Electric cooperatives have shifted their approach to renewable energy amid declining prices and growing public support, but wholesale power providers are key
By Joe Smyth | firstname.lastname@example.org | @joesmyth
Three electric cooperatives in Colorado have now set clean energy goals, reflecting co-ops' growing recognition of the opportunities presented by declining prices for renewable energy and increased public support for wind and solar power development.
The latest announcement came last week from Grand Valley Power, an electric cooperative that delivers electricity to more than 18,000 members mostly in Mesa County, Colorado. Grand Valley Power established a target of 60% clean energy by 2030, which the co-op described as "one of the most aggressive environmental targets of any electric cooperative in the nation."
In a press release, Grand Valley Power noted that the "announcement comes at a time when home- and business-owners are increasingly interested in having renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions." Grand Valley Power CEO Tom Walch said:
“With cost-effective advances in clean renewable energy technology, we’ll be able to meet this 60 percent target by 2030 while maintaining rate stability and our excellent reliability standards. This is one of the best ways we can deliver value to our consumers.”
Colorado Speaker of the House KC Becker noted that the announcement showed how some co-ops have shifted their approach to renewable energy, even in politically conservative regions of the state.
One important change over the last six years is that renewable energy prices have declined so much that they are now often cheaper than continuing to run existing coal plants.
Another key change is that public support for renewable energy has increased, among Republican, Independent, and Democratic voters.
A Colorado College poll last month asked western voters which two energy sources they want to encourage in their state. The results showed that western voters, and Colorado voters in particular, overwhelmingly favor solar and wind power development. In Colorado, 68% support solar power development, and 63% support wind power development, while only 9% support coal.
The annual poll of eight western states also showed that between 2013 and 2019, public support for renewable energy increased among Republicans, Independents, and Democrats. In 2013, 47% of Republican voters in the West supported solar energy development, while that number rose to 56% in 2019. Support also increased among Independent voters, from 58% to 69%, and Democratic voters, from 71% to 86%.
Co-ops' power suppliers are key to clean energy goals
Grand Valley Power expects to reach the 60% goal in large part because it purchases nearly all of its wholesale power from Xcel Energy, which is shifting its power supply mix from coal to a larger share of renewable energy. Xcel Energy's Colorado Energy Plan, which the Colorado Public Utilities Commission approved in August 2018, will mean the utility will reach 53% renewable energy in Colorado by 2026. Xcel also announced that it plans to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2030, and reach 100% carbon free electricity by 2050 across its eight state service territory.
Grand Valley Power CEO Tom Walch told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that Xcel Energy's plans are "one of the main things that is driving" the co-op's own clean energy goal.
Xcel Energy provides over 95% of Grand Valley Power's wholesale power needs, with 2% coming from federal hydroelectric projects sold by the Western Area Power Administration. Grand Valley Power has also developed local renewable energy projects, but those are not expected to play a major role in meeting the co-ops' clean energy goal. A spokesperson for Grand Valley Power said in an email: "Our local renewable will grow but we do not anticipate this to exceed more than 3% incrementally. This target contemplates that we will continue on this path with Xcel Energy."
Other electric cooperatives in Colorado face a more challenging path to meeting their clean energy goals.
Last month, La Plata Electric Association adopted a goal to reduce its carbon footprint 50% below 2018 levels by 2030. In a press release announcing the goal, La Plata Electric CEO Mike Dreyspring explained that the co-op will need to develop a plan to meet the goal:
“There’s a process we’re going to need to go through to put some substance into what 50 percent reduction means. The over-arching objective is de-carbonization in time. That’s what we’re shooting for. This is the beginning of a challenging and exciting journey for us.”
La Plata Electric manager of engineering and member relations Ron Meier added: “Now the real work begins. How do we establish our benchmarks, and how do we determine the best course for us to pursue?”
A key challenge facing La Plata Electric's goal is that unlike Xcel Energy, La Plata's wholesale power provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, has not established a clean energy or emissions reduction goal.
La Plata Electric is studying the possibility of switching to a different power supplier, as Kit Carson Electric did in 2016 and Delta-Montrose Electric is currently pursuing. But the Durango Herald reported that some La Plata Electric directors think it might be possible to meet the co-op's goal without leaving Tri-State - though that depends on Tri-State's power supply decisions, as well as a proposal to change its bylaws that would give member co-ops more flexibility to buy power from other providers.
The first electric cooperative in Colorado to establish a clean energy goal faces still other challenges with its power supply, but has already made some progress.
In September 2018, Holy Cross Energy announced a goal "to increase the renewable electricity we provide our members from 39% (currently) to 70% by 2030, and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 70%."
Like Grand Valley Power, Holy Cross Energy buys wholesale power from Xcel Energy, and so will also benefit from Xcel's clean energy plans. But Xcel represents a significantly smaller portion of Holy Cross Energy's wholesale power supply, while just over half of the co-op's power comes from unit 3 of the Comanche coal plant in Pueblo Colorado.
To try and address its dependence on the Comanche coal plant, last month Holy Cross Energy announced a "renewable energy swap agreement" with wholesale power provider Guzman Energy. Under the deal, Guzman Energy will buy the output from Holy Cross Energy's stake in the Comanche coal plant, while Holy Cross Energy will purchase the power from a new 100 megawatt wind project that will come online in 2021.
