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
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.