Rearranging the grid

A rural electric co-op becomes a progressive force

  • ED MARSON BY NIGHT

  • VERY GREEN: Tara Miller's solar panels feed electricity into the DMEA grid by day

    Don Olsen, The Valley Chronicle
  • DMEA's Ron Fleshood tracks the utility's fuel cell performance

    photo courtesy DMEA
 

Note: A related story appeared as a sidebar to this story under the headline Wind power spins into the energy mainstream.

I spend my days as the publisher of High Country News, a regional Western newspaper whose roots are in the environmental movement. I spend two evenings a month as president of the board of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, a cooperative that provides electric power to 27,000 owner-customers in west-central Colorado.

No two organizations seem more different. One tries to prevent or ameliorate the effects of mining and burning coal and damming rivers. The other distributes the output from those mines and dams. One is part of the region's environmental aspirations. The other is a 60-year-old cooperative set up in the Great Depression to use the West's resources and help mechanize and industrialize this region. The board that runs High Country News and the staff that produces it are predominantly liberal. My eight fellow board members on DMEA are mostly conservative.

Common sense says I should suffer from divided loyalties in going from my day job to my night job. In fact, common sense says that I should not have been elected to five three-year terms in a conservative and traditional part of the Interior West. Common sense is mistaken, as it so often is.

For a short time, I saw myself as a fifth columnist, elected initially by a fluke to serve within the enemy camp. The experience was often very painful. At one early meeting, while arguing a point, the room disappeared. I'd become so angry - so steamed - that my glasses had fogged over. I still get angry. But over the years, the ideological reasons for me to be angry have disappeared, piece by piece. Today there is little difference, in larger matters, between the challenges faced by High Country News and those faced by Delta-Montrose Electric.

But you have to look beneath the surface to find the relationship, and you have to suspend easy judgments. As a quasi-government agency, DMEA is part of a network that resents and resists the pressure to be light on land, air and water. Our power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, is forever fighting against the Endangered Species Act, against attacks on dams, and against clean air regulations. The system also feels threatened by those environmentalists who seek to eliminate subsidies by raising the price of electricity generated at federal dams.

But environmentalism is no longer public enemy number one. Its place has been taken by deregulation, which would deprive Tri-State's owners, mostly small co-ops across Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico, of monopoly status in serving electric users. For example, when DMEA's customers in Delta and Montrose counties are someday free to buy electricity from whomever they want, farmers, ranchers and the owners of homes in rural areas will have to stay with DMEA. No one else will be interested in serving them. But the larger towns, the supermarkets and mills, and the three underground coal mines that consume huge chunks of our electric power will find the Enrons and Scottish Powers of the world competing to turn on their lights. DMEA will be left to serve a diminished group of small power users, and the cost of power will soar.

Nevertheless, the staff and board of DMEA have decided over the past few years that to blindly resist the intertwined forces of the free market and environmentalism is ultimately to die. I am glad the environmental and economic forces cannot be resisted. My fellow board members are less happy. But we all, more or less, recognize the same reality, and we all, more or less, are pushing DMEA in the same direction.

To take a small example, we willingly accommodate the very green consumers on our system. When a homeowner installs solar panels, we rig the meter so that the panels pour electricity into our system on sunny days and we pour electricity into the home at night. This allows the solar user to dispense with corrosive batteries; DMEA is the battery. But it's a loser for us. On dark, cold winter nights, just when our system most needs power, just when electricity on the open market is most expensive, the solar panels are useless. We do it because this is the direction we must go.

Similarly, when a small group came to us looking to preserve the dark night skies by shielding outdoor lights, they expected resistance. Instead, staff immediately agreed to do everything it could to promote street and backyard fixtures that throw light at the ground rather than into the sky.

To bind ourselves closer to the community that owns us, we have set up a credit union. The banks were not happy. And we have a Roundup program, which allows customers whose bill is, say, $55.63 to voluntarily round the amount up to $56. The extra 37 cents, which amounts to about $100,000 a year, is distributed to individuals in need and to charities.

That's the icing. The cake includes something we call chauffage, from the French for "heating." For a monthly fee, we will install a ground-based heat pump that provides all the heating and cooling a home or business needs. Heat pumps are four times as efficient as direct electric heat, and they use electricity in a steadier way. As more and more of our people switch to chauffage, we will need fewer substations and transmission lines, and, back at the power plant, less coal for burning and less water flowing through turbines.

We just bought the first-ever propane-powered fuel cell in our area, and one of the few in the nation. It is humming away in our headquarters, being tested for use in homes. Soon, the manufacturer predicts, fuel cells sized for homes will produce electricity and heat for less than we can deliver it to consumers out of our power plants and dams. We seem to be cutting our throats. But we are preparing to go into the propane business. Any drop in electric sales should be made up with income from propane. Plus, if we don't fill this niche, someone else will.

And we're not alone in our progressive thinking. Co-ops are forever forming co-ops: to supply the spare parts they need, to supply insurance, to lobby the Congress. Now there's a co-op to represent cooperatives interested in generating some of their own power, and generally being part of the new, deregulated world.

This is unsettling to Tri-State, our wholesale power supplier, which runs coal-fired plants, buys subsidized hydropower from federal dams, and then transmits that electricity to more than 30 co-ops in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nebraska. In theory, the co-ops own and control Tri-State. In fact, Tri-State and its fellow generation and transmission co-operatives always dominate their member co-ops. DMEA is big for a co-op - a $30 million-a-year operation with 120 employees - but we're dwarfed by Tri-State and its 1,000 employees. Politically, we are relatively powerless because we have only one vote and we are dependent on Tri-State for all sorts of technical services we can't provide for ourselves.

