Electric cooperatives in Colorado push for change at Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association
Electric cooperatives deliver power to 42 million Americans, and those local co-ops tend to be well known in the communities they serve. At a minimum, people know who they write a check to each month, and some co-op members get more involved with their co-ops by running for the board of directors, attending meetings, and working to ensure that co-ops are upholding their commitments to democratic control.
What’s less well known is that most electric cooperatives are themselves members of larger cooperatives, known as generation and transmission associations (or “G&Ts” within the industry). These generation and transmission associations own and operate large power plants and deliver that power to local electric cooperatives, which in turn distribute electricity to homes and businesses across the United States.
Generation and transmission associations aren’t often well known because they don’t show up on electric bills. But they can have a major impact on local electric cooperatives’ power supply, rates, and even a co-op’s ability to respond to its members concerns.
Map of generation and transmission associations by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
United Power, the largest electric cooperative that buys power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, is seeking changes to Tri-State's bylaws that would give more flexibility to United and other co-ops to purchase power from other providers.
In letters sent last week to the other electric cooperatives that buy power from Tri-State, United Power board president James Vigesaa wrote that "the Board members and management of United Power have grave concerns about key elements of Tri-State’s key generation products and services," including Tri-State's reluctance to embrace renewable energy and the high cost of power it sells to member co-ops. A United Power representative said that letters were sent to the board presidents and general managers of each of the 42 other Tri-State member co-ops.
Other electric cooperatives in Colorado and New Mexico have noted similar concerns about the high cost and heavy reliance on coal of the power they purchase from Tri-State, and have responded in a variety of ways. In September, Poudre Valley Electric Association urged Tri-State to study if adjusting its fuel mix could lower costs, as reports from Rocky Mountain Institute and Moody's Investors Service have found. Delta-Montrose Electric Association is pursuing an end to its contract with Tri-State, as Kit Carson Electric did in 2016. La Plata Electric Association is studying its options, and last month contracted with three consulting firms to analyze its contract with Tri-State and other power supply options.
United Power's letter suggests another approach: instead of only allowing all-requirements contracts, which require each co-op to purchase 95% of its power needs from Tri-State, United Power's proposal would "amend the Tri-State bylaws to include a partial requirements membership relationship."
Clean Energy Means Business Summit highlights renewable energy opportunities and challenges in rural Colorado
At the Clean Energy Means Business Summit in Denver this week, representatives of municipalities and companies in Colorado discussed how they are pursuing their renewable energy goals, including navigating the challenges and opportunities of working with electric cooperatives in Colorado. The event, organized by the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association and the Compact of Colorado Communities, also included presentations from solar energy developers, electric utilities, and state officials.
Craig Edwards, Director of Corporate Services at Aurora Organic Dairy, discussed how the company considers a variety of options for on-site renewable energy projects at its operations in Colorado and Texas, and said, “We’re just wrapping up a couple solar installations at two of our dairy farms here in Colorado, they’re our first steps towards our clean energy strategy.”
Edwards said that the Aurora had sometimes faced challenges in working with electric cooperatives as it pursues on-site renewable energy projects, but had found success by discussing the company’s goals with co-op staff. Aurora is still negotiating with other electric cooperatives about future projects:
We’re still working through many different negotiations with many of our co-ops. Each one of our locations we operate in has a unique mix of renewable energy sources and possibilities, we have a co-op for each one generally, so we look at everything on a case by case basis.
A new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) finds that Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association could save its member co-ops over $600 million through 2030, by taking advantage of low cost renewable energy resources and shifting away from its reliance on coal fired power plants. Moreover, the report shows that if Tri-State fails to cut costs and continues to rely on its higher cost coal plants, the generation and transmission association will face increased risks, including losing electricity sales because of defection by its member co-ops, as well as by those co-ops’ members.
The RMI report compares the costs of each of Tri-State’s coal fired power plants – broken down by the costs of fuel, fixed operations and maintenance costs, and variable operations and maintenance costs – to the range of bid prices for new wind and solar energy in Colorado that Xcel Energy received this year in response to it Colorado Energy Plan proposal. Even after adding costs for expanding transmission and other integration costs to bring those new renewable energy resources online, it costs more to keep running Tri-State’s coal plants than it would to add new renewable energy.
The Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) board of directors is urging members to support a proposal that would change the electric cooperative’s articles of incorporation, to support DMEA’s efforts to end its contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.
