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
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...