Growing Away from Big Coal

Rural electric co-ops make a slow push back toward community energy

  • Paul Lachine
  • A new energy-efficient home in Delta, Colorado, has a Delta-Montrose Electric Association geothermal heat pump, and cellulose insulation made mostly from recycled newspaper.

    Barton Glasser
 

Last month, a new type of farm sprouted in Brighton, Colo. United Power, the rural electric cooperative that serves the town and a large swath of communities and agricultural lands on the state's northern Front Range, unveiled what's been touted as the nation's first cooperative solar farm. Customers can "rent" one or more of the 48 panels in the 10-kilowatt array for $1,050 apiece, for a 25-year period. In return, United Power credits their monthly utility bills for the power their panels generate. Other electric co-ops see this project as a possible prototype: a way to distribute local renewable energy without forcing customers to pay for the equipment or its installation. "People can even come visit their solar panels," says Troy Whitmore, United Power's director of external affairs. "And the sky's the limit as to how many modules we can have, depending on demand."

Until recently, co-ops like United Power were unlikely to dream up projects like this. Co-op culture has a long history of conservatism. And United Power and 43 other co-ops in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nebraska are locked into long-term power purchase contracts with the electricity wholesaler Tri-State Generation and Transmission. The utility has a reputation for being pro-coal and dismissive of renewable energy projects, which it has generally considered too costly and unreliable. And Tri-State's purchase contracts limit the amount of electricity member co-ops can own and control to 5 percent of their energy load. In effect, this has prevented co-ops from investing much in local and renewable power on their own.

But over the last couple years, the wholesaler's devotion to coal has started to wane, partly because of management changes and pressure from some member co-ops. Outside political forces are also a major factor: In 2007, Colorado and New Mexico passed renewable power generation requirements for rural co-ops, and national climate legislation looms on the horizon. Tri-State says it has committed to meeting the state requirements on behalf of its members. But a number of its member co-ops have begun to invest in and generate their own local renewable power as well, in part to ensure they can continue to offer cheap electricity in a changing world. And coal-fired power, which accounts for 82 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from electricity, doesn't look like it will be cheap forever.

The rural electric co-op system was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression to provide power to remote farms and ranches that large urban utilities refused to handle or couldn't afford to reach. There are now 864 rural co-ops in the country, with their electricity supplied by 66 power wholesalers, including Tri-State. Unlike the much larger investor-owned utilities, such as Xcel Energy, utilities like Tri-State are not publicly traded and have remained largely free from government regulation over the decades. Because they've faced little pressure to change, they lacked incentive to help cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Tri-State's members get reliable electricity at the lowest feasible cost in exchange for a commitment to purchase their power from the company. Coal supplies 72 percent of Tri-State's energy mix -- well above the national utility average of about 49 percent. Hydroelectricity accounts for another 13 percent, and only 1 percent comes from non-hydro renewable sources. Historically, coal has been favored as the lowest-possible-cost power source. And Tri-State has another reason to promote it; it has a stake in three Western coal mines that supply its power plants.

But the fossil fuel binge may be finally slowing.

In 2006, two of Tri-State's member co-ops broke ranks from the Tri-State "family." In an unprecedented and financially risky act of defiance, Delta-Montrose Electric Association in western Colorado and Kit Carson Rural Electric Cooperative in Taos, N.M., refused to extend their power contract with Tri-State, slated to expire in 2040, for an additional 10 years. Tri-State wanted the added purchasing guarantee so it could secure financing for two 700-megawatt coal plants planned in Holcomb, Kan. The co-ops' leaders feared that Tri-State's investment in those plants could unduly raise their electricity rates, given federal plans to cap carbon emissions and penalize polluters. They also wanted to generate more local and renewable energy independently.

The two co-ops' rebellion has not gone unnoticed. Although Tri-State initially threatened to increase their rates, according to members of both co-ops' boards, it has not done so. And Tri-State has since decided to allow its co-ops flexibility to produce and control more renewable and distributed local energy, provided they sell any extra back to Tri-State. In turn, Delta-Montrose and Kit Carson have backed off a bit, though they never signed the extension. And they continue to press the wholesaler to be more open about its financial decision-making, and to grant members still more freedom to generate their own power and sell the extra to potentially higher-paying customers than just Tri-State. "It's become a power-struggle issue," says Kit Carson CEO Luis Reyes.

In 2007, both New Mexico and Colorado passed laws requiring rural electric co-operatives to generate 10 percent of their power from renewables by 2020. That's half of what investor-owned utilities in both states must achieve -- which has allowed Tri-State to be less aggressive in investing in renewables, such as wind and solar, on behalf of its members. But local environmentalists and co-op board members say that the utility has begun to embrace renewables and energy efficiency. Indeed, in addition to committing to the state renewable standards, Tri-State now offers its members seed money to help jumpstart local renewable projects.

Many attribute the changes to Ken Anderson, who was appointed last year as Tri-State's executive vice president and general manager. "The recent change in staff has had some effect on direction," says Bill Midcap, director of renewable energy at the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, a former member of Tri-State's board of directors. "And the board of directors is also made up of rural folks who know their community will benefit from renewable energy projects. To keep opposing them may not be in their best interest."

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...