While pricing details about the deal are confidential, Holy Cross Energy CEO Bryan Hannegan said in an email that the deal was consistent with the co-op's commitment "to avoid any increase in power supply costs to our members as a result of our move to 70% renewables."
In the press release announcing the deal, Hannegan said, “Our new partnership with Guzman Energy will raise the amount of renewable energy in our power supply mix to almost 70 percent by 2021 – nine years earlier than promised."
However, as Holy Cross Energy noted in its September announcement of its clean energy goal, selling the power from the Comanche coal plant won't fully remove the co-op's responsibility for those emissions:
While this action will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the power supply we provide to our customers, HCE will still be responsible and accountable for our share of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the operation of Comanche 3. We will also investigate options, such as a sale of the asset, that would permanently reduce HCE’s carbon footprint associated with Comanche 3.
Grand Junction Daily Sentinel: Goal: 60% green by 2030
Durango Herald: Electric co-op sets ambitious goal to cut carbon by 50 percent
Holy Cross Energy plans to shift away from coal, aiming for 70% renewable energy
Colorado College: 9th Annual Survey of Voters in the Rocky Mountain West
Colorado Public Utilities Commissioner questions "whether or not Tri-State has been candid with us"
Rural America could power a renewable economy - but first we need to solve coal debt
Tri-State explores FERC rate regulation to limit state oversight
Poudre Valley Electric sets "80 by 2030" carbon free goal
Guzman Energy proposal would finance retirement of Tri-State coal plants, add 1.2 gigawatts of new wind and solar power
Colorado Public Utilities Commission will oversee Tri-State resource planning
Colorado communities and state Energy Office urge Public Utilities Commission oversight of Tri-State
Reports examine the impacts of Tri-State's high wholesale power costs
Tri-State executive involved with anti-Clean Air Act group since 2005
US Congressional Committee requests details of Tri-State funding to anti-Clean Air Act group
Renewable energy projects stalled in 2018 among Tri-State member co-ops
Second co-op asks Tri-State to pull “Better Together” ads
Tri-State won’t allow co-op members to attend annual meeting
Tri-State expects member co-ops to support bylaw changes at annual meeting
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union calls on Tri-State to adopt flexible contracts and more clean energy
Co-ops in Colorado push for change at Tri-State
Will Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska remain reliant on coal?
Tri-State ad campaign tells co-ops they’re “better together”
La Plata Electric concerned Tri-State debt will lead to higher rates
Colorado Public Utilities Commission asserts jurisdiction over Tri-State
More Colorado co-ops announce clean energy goals
Ski industry climate change efforts shift to electric utilities and their regulators
Public Utilities Commission rejects Tri-State motion to exclude Colorado Energy Office from exit charge case
Tri-State claims that co-ops "have intervened on Tri-State's behalf at the PUC” don’t add up
Colorado state legislators urge Public Utilities Commission to determine Tri-State exit charge
United Power says Tri-State policies are turning away large customers
Next PUC Commissioner John Gavan "consensus choice" of Governors Hickenlooper and Polis
Tri-State policy change discourages battery projects in rural Colorado and New Mexico
Colorado Public Utilities Commission orders Tri-State to "satisfy or answer" exit charge complaint from Delta Montrose Electric
United Power seeks solutions to "increasingly outmoded G&T business models"
Clean Energy Means Business Summit highlights renewable energy opportunities and challenges in rural Colorado
Governor-elect Jared Polis says moving Colorado toward more renewable energy will be a top priority
Electric cooperative officials discuss cheap renewable energy and an “eroding monopoly”
Delta Montrose Electric members vote for new financing options, supporting a potential buyout of Tri-State contract
Poudre Valley Electric requests Tri-State policy changes and fuel mix study
Holy Cross Energy plans to shift away from coal, aiming for 70% renewable energy
What do corporate renewable energy commitments mean for electric utilities?
Colorado Energy Plan approval will mean new renewable energy investments in rural Colorado
Report: Tri-State could save $600 million by shifting from coal to renewable energy
Delta Montrose Electric seeks new financing options to end contract with Tri-State
Wind energy jobs in rural Colorado attract bipartisan support
Colorado Energy Plan analysis shows switching from coal to renewable energy will boost jobs and local tax revenue
Poudre Valley Electric and Xcel Energy Colorado President win national awards from Smart Electric Power Alliance
Latest coal plant subsidy proposal could hit electricity bills in the West
Moody’s report: “High quality renewable resources” could help Tri-State and Basin Electric navigate rising carbon transition risks
Senator Heinrich highlights “frustrations in New Mexico” with Tri-State’s limits on local solar
Moody’s report shows Tri-State’s coal plants are more expensive than new renewable energy
Tri-State’s limits on local energy development are a growing problem for co-op members
Governor Hickenlooper discusses Tri-State at the Climate Leadership Conference
Bids for Xcel’s Colorado Energy Plan include a proposal for the world’s largest battery
New wind and solar power in Colorado is now cheaper than existing coal plants
Companies' 100% renewable energy goals are getting results in Colorado
What does cheap solar mean for electric cooperatives?
Colorado towns and cities are helping push utilities to embrace renewable energy
How are electric cooperatives navigating the transition from coal to cheap clean energy?
Blocked from building more solar projects, United Power shifts to community batteries
Economic reality sets in for Tri-State efforts to expand the Holcomb coal plant
Solar projects in the works in Grand and Jackson counties
Mountain Parks Electric grapples with solar