But the coming changes threaten the dominance of Tri-State and other G&Ts. Fuel cells and small- to medium-sized gas-fired turbines spread out across the region represent a large step outside the box of central-station power administered by a single large bureaucracy. Not suddenly, but gradually, jobs and taxes would flow to local areas, rather than remaining concentrated in Craig, or Hayden, or at Glen Canyon Dam. Transmission lines, which can cost a huge amount, would become less important.

Tri-State understands this. At its annual meeting last year, in an office building in a Denver suburb, the staff member in charge of keeping an eye on dispersed generation compared it to the Y2K phenomenon, with the unspoken wish that it prove just as much of a bust.

We will see. DMEA is not into confrontation. We're a co-op and Tri-State is a co-op, and there is a co-op way of doing things that can be maddening, but that is very effective at avoiding outright breaches.

Our strategy is not to pursue political power but rather to show that fuel cells and microturbines and ground-based heating and cooling can work. We assume that so long as we are with the tide - the deregulation tide, the technological tide, the green tide - we will eventually convince our fellow co-ops. If we fail, they will congratulate themselves for playing it safe.

We may fail for any number of reasons. For example, we are investing in fiber optics because we want to bring wide-band telecommunications to our rural communities. This is high-risk for a co-op, and it may not work. But we won't lose for lack of foresight and daring.

Nor will we lose because we waste our time fighting environmentalism. Especially in the last couple of years, environmentalism has become a fact of life in our board room. That doesn't mean my fellow board members sit around saying, "We've got to do something about this global warming. Maybe we should ask our consumers to cut their consumption by 75 percent and tell Tri-State to shut down the Craig Power Plant."

Instead, here's what I hear: "I had to drive across the road this morning to run down one of those prairie 'rats' you environmentalists are trying to save." More seriously, when the idea of breaching Glen Canyon Dam to drain Lake Powell surfaced, fellow board members looked at me as if I were a member of a Kool-Aid cult.

But the actions DMEA is taking belie the prairie rat rhetoric. At the November board meeting, our representative to Tri-State told us that after long years of assurances from Tri-State that the Craig plants were clean as a whistle, and that a Sierra Club Clean Air Act lawsuit had no merit, the utility admitted that it would lose the lawsuit. Kit Moore, a building contractor, told us he was shocked. He said that the plants needed not just to obey the law, which they were not doing, but to be as clean as practical. He asked us to pass a resolution from the DMEA board that he could carry back to the Tri-State board, saying just that. It passed unanimously.

How did the Delta-Montrose Electric Association go from a rural board that a few years ago would have urged Tri-State to fight the damned Sierra Club to the last drop of our collective blood to one that now asks Tri-State to go beyond the letter of the law in its search for clean air?

There's a simple answer. Over the past two decades, environmentalism has become the dominant way of organizing our society, even in the rural West. The DMEA board and staff are responding to that core truth. DMEA may be a bit ahead of the crowd, but it is not unique. This region has an army of similar organizations: soil conservation districts, livestock associations, ag buying co-ops, fruit and onion growers' organizations, agricultural lending agencies, ditch companies, water conservancy districts, county commissions, and many more.

For the past few decades, these quasi-governmental, quasi-private outfits, which are at the heart of the region's traditional politics, have fought environmental policies. Rather than look out for the region's interests, they fought the inevitability of clean air and water and a more natural landscape and protected species. And when their anger flagged, they let themselves be egged on by logging and mining and other public land industries. Elected leaders such as Idaho Sen. Larry Craig and former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton also found it easy to keep Westerners stirred up, and thereby keep the region backward and touchy.

Environmentalists, working from another direction, have done what we could to keep rural areas from exercising power on the federal lands. In many cases, environmentalists saw no choice, given traditional alliances with extractive industries. In other cases, there were fundamental clashes over whether the West should have working landscapes or should be preserved everywhere for its pristine values.

Given the political dynamic, given our well-honed ability to pick fights with each other, and given that a new national administration is taking office, intent on undoing the last eight years of public land policies, is there any hope? Is it foolish even to talk of hope?

I admit that watching a rural electric co-operative change its nature and behavior seems a thin reed on which to say a different kind of Western politics and behavior is possible. But there are other reeds besides DMEA. This paper has chronicled many examples of different, more cooperative approaches to the land.

The funny thing is, on some level I have mistrusted these reports, perhaps because we journalists tend to push events into a framework that may or may not be true.

But I've lived the transformation of DMEA. Moreover, I've lived it without seeing where DMEA was going or what it was becoming, until, suddenly it seemed, it had become a progressive utility trying to survive by doing the right thing. I hadn't seen the transformation coming because I didn't believe DMEA was capable of it. For years, I sat with my fellow board members and the staff as a snob, not believing in their capacity to see what I saw, and to act on it.

Sometimes I think the environmental movement doesn't believe in the ability of rural places to change, and is not willing to take chances to encourage that change. We idealize the landscape of the West, but not the residents. We'll extend ourselves to great lengths in pursuit of policies, but not in pursuit of people.

That's a mistake it has only taken me 18 years to figure out.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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