DMEA posted a video and background information on its website to explain the proposed changes, and the reasons the board of directors is recommending that members vote yes this October to support the proposal. According to DMEA:
The revisions do three general things. First, they modernize and streamline language (which in some cases been in place since 1938). Second, they allow DMEA to take advantage of being governed by a newer Colorado cooperative law (called the Colorado Cooperative Act). Third, they give DMEA more financial flexibility by allowing it to issue capital stock to non-members.
Those new financing options could be a first for electric cooperatives. DMEA says, “While we are not aware of any electric cooperatives that have issued capital stock to non-members, many other types of co-ops have,” including major agricultural cooperatives like Sunkist, Oceanspray, and Land O Lakes.
DMEA will host a series of town halls next month about the proposed changes, and members will receive ballots the last week of September. DMEA members can cast their vote by mail, or in person at an October 16 meeting.
“When you have a co-op that’s willing to step up and invest in their own generation, and particularly clean generation, that should be supported.”
New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich highlighted frustrations about Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s limits on local renewable energy projects, during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday focused on “Rural Energy Challenges and Opportunities.”
Senator Heinrich noted that one electric cooperative in New Mexico ended its contract with Tri-State, in order to pursue more local solar energy projects, and he asked a representative of Basin Electric (which sells power to Tri-State) about Tri-State’s policies that have limited electric cooperatives in New Mexico from pursuing more than 5% of their power needs from local sources. Senator Heinrich's comments are shown in this video, and transcribed below.
The town of Breckenridge passed a resolution last week establishing a goal to power the community with 100% renewable electricity by 2035. Breckenridge joins other Colorado towns and cities that are pursuing 100% renewable energy, including Pueblo, Boulder, and Nederland. Aspen achieved its 100% renewable energy goal in 2015, while other towns and cities including Denver and Durango are also considering renewable energy goals.
The responses from the utilities that serve those Colorado towns and cities show that these 100% renewable energy goals are helping push the region toward a cleaner electricity grid, achieving a broader impact than sustainability goals that remain within the boundaries of a municipality. That’s consistent with a new report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which argues that cities should focus their sustainability efforts on four strategic areas for maximum impact. First among those four strategic areas is using their position as major electricity consumers to help decarbonize the electricity grid:
While cities may believe they have little influence over the grid mix, in fact, they often represent a major portion of any local electric utility’s customers, potentially giving them significant leverage to shape the emissions profile of the electricity consumed within their metropolitan area. Still, capturing this opportunity will not be easy, and cities cannot do it alone. Utilities and regulators must play a central role in ensuring the overall mix of renewables is appropriately balanced at a system level and that critical components such as energy storage are in place to ensure grid reliability. Nevertheless, cities have an essential role to play by setting clear decarbonization goals, aggregating demand for renewables, promoting energy efficiency, and shifting more urban energy consumption to electricity (especially in transportation and heating).
Lowering the emissions intensity of the electricity grid is an especially impactful way that municipalities in the Rocky Mountain region can advance their sustainability goals, because the region’s grid is more dependent on coal, and therefore more carbon intensive, than other parts of the US. But as these Colorado towns and cities seek to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, they face varying challenges in working with the different utilities and electric cooperatives that sell electricity in Colorado. Colorado towns and cities are served by two investor owned utilities, 29 municipal utilities, and 22 rural electric cooperatives, according to the Colorado Energy Office
Let’s look at four Colorado municipalities pursuing renewable energy goals, each with a different electricity provider: Breckenridge, Pueblo, Aspen, and Durango.
Plans move forward for a floating solar array in Jackson County, while Mountain Parks Electric considers its own solar projects.
In Jackson County, the town of Walden’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously this week to build a solar array that will help power the town’s water treatment plant. Jim Dustin, the Mayor of Walden, said at the Mountain Parks Electric August board meeting that the project “will be unique in Colorado – it will be a floating array.” Dustin said the cost of the 50 kilowatt solar array will be covered by lower electricity bills over the next decade or two.
At the electric cooperative’s August 10 board meeting, Mountain Parks Electric board members and staff also discussed their own solar energy efforts. Among the solar projects that Mountain Parks Electric is considering is a collaborative effort with other electric cooperatives in the region and the Rocky Mountain Institute. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, solar developers have responded with offers that would deliver solar energy at a price of about 4.5 cents/kilowatt hour, less than the cost of electricity and transmission from coal fired power plants that participating electric cooperatives currently pay.
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