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Electric co-ops debate coal

Brief by Allen Best

Energy – July 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

The debate about coal and renewable energy sources has been central in several board elections for Colorado’s rural electrical co-ops this summer. Now, two incumbent directors for Gunnison County Electric Association who are standing for re-election are facing challengers who say the co-op has been too flat-footed as it looks at the future.

The two challengers, Steve Schechter and Schuyler Denham, say it’s past time to move away from coal-generated electricity and instead invest heavily in solar, wind and other renewable sources.

“The attitude of this current board is that coal is the most reliable, cheapest form of energy,” said Schechter. That, he said, is short-term thinking.

An incumbent, George Besse, tells the Crested Butte News that the story is more complex than the challengers describe it. “Everybody on the board is very aware of global warming,” he said. “We know it is happening, and we are trying to address it. There really is no quick fix, however. Technology got us into this mess, and hopefully technology will help get us out of the mess.”

He added: “We are striving to find a balance between the environment and keeping the lights on. We have to meet our growing demand in the valley. Everyone likes to have the lights go on when they flip the switch.”

The association serves the Crested Butte, Gunnison, and Lake City areas.

The background for the elections are plans by Tri-State Generation and Transmission to build a new coal-fired power plant in either Kansas or Colorado. Gunnison County, San Miguel Power, which services Telluride, and LaPlata Electric, which is in Durango, all agreed to participate.

Challengers say Tri-State must more aggressively promote technologies that achieve energy efficiency. They also warn that with Congress now debating a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, coal-fired electricity is sure to become more expensive than it is now.

The larger story in the Rocky Mountains is that even utilities lauded for their rapid embrace of wind and solar still get most of their electricity by burning either coal or natural gas. Natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide per unit of heat than does coal.

Even rural co-ops that are considered relatively progressive, including Holy Cross Energy, continue to rely largely on fossil fuels. Holy Cross last year got 92 percent of its electricity by burning coal or natural gas, reports The Aspen Times. Challengers charge that Holy Cross has lagged in its declared goal of getting fifteen percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Among the challengers in the election is Dave Campbell, a real estate agent based in Vail who deals in ranches and farms in Northwest Colorado.

In nearly all cases, the goal of shrinking the carbon footprint of utilities is made more difficult, explains Colorado Biz Magazine, by the fact that electrical demand is increasing, the result of population growth, per capita increases in consumption, and increased need for power in the natural gas and oil sector of the Rocky Mountains.