Power play: LPEA candidates buzz in
For the past year, the hot topic at La Plata Electric Association has been renewable energy and the co-op’s contract with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, its wholesale energy provider.
Some co-op directors want more locally produced, renewable energy and see this as a way to part with Tri-State – which means a buyout of the contract between LPEA and Tri-State. Others question a buyout, asking if it’s the best way to lead the charge toward local renewables or simply a risky gamble with members’ money.
Like any issue of politics and policy, everyone has a different take on the road ahead. With four seats on LPEA’s Board of Directors up for grabs this May, the Telegraph has reached out to the eight candidates to tell us where they stand on the issues and what future they envision for LPEA:
District 1 (Archuleta County)
Name: Kirsten Skeehan
Previous/current occupation: US Naval Officer; senior project manager with Fannie Mae; VP operations Pagosa Verde LLC; chief financial officer and bottle washer, Pagosa Baking Co.
What powers you? Caffeine, scones, green chile and being raised with this motto: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be expected,” (Luke 12:48).
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? Possible? Yes. Probable? No. 2030 is just 12 years away. Although (National Renewable Energy Lab) maps show that this area can support sufficient solar, the infrastructure and backup infrastructure is simply not in place. Invertor technology that allows islanding exists but still needs to improve for micro-grids. Battery technology is approaching cost and reliability levels that will mellow the cyclic nature of most renewables. We could and should move toward local production. In addition to the obvious economic development, local development also spreads our grid risk. The more centralized power production is and the farther it has to travel, the more risk of failure. Whether it’s a revolt of suicidal squirrels, severe solar weather or terrorism – the grid is at risk. Decentralization helps mitigate that risk.
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? I am pleased that LPEA has formed a strategic committee to look at options going forward. Our relationship with Tri-State has to change. We need to work with them, not for them. We need to work with our co-op peers and bring about policy changes. Electric utilities throughout the U.S. are learning to adapt to the new market. Vertically integrated Tri-State must decentralize or risk failure.
Bob Formwalt (incumbent) was unable to respond to our questions by deadline, but his candidate statement is available on LPEA’s website.
District 2 (south & west La Plata County)
Name: Kohler McInnis, incumbent
Previous/current occupation: Owned and operated Kohler’s Printing and Copying for 31 years. Currently manages four investment portfolios, three with shareholders and the fourth private. In addition to the LPEA board, also serves on the boards for Tri-State and the Colorado Electric Educational Institute.
What powers you? My family, friends, the outdoors and woodworking. I enjoy challenging myself mentally and physically.
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? Today’s technology would not allow us to self-produce to that level. But the future is bright. With the speed that technology is changing and learning about future possibilities, 80 percent might be achievable. LPEA has always been an early adopter and if it can be done, LPEA would be the one to do it!
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? At this time, I believe the contract LPEA has with Tri-State G&T (TSGT) is in the best interest of LPEA’s members. TSGT is financially strong, projecting their rates to be stable for the next four to five years, and there is a high likelihood of TSGT increasing capital credit refunds. The power we receive from TSGT is 30 percent renewable now and projected to be 33 percent by the end of 2018. What is the realistic alternative? Knowing it will be expensive to buy out of the contract, any replacement plan would have to be superior in all aspects: reliability, cost, services provided and capacity.
Name: Jeffrey Mannix
Previous/current occupation: Cattleman, rodeo impresario, author, journalist
What powers you? The winds that fill my sails; the uncertainty of new beginnings; the comfort of home; and coffee.
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? Wouldn’t that be great, and I don’t believe any local organizations have expressed this as a realistic goal, perhaps more like a wish, along with peace on earth. Can’t happen in 12 years, even with the unanimous support of every LPEA member and a voluntary uptick of rates. It’s a trick question so let’s move on. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of conjecture to look for substantial home-grown power 10/15 years after the LPEA Board set the keel, and we were ready to map and install local solar grids and storage capacity and light up new technologies. Never lose sight of the fact that La Plata County and the whole Southwest has abundant sunlight. Put your hand on a car hood at noon on an August day – that’s energy, and you can cook an egg on it. We have lots of ranchers who would love to grow a high-value crop like electricity, rather than struggle with no rain, scant irrigation water, crop-ruining grasshoppers, uninterested children, old age, prairie dogs and poor markets.
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? Tri-State G&T is a dying behemoth of another era. We have 32 years left on the contract all 43 member co-ops signed with Tri-State in 2007, after they exacted a 10-year extension to fund a new $100 million coal-burning generation facility. Tri-State scrapped those plans because nobody in the market wanted to pay extra for coal-generated power, and instead they created a defined-benefit retirement plan for their executives. This was funded with higher rates that were passed onto co-op members like LPEA, then of course onto rate payers like you and me. Should we pursue a contract buyout as Taos, Montrose and others have? Absolutely, assiduously and immediately. Tri-State’s debt is the debt of all 43 member co-ops, and before the Tri-State ship takes on too much more water, LPEA should want to be long gone. We send Tri-State $70 million each year for power priced higher than we could buy it after only one phone call to a power broker (power is a traded commodity). And as prices for renewables hardware decreases monthly, we can look forward to that $70 million staying here, along with the jobs and the security of self-sufficiency it creates.
