Ray of light
Despite debates and concerns, renewable projects inch forward

Ray of light

A majority of solar panels in the area serve to offset energy use for businesses and homes, like this array atop the Student Union Building at Fort Lewis College. LPEA's new grant program – now open for applicants – would do the same for local nonprofits, helping them to lower electric bills./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Tracy Chamberlin - 07/19/2018

All the bickering was just too much talk for one member. With an ever-changing energy landscape and very different ideas on how to tackle it, the Board of Directors for La Plata Electric Association began to get a disagreeable reputation.

As discussions got more and more heated, an attempt was made to calm the storm by creating a new group. A group tasked with taking the long view and looking at the future of power.

Called the Long-term Strategies Committee, the group of four directors – Bob Lynch, Britt Bassett, Guinn Unger and Dan Huntington – finished their fact-finding mission recently and returned to the full board with a presentation in June.

According to the committee members, they learned a lot about the specific subjects they were tasked with researching.

Huntington, who served as the committee’s chair, said, “We need to be agile and able to change. It’s a fast-changing industry with new technologies and electronics ... we’ve got to be resilient.”

Bassett said although he didn’t think minds were changed, he was happy with the outcome.

Still, the committee’s work did not – nor was it intended to – produce any specific policy changes. With some members of the community pushing for LPEA to increase the amount of local renewable energy it produces, it seemed like just talk.

“The bottom line is too much talking is going on and all the while time is going by,” Jeff Bork, retired telecom lawyer and LPEA coop member, said Wednesday. “Someone had to step forward and get something going.”

So, Bork decided to reach out to companies who could fill the local need for renewable energy.

The first company he approached seemed interested but was slow to respond. Bork then reached out to CalCom Energy, a California-based company with offices in Durango.

One of CalCom’s founders is Durango resident and LPEA board member, Britt Bassett. He was also one of four directors who served on the Long-term Strategies Committee.

Because of Bassett’s connection to CalCom, he acknowledged a potential conflict of interest and stepped away from decision-making on the issue during the board’s June meeting. However, concerns were raised by several coop members during their regular meeting Wednesday about Bassett and CalCom, some even suggesting Bassett step away from his position as a director altogether.

In response to the questions raised, Bork sent an email to the Telegraph clarifying his attempts to reach out to CalCom.

“I alone decided to contact CalCom,” Bork said in the email. “I did not tell anyone at LPEA – whether an employee or a board member (including Britt [Bassett]) – about this contact.”

The proposal from CalCom is to build several 3.5-10 megawatt solar projects – with at least one in each of the school districts and counties in LPEA’s service territory – over the next three years. Together these systems would add 35 megawatts to the coop’s energy portfolio, and they include an energy-storage component.

Bassett’s connection to CalCom isn’t just a concern because of competition with other solar companies or the nuance of negotiations, but the impact it could have on CalCom’s ability to be what’s called a qualifying facility.

In the 1970s, when the oil crisis left Americans fighting over the last drop of gasoline at the pump, Congress stepped in and passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA. This law was intended to encourage energy conservation, efficiency and the development of renewable resources. One way the law did this was to create “qualified facility” status, which allowed certain smaller power producers to get special rate and regulatory treatment.

Today, this has translated into a way for coops like LPEA to increase their renewable energy portfolio without violating the contract they have with Tri-State Transmission and Generation, their wholesale energy provider.

LPEA’s contract with Tri-State limits the amount of renewable energy it can get to just 5 percent of its total. The other 95 percent has to come from Tri-State.

The window for qualified facilities opened when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, ruled in a case between Tri-State and another one of its coop members, Delta-Montrose. In that case, Delta-Montrose wanted to work with a small hydroelectric power producer in its area but was limited by the same 5 percent cap. So they asked the federal agency to give the producer qualified facility status – and they did.

In response, Tri-State created a new policy to get its lost revenues back, but FERC also said no to that idea. Tri-State appealed the agency’s decision, but it’s not known when FERC will take up the case.

Delta-Montrose hailed the decision as a win, and word was out to other co-ops, including LPEA, that they too could expand their renewable energy portfolios by tapping qualifying facilities.

One of the keys to this loophole, however, is that LPEA can’t seek out qualified facilities. They have to wait for the companies to come to them. That’s why Bassett couldn’t reach out to CalCom.

LPEA’s manager of engineering and member services, Ron Meier, said on Tuesday that the coop was approached out of the blue by three different companies looking to build solar projects. It was announced Wednesday that CalCom was one of those companies.

The fact that Tri-State’s appeal is still out there does leave some risk on the table for qualified facilities and the coops they contract with. But it’s all part of the negotiations – who’s going to take the risk if something were to change?

“That’s one of the challenges of any of this happening,” Meier explained.

All three of the proposed projects are still on the table, and Meier, along with other LPEA officials, will be meeting with two of the companies in the coming weeks. One, two or all three of the proposed projects – including CalCom’s – could still be approved.

“It’s the beginning of the process,” Meier said, “but we’re hopeful.”