Electric in the Durango-Pagosa Springs area to Yampa Valley Electric, the co-operative that serves the Steambaot Springs-Craig areas, elections of electrical co-op board members have had many contests this year.

San Luis Valley REC

The pathway of Tri-State Generation and Transmission was at issue in some co-op elections. Most of Colorado’s electrical co-ops are members of Tri-State, including the San Luis Valley Electrical Cooperative.

There, Wade Lockhart made greater energy independence one of his campaign platforms. A resident of Crestone and former Outward Bound instructor, Lockhart also had a background in metallurgy but ultimately became a builder, with a focus on energy efficiency.

In his Facebook campaign page, Lockhart made the argument for more locally generated electricity in the San Luis Valley, which has some of the best solar resource in the United States.

San Luis Valley REC and other member co-operatives of Tri-State are allowed by their contracts with Tri-State to generate no more than 5 percent of their own electricity except of they pay additional transmission costs. That has been a sore point with many co-ops, including Durango-based La Plata Electric. It’s also an element in the dispute between Delta-Montrose Electric and Tri-State.

Lockhart sees potential for the co-op to generate half of its own power. He also warned against seeing natural gas as the replacement for retiring coal plants. That is currently the baseline alternative in Tri-State’s resource planning

Middle Park Electric

In the Fraser Valley, no stark differences were evident in the election of Mountain Parks Electric, also a member of Tri-State. The incumbent director, Peggy Smith, a former mayor of Fraser who sits on board of directors of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, the Winter Park Ski Education Foundation and the local Rotary club, favors expanded renewable energy.

Kristen Taddonio

But the successful challenger, Kristen Taddonio, brought both a boatload of credentials and also obvious passion. A Fraser resident since 2015, she had worked in Washington D.C. for both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in energy-related programs. she has a master’s degree in science and technology policy from George Washington University.

In a profile published in the Sky-High News this week, the 35-year-old Taddonio was asked what sets her generation apart.

“A willingness to embrace new technologies, and an acceptance of the rapid pace of technology change: We grew up with computers and the Internet and saw them mature and evolve, as we, too, were maturing and evolving,” she answered. “I think we might have an easier time adapting to technology change in today’s world as a result.”

Her passion for change was evident at a Beneficial Electrification conference Wednesday afternoon in Denver. From the audience, she asked a representative of Tri-State why Tri-State has been so sluggish in shifting from coal to renewables. He essentially said that Tri-State takes its direction from its 43 members, and as a director of those member co-operatives, she should push her advocacy there.

That same Tri-State representative, Myles Dennis, disclosed that in addition to the closing of one of the three coal-generating units at Craig, now scheduled to close in 2025, a second unit, Craig 2, would “more than likely close.”

This week, Tri-State also announced it had issued a request for proposals for renewable energy. It seeks long-term power-purchase agreements that allow it to capture the federal tax benefits for wind and solar projects. It proposes to do this through power-purchase agreements with developers, who are qualified to capture the benefits that Tri-State, as a not-for-profit power supplier, cannot. Tri-State would like to see build-transfer proposals, in which it would gain ownership of the projects after the investment tax credits have been captured.

The new call for proposals asks for projects of 10 megawatts to 200 megawatts with terms of 15 to 25 years. Tri-State earlier this year committed to to a 100-megawatt solar project and a 104-megawatt wind project, both in eastern Colorado.

Holy Cross Energy

As for Holy Cross, which is not supplied by Tri-State, the four candidates this year may reflect the co-op’s emerged prominence. It is briskly taking steps to decarbonize the electricity that it delivers to the Vail, Aspen, and other areas along Interstate 70 in western Colorado.

Adam Palmer, a director who has been on the board since 2009, suggests the greater awareness of the role of greenhouse gas emissions in causing climatic changes had a role in the number of candidates.

Too, a wildfire last summer at Basalt raised questions about resilience of delivery of electricity. The fire took out three transmission lines and very nearly eliminated a fourth transmission line. Had it done so, portions of Aspen and all of Snowmass would have been without power on the 4th of July weekend last year.

The co-op is also pushing ahead in the broader “beneficial electrification,” to replace fossil fuels in transportation and ultimately in heating of buildings.

Read, a consultant who provides planning, facilitation, and project management services to environmental, non-profit, and governmental organizations, helped facilitate creation of the Climate Action Plan for Eagle County.

In response to questions from the Vail Daily, Read said she wanted to continue her service role and “help guide a leading regional utility into a low-carbon future.”

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