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
 

Page 2

Tri-State is also feeling some pressure from state regulators. In January, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission launched an investigation to determine whether to assert state authority over the wholesaler's energy resource planning. The PUC said that public concerns about climate change, uncertainty about future costs of generating power, and state mandates for more renewable energy spurred it to take a closer look at Tri-State's energy mix. The PUC will meet in mid-July with representatives of the company, member co-ops and environmentalist and consumer groups before reaching a final decision.

In response to the recent scrutiny, Tri-State began airing TV ads boasting of its push toward energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy. In April -- after Kansas' then governor, Kathleen Sebelius, vetoed bills that would have allowed Tri-State and Sunflower Electric to build the two Holcomb coal plants -- Tri-State announced that it was re-evaluating its long-term resource plans. The company pledged to rely more on wind and solar and to depend less on conventional coal plants.

Environmental organizations lauded the new approach, which includes plans for a 30-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant in northeastern New Mexico and a wind project in Colorado. But their enthusiasm has since waned. In May, Kansas' new governor, Mark Parkinson, OK'd the construction of one 895-megawatt coal plant in Holcomb near the Colorado border, provided that it develops some wind energy on the side. Tri-State has invested roughly $60 million in the $3.8 billion project and plans to rely on the new plant for some of the 300 to 700 megawatts of increased capacity that it expects it will need over the next decade.

"With the Kansas plant back in play, there's a concern that Tri-State will fall back into its traditional way of doing business," says John Nielsen, energy project director at Western Resource Advocates in Boulder, Colo. 

Meanwhile, some of Tri-State's member co-ops continue their incremental push toward carbon-cutting goals. In fact, some have more ambitious goals than those mandated by the states. Kit Carson, for example, which serves many affluent and liberal Taos residents, aims to generate 15 percent of its energy mix from its own renewable projects by 2020, says Reyes, a more aggressive goal than New Mexico's mandate for rural electric co-ops. But it would be easier and more economically attractive to set and reach such goals if Tri-State allowed Kit Carson and other member co-ops to sell their locally generated power at market prices, he adds, not just the price set by Tri-State. Kit Carson, which is working on a relatively large photovoltaic array for the University of New Mexico and has installed photovoltaic panels on homes, schools and other buildings, still has a long way to go: The co-op currently controls and generates less than 1 percent of its power from local sources, although nearly 5 percent of the power it buys from Tri-State is from renewable resources.

Highline Electric Association in the northeastern Colorado city of Holyoke now meets 5 percent of its electricity needs with a 3.5-megawatt gas compression station that turns waste heat from natural gas turbines into electricity -- a process that qualifies under Colorado's renewable portfolio standards. Highline, like several other co-ops whose service territory depends heavily on agriculture, is trying to garner state grants for other renewable energy projects, such as small-scale hydroelectricity and community-scale wind farms.

Delta-Montrose, meanwhile, still generates less than 1 percent of its electricity from local and renewable sources, though it is a leader in energy efficiency and conservation. The co-op's greatest success so far has been in selling and installing about 600 ground-source heat pumps, or geothermal pumps, which offset the need for using natural gas and electricity to heat and cool homes and businesses. Delta-Montrose is also seeking funding for a 5-megawatt hydroelectric dam, as well as a project that would capture methane -- a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2 -- from nearby coal mines and convert it to natural gas-based electricity. 

Despite these steps toward greener power, don't expect Delta-Montrose leaders to trash-talk coal; after all, the three local coal mines are the co-op's biggest electricity consumers, as well as the biggest and among the highest-paying employers in the relatively low-income region. And coal's going to be a big part of the energy mix for a long time. "It takes a while to change culture and contracts," says Dan McClendon, Delta-Montrose's general manager. "There's a lot of 'new energy economy' jargon, but it just doesn't happen overnight."

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Friends of the San Juans (Friends), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is seeking an experienced, passionate, and charismatic environmental leader to continue its strong community leadership...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, ARIZONA CHAPTER
    What We Can Achieve Together: Arizona's Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure...
  • CAPACITY BUILDING PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Capacity Building Program Manager works directly with the business unit's Arizona Healthy Cities Program Director to advance the Healthy...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND OFFICE MANAGER - FRIENDS OF THE INYO
    Friends of the Inyo - Donor database management & reporting, IT/HR, and office administrative support. PT or FT. Partly remote OK but some in-office time...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • 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.