Encouraging co-ops to look to renewables

It started with an email that read: “La Plata Electric Association’s board of directors is meeting on June 15 to consider a blanket waiver giving Tri-State Generation and Transmission, our power provider, the right to be the primary negotiator of ALL our renewable energy projects going forward. Given Tri- State’s reliance on coal, given how it is stonewalling affordable solar and other renewables …”

The email’s plea was simple: If you care about developing renewable energy, get informed, write the LPEA board, and attend the upcoming Board of Directors meeting for your short opportunity to share concerns.

My curiosity roused, I started googling related articles that pieced together an interesting regional story worth sharing. To understand what happened at LPEA this past month, you need to go back to the 1978 passage of PURPA (Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act), which mandated that electrical co-ops such as LPEA start purchasing some of their power from renewable-energy sources.

In part PURPA was a reaction to the OPEC oil embargo, but it was also a sober acknowledgment that the USA needed to move away from dependence on fossil fuels. After all, the science of global warming and the dangers it poses to our next generations had become overwhelmingly clear.

It is true there were still many quibbling details, but in the big scheme of things, all those remaining uncertainties amounted to chump change. We knew what the accounts looked like. More atmospheric insulation meant warming our global climate system, which meant more extremes and destructive weather. It’s simple unavoidable physics.

PURPA was meant as a first step toward relieving the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels by exploiting less environmentally damaging, sustainable resources.

Then special interests (among them Tri-State) stepped in with their lobbyists, lawyers and PR specialists to do everything in their power to undermine the realization of PURPA’s mission and ensure fossil fuels’ continued stranglehold on our future.

Unlike LPEA, Delta Montrose Electric Association (DMEA) was enthusiastic about developing renewable energy when in 2006 after long-simmering frustration they refused to extend their Tri-State contract. Besides, not wanting to be forced to pay for Tri-State’s ill-conceived twin 700-megawatt coal-fired power plants – DMEA wanted to get out from under Tri-State’s culture of hostility towards renewable energy.

DMEA’s standoff escalated in 2015 when they filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requesting the ability to sign power purchase agreements with independent power producers under PURPA. In July, 2015 FERC ruled that as per PURPA Delta Montrose Electric Association not only had the right but the obligation to purchase electricity directly from “Qualifying Facilities” over and above the 5 percent cap – Tri-State’s contracted limit.

This sent Tri-State into damage control. They have since been pressuring their 44 co-ops to waive their right to negotiate with local generation projects. This is where we get back to LPEA’s Board of Directors and our concern that they were getting ready to quietly sign away LPEA’s right to negotiate with local alternative-energy projects.

Alerted to the threat, many people began calling LPEA, writing letters and attending that board meeting to question the rationale for giving away LPEA’s negotiation rights. Though the board could not bring themselves to reject Tri- State’s waiver outright, they did postpone a decision.

They were also awaiting FERC’s decision on Tri-State’s retaliatory petition, filed Feb. 15, which asked approval for a “rate penalty” on co-ops that exceeded their 5 percent limit. Ironically, the day after the LPEA board meeting, FERC announced its decision, which systematically rejected Tri-State’s arguments and denied their petition.

FERC found that “Tri-State’s proposal seeks to undermine the Commission’s prior order in ‘Delta-Montrose’ by imposing financial burdens on Delta- Montrose that could affect its purchasing from Qualifying Facilities.”

Furthermore the commission found that Tri-State’s claim of being financially threatened by renewable energy didn’t hold up, considering Tri-State’s easy access to outside energy-thirsty markets.

One would hope this ruling will encourage forward-looking LPEA board members to take a stand on developing renewable energy and the need to retain local autonomy. It’s also a lesson in the power of an informed vocal constituency to encourage and guide their local electricity distribution co-op, be it LPEA, DMEA or Empire Electric. Can you help?

Peter Miesler writes from near Durango, Colo., and hosts the blog No-VillageAtWolfCreek.blogspot.com

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From Peter Miesler.