A utility in coal country doubles down on renewables

‘You can politicize it all you want, but in the end economics is really what drives it.’

 

This story is a part of the ongoing Back 40 series, where High Country News reporters look at national trends and their impacts close to home.

Bill Patterson, the board president for the Delta-Montrose Electric Association (DMEA), a rural utility in a conservative pocket of Western Colorado, thinks the shift to renewable energy just makes plain economic sense.

And DMEA members agree. Last week they voted in favor of giving the electric co-op the option to sell stocks in order to raise enough money to buy itself out of its contract with the wholesale provider Tri-State Generation & Transmission due to a desire to produce more renewable energy, locally. DMEA is one of 43 rural utilities across four states that have contracts with Tri-State but would be only the second to break with the provider. In 2016 the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos, New Mexico, paid $37 million to sever its own contract.

A 67-kilowatt solar array in Montezuma County, Colorado.

In a political climate where the fight over propping up coal versus expanding renewable energy production has split many into partisan camps, DMEA is a reminder that economic sensibilities are the driving force behind transitioning to a new energy economy. “The bare facts remain that the (cost) of electricity … is going down due to the use of renewables and the pricing of natural gas,” said Patterson. “You can politicize it all you want, but in the end economics is really what drives it.”

Tri-State, like many other wholesalers, has a portfolio hamstrung by its investments in coal. That is keeping energy rates higher for rural co-ops that are tied to long-term contracts with the provider. A lot of these smaller co-ops “are chomping at the bit to take advantage of cheaper renewable energy sources,” said Lu Nelson, policy program assistant for the Center for Rural Affairs, based in Nebraska. Not just for economic reasons, but also because “you have a lot of co-ops that are getting pushed from members or utilities … to do more,” Nelson said. And DMEA is feeling that pressure too. “It is really going from being a utility-defined market to a customer-defined market,” said Patterson. 

For DMEA, the benefits of leaving Tri-State outweigh the costs — assuming that the wholesaler is willing to negotiate a “fair and equitable” buyout rate. So far, the numbers put forward by Tri-State have been far from that reality, said Patterson. But eventually, when DMEA does reach a deal, it could mean a complete transformation in energy generation for this conservative part of the state — with renewable projects that would outpace progressive neighbors like Telluride, which belongs to the San Miguel Power Association. In the process, DMEA anticipates more stable, cheaper electricity rates for its members. 

The utility already has a community solar array and a hydroelectric project, but once it is free from Tri-State’s reins, it could expand its renewable energy portfolio even further. And as the rural utility embraces the advancements in energy production, the possibilities are endless. “Our goal is to be the light of the future,” Patterson said. DMEA anticipates that eventually the utility will be able to serve members through a more distributed network of power where people are able to harness energy from their rooftops and control their own electric costs. “It is exciting,” he said. “There’s no other way to put it.”

Note: This story has been updated to clarify a statement by DMEA’s Bill Patterson. 

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.