Why so many candidates for the Holy Cross Energy Board of Directors?

Ten candidates for 3 positions

by Allen Best

Big Pivots

Three open seats this year on the Holy Cross Energy Board of Directors have drawn 10 candidates. By standards of electrical cooperatives, including Glenwood Springs-based Holy Cross, that’s a bumper crop. Just a few years ago, candidates often ran unopposed.

Why so many candidates?

No deep unhappiness has surfaced. Electrical rates have remained stable and outages are few. Candidates’ statements suggest no more than modest skepticism about the current path of Holy Cross, Colorado’s third largest among the state’s 22 electrical cooperatives.

Directors of Holy Cross last year adopted a goal of 100% renewable electrical generation by 2030, the most ambitious goal of a major utility in Colorado. The closest is the 100% goal of Platte River Power Authority, a consortium of four cities along the northern Front Range, which is confident it can hit 90% but says the 100% goal is contingent upon a variety of conditions.

Holy Cross has also drawn attention in the last several years because of its innovations. It has begun creating the infrastructure that will allow relatively rapid adoption of electric vehicles by its 44,000 members (56,000 meters) in its service territory in the Vail, Aspen, and Rifle areas. It is tinkering with demand-side management programs that allow power uses to be matched more smoothly with renewable generation. It has begun the work of creating microgrids, such as will allow continued electrical supplies in the case of disruptions such as caused by wildfires.

Climate change is the background issue for this drive to decarbonize electricity and expanded use of that electricity into market sectors, most notably transportation and buildings, now dominated by fossil fuels. “We live in a really beautiful place, and people want to protect it,” says Jenna Weatthered, vice president for communications at Holy Cross.

Matt Scherr, an Eagle County commissioner, sees in the turnout of candidates “a much broader understanding of how critical our energy supply is to climate, prosperity, and daily life (hello, Texas) and also what a leader our local utility is in the nation in regards to reliable, inexpensive, renewable energy.”

The example of Adam Palmer, a member of the Holy Cross Energy Board of Directors who was killed in an avalanche in January, may have spurred some candidates to carry on his work.

Another reason for the strong turnout of candidates may be the influence of Adam Palmer, a board member of Holy Cross from 2012 until his death in a January avalanche. Personally popular and known for his perpetual smile, Palmer also sat on the Eagle Board of Trustees. The election earlier this spring to fill his vacant place on that board likewise drew a large number of candidates, possibly driven by a desire to carry on his work.

The larger number of candidates may be part of a cycle. Last year’s election drew 8 candidates to vie for 2 positions. The year before that there were 6 people competing for 2 seats. However, elections from 2013 to 2016 were uncontested, says Weatherred. But 9 candidates competed for 2 spots in the 2011 election.

What may most distinguish Holy Cross among Colorado’s 22 electrical cooperatives is the number of candidates. But having contested elections is not uncommon, says Kent Singer, director of the Colorado Rural Electric Association. He estimates that half of the cooperatives have at least one contested election each year.

But in another way, Holy Cross is entirely normal. All customers of Holy Cross, as with all coops, are also members and can vote for directors. Relatively few people, almost never more than 10%, exercise that right.

United Power, an electrical cooperative on the northern flanks of metropolitan Denver, has been contemplating an exit from its wholesale supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission. It’s engaged in litigation against Tri-State and in defiance of Tri-State several years ago put in place battery storage, the first by a utility in Colorado. Even so, two contested elections this spring drew only 5,500 votes each from among the 97,000 members.

La Plata Electric, the cooperative based in Durango, is also considering an exit from Tri-State. Each of the 4 board seats is being contested this year. There are 8 candidates altogether.

In La Plata, disagreements are closer to the surface than those at Holy Cross or at United. They center around whether La Plata should buy out its contract with Tri-State to more aggressively develop local generation of electricity. The recent precedents are Delta-Montrose Electric in Colorado and Kit Carson Electric in New Mexico.

Tim Wheeler, the incumbent director from District 4, describes a vision for “community-led solutions and self-sufficiency.” His challenger, John Purser, questions whether this is wise now that Tri-State has laid out plans to shift from coal to renewables. “There is no longer an environmental justification for leaving Tri-State,” he says. La Plata distributes electricity well, he says, but he doubts whether it can generate it equally well.

San Miguel Power, another member of Tri-State, has asked what it would cost to get out of its existing contract with Tri-State, which expires in 2050. But only one election is being contested. Terry Rhoades, the incumbent from Ouray and Silverton, is being challenged by Rory Cowie, a hydrologist in Ouray involved in mining cleanup.

Holy Cross is among four cooperatives in Colorado that get no electricity from Tri-State. Instead, it has an agreement with Xcel Energy, although that agreement allows it to develop larger amounts of its own power, which it is doing. A big wind farm will be coming on line later this year in eastern Colorado, and work has begun on a solar farm near Glenwood Springs.

About 60% of Holy Cross members live in the Eagle Valley, from Vail to Glenwood Canyon. Four directors represent this Northern District, and one of them, Kristen Bertuglia, is seeking re-election to a 4-year term. If elected this would be her fourth term. Also up for grabs is the unexpired three years of the term of Palmer.

Bertuglia says she’s not in the least bit insulted by having so many competing candidates. “I am inspired by it,” she says. “I think people want to be part of what I have done and what the board has done and what the organization has done. That’s why they’re running.”

But she also believes that the death of Palmer has been a motivating for at least some.

Bill Heicher, a resident of Eagle since 1972, says he sees Holy Cross as a well-run utility compared to many in the news and one that has become distinguished as an innovator. “They’re way ahead of the curve on getting their energy supplied from renewables,” he says. And, this is happening, he says, without frequent power outages that several decades ago were common.

“Holy Cross is much more prominent in community conversations about sustainability these days,” says Kim Langmaid, a member of the Vail Town Council and the founder of Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. “Their reputation has shifted over the past 5 years, with their leading role moving toward 100% renewable energy, their leadership under CEO Bryan Hannegan, and all of their community partnerships.”

She, too, points to the possible influence of the “death of my dear friend Adam Palmer and the inspiration he was for so many people in both the Eagle and Roaring Fork Valleys.”

In the Southern District, from Aspen to Carbondale, three candidates are vying for one position. The incumbent, Robert Gardner, is among them.

Auden Schendler, from his post at the Aspen Skiing Co., has had his fingers in Holy Cross elections for many years, trying to promote candidates he believes will most aggressively support decarbonization of electricity. For example, he had encouraged Palmer to run. Not all his efforts—especially 10 to 20 years ago—were successful, though.

In this year’s turnout of candidates, he sees a healthy sign and a reflection of the “growing success of our utility and the national importance of their clean energy goals.”

This is from Big Pivots, an e-journal that tracks the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. To subscribe, go to BigPivots.com.

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Allen Best