District 3 (City of Durango)
Name: Britt Bassett, incumbent
Previous/current occupation: Founding partner, Calcom Solar, developer of Arrowhead Ridge in Durango.
What powers you? Making our community a better place to live in, then taking advantage of all the fun things to do in our community!
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? It is possible, and it is good to have a goal that would provide benefits to our community. But such a goal may need to be changed as we learn more and future possibilities become clearer over time. Perhaps we would generate 50 percent locally and have the other 30 percent provided by a wholesaler energy provider.
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? We do not have enough information yet to know if we should pursue a buyout. However, it is clear that we should investigate this option as the benefits of being an independent cooperative with local control and decision making over our energy sources would be substantial. Particularly the benefits to our county property tax base and to our neighbors in the southern parts of La Plata and Archuleta counties, where most local energy projects would be located.
Name: Eugene (Gene) Fisher
Previous/current occupation: Degreed engineer involved in electric power generation seven years. Forty-year Durango resident, and homebuilder and real estate developer (Skyridge).
What powers you? Working to keep Durango a community that all varieties of people can afford and be a part of. Keeping LPEA affordable while helping it move to a renewable grid is the ultimate challenge.
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? As a power-generation engineer, I built and ran power plants around the world and have seen firsthand how complex and complicated the electric grid is. I have built many renewable projects as well as owning and operating one of our local community solar gardens. Our task over the next decade will be to integrate LPEA into that grid while maintaining reasonable costs and moving as quickly as possible to an all-renewable grid.
There are many technical challenges to creating an all-renewable grid, the most important is to make sure the new technologies are mature enough to keep our grid as reliable as it has been in the past. How fast we can move toward an 80 percent renewable grid is truly dependent on the progress of these technologies and their costs to implement.
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? The two major issues with a buyout are: what will be the short-and long-term cost to the LPEA member; and can we keep our grid as reliable as it is now? We need to proceed with trying to answer these questions while working with Tri-State to remove some of the restrictions we have with increasing our renewable percentages. The electric grid is far too important to make these decisions without good, unbiased information and a well-thought-out plan for the future.
District 4 (north & east La Plata County)
Name: Karen Barger, incumbent
Previous/current occupation: Owner Seasons Rotisserie & Grill. I have been involved in a number of local nonprofits, started a big three-day festival and sat on the Business Improvement District Board (first woman!)
What powers you? This is where we chose to live, raise our kids and where we choose to stay. I find it a crucial part of my life to find ways to be of service. My family, and the importance of families, often weigh out first when decisions are made. Years of volunteer work, leadership training, and the hope that what we all do can make a difference are what power me.
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? Setting goals are helpful for many reasons. The first, of course, is that it provides a path and direction for what you are trying to achieve. In today’s world, 80 percent renewable seems lofty, but it may certainly be achievable with new technology and with pressure to move in that direction. Twelve years to reach that goal may make it very possible. If I had a crystal ball, I’d say it could be done, and that it could be done without costing more.
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? At this moment in time, I am not in favor of the buy-out option. That does not mean never, and I want to make sure that we think the entire plot through. I am not convinced that if we buy out, it will immediately lower all rates to all members and we will be 100 percent green power. I hope it can be in the future. Batteries, the plan and execution/delivery of local renewables, infrastructure necessary, etc., are not yet worked out. Once those concerns are solid, perhaps buy out that contract. For now, we know what we have, how it delivers power to you, and what we need to do to maintain that while we search for the right way to make a switch.
Name: Tim Wheeler
Previous/current occupation: Retired. Previously I spent 17 years in engineering and management positions in the high-tech industry and 12 years as the owner of the Durango Coffee Co.
What powers you? I am powered by local food and microbrews ... Seriously it is the opportunity for sustainable local economic development. Basic to a healthier local economy is to plug economic leakage whenever possible. We currently spend $70 million a year to purchase electricity, 95 percent of which is imported. Plugging this leak with local renewables is a priority.
Some have expressed a desire to achieve a goal of 80 percent locally produced, renewable energy for LPEA’s service territory by 2030. Do you think this goal is possible? Yes, I believe it is possible to achieve the goal and there are models for achieving this, such as what Kit Carson Electric Coop (KCEC) is doing with installations of local solar PV that will provide 40 percent of their power needs by 2023. By 2030 the low cost of renewables and the fast declining cost of electric storage should allow LPEA to meet the goal, saving money on our bills at the same time.
Do you think LPEA should pursue a buyout of its contract with Tri-State? The fiduciary responsibility of any LPEA Board director is to fully investigate how the KCEC model could be applied to LPEA, including seeking bids for wholesale power supply from other providers than TS. If the investigation shows we could save our ratepayers substantial money by exiting TS, then we should pursue it. If not, then we can continue with TS, and we will have fulfilled our fiduciary responsibility to our members.
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