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Power from the People

Column by George Sibley

Electrical Generation – January 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN IS THE 21st century going to begin? And how? In this time of global warming, peaking oil production, and other interesting large-scale situations– a time when it is clear that large-scale changes are going to happen, like it or not– one wonders when and how these changes are going to start happening, and whether we will be trying to guide and control them or will just let them happen to us.

An incipient change might be beginning right now, in a down-on-the-ground rebellion brewing against Central Colorado’s largest electrical power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. Tri-State G&T generates and delivers electric power for 44 mostly rural electric associations in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Three of these cover most of Central Colorado– Sangre de Cristo Electric Association, Gunnison County Electric Association and Intermountain Rural Electric Association. (Central Colorado’s other major electric distributor, Holy Cross Energy, gets its juice from Xcel, an even larger provider overall.)

Tri-State recently announced that, in order to meet “anticipated demand growth,” they need to build three big coal-fired generating stations and a lot of new transmission capacity by 2020– a total of around $5 billion of new capacity, which will, of course, be passed along to consumers in the form of higher electric costs. This will begin with a 12 percent increase in 2007, Tri-State says– and critics of their plan calculate that eventually the rate increase to consumers from these plants will be 30-50 percent.

Concern about Tri-State’s plan is heightened by the fact that their three proposed new coal-fired plants are not going to be “state of the art” ; they are going to be three more sets of 20th century smokestacks cranking carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Tri-State claims that the science is just not there for newfangled coal-burning methods like “integrated gasification combined cycle.” (This is also a company that recently donated $50,000 to Pat Michaels, one of the lone remaining alleged scientists arguing against the idea that humans are causing global warming through greenhouse gases.)

That’s enough to cause some grumbling, to be sure. But the deeper rumbling grows from the conviction of many people in the Tri-State region that the challenge of growing demand could be mitigated a lot more cheaply through an organized and aggressive program of conservation, efficiency, and transition to renewable energy sources. This new course, the argument goes, would not just embody Dick Cheney’s “personal virtue,” but could foster an institutionalized attitude of conservation and conversion which could nurture efficiency and innovation at all levels from the home consumer on up to Tri-State itself.

Some of the local REAs in Tri-State’s stable are already working hard to develop conservation and innovation, by offering to buy the renewable power their customers create, and providing free energy audits and conservation advice and credits, and by promoting other programs that raise awareness and encourage action down on the ground. But their own contracts with Tri-State limit the amount of energy they can buy locally to five percent, and otherwise hamstring these local efforts. Some of the local REAs are edging toward getting up on their hind legs to propose alternatives to Tri-State’s plan, and the “Cheney attitude” underlying it, but thus far only one– the Delta-Montrose Electric Association in far Western Colorado — is openly arguing against the Tri-State plan.

This makes me think that it’s time for a little local history, to give some context to the situation, and to remind us of the “21st century vision” we once had– and then abandoned. The early history of the Gunnison County Electric Association makes the sweeping and progressive nature of our forebears’ vision clear.

ELECTRICITY DID NOT COME to the mountain valleys through big top-down behemoths like Tri-State G&T. It was homegrown in our towns, cities and valleys through private and public municipal utilities. In the Upper Gunnison, Crested Butte was first with a small coal-fired plant in 1890 that provided enough power for a few lights for everyone in town. Gunnison followed in 1894 with a small hydro plant that was eventually supplemented by diesel generators. But in the beginning, only the towns and cities got power because the users were close together and therefore easier to serve. Nobody had the long-term capital necessary for stringing miles of wire to deliver electricity to remote farmers and other outdwellers, so they did without (or rigged up a personal “wind power” generator on the Aeromotor that pumped their water).

But when the federal government decided to invest in our society as a way of combating the Great Depression, one of the Roosevelt administration’s more inspired forms of investment was to offer low-interest loans to rural areas that wanted the benefits of electricity.

Loans– everybody catch that? No welfare! This Rural Electrification Administration came into being as part of the New Deal in 1935, and in 1938 a bunch of Upper Gunnison valley ranchers and Crested Butteans created the Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA). Crested Butte already had electricity, but its little coal-fired generator was 40 years old. And it took Crested Butte’s population to bring the valley’s numbers up to the REA’s minimum density of three users per square mile.

Over the next three years, the GCEA parleyed the REA loan and a lot of sweat equity into 750 miles of power lines up all of the valleys of the Upper Gunnison. By REA rules, 25 percent of the loan had to be spent directly on employing the unemployed, but a lot of the labor was also done for free by the people who wanted the power — a story which happened everywhere in rural America during that decade.

And as in most other places, the source of power itself was homegrown — the loan would finance a small “state of the art” hydropower plant near Crested Butte. With the foundation for the plant built, the turbine on order, and the dark days of winter looming, the people of the GCEA decided to go ahead and light up the whole system with Crested Butte’s old coal plant, and did so with a big celebration on Saturday, December 6, 1941.

AND WE ALL KNOW what happened on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. In the days that followed, the order for the GCEA turbine got cancelled along with all other “non-essentials” as the nation turned toward fulltime war production. During the war, the county’s electric association limped along with the Crested Butte plant until it suffered terminal breakdown, then paid dearly for some excess capacity from Gunnison’s diesel plant.

But after the war everything was different, not just in the Gunnison Valley, but everywhere in America. It probably had to do with the fact that America had entered the war as a nation still struggling with the Great Depression but came out of it with the developed world’s biggest, strongest and most unscathed industrial economy, manufactured on war-production steroids. This was an economy that needed things to do, and building electric capacity and all kinds of other devices to consume that capacity was something to do. This drive toward change probably also had to do with the “young energy” of the nation (those exhausted and shell-shocked guys who came home after doing the actual fighting and found it hard to focus on mundane local matters).

Also, more directly impacting the electric-power situation, America’s huge public-private dam-building machine was back in high gear after the war. With huge quantities of hydropower to sell before they could build more plants, they were literally giving the power away. Thus Congress was eager to declare that underserved areas constituted a “power emergency” and hence appropriate money to install transmission lines to bring in all the electricity people could use.

So, rather than picking up the old plan for a local hydropower facility to serve the valley’s modest needs, the GCEA got a power emergency declared and brought in Bureau of Reclamation hydropower.

Then (to condense history a little) with local demand conveniently uncoupled from local supply, and with the stores full of lovely new electrical appliances, and the government promising nuclear power “too cheap to meter” in the near future, demand just grew and grew. Next thing we knew the renewable hydropower was tapped out, and all the REA co-ops began to get together to form new “co-ops of co-ops” to build big — and bigger — centralized fossil-fueled generating plants.

Tri-State G&T came into being in 1952, with the Sangre de Cristo and Intermountain Electric Associations among its 26 founders. The Gunnison County Electric Association joined with other West Slope co-ops to create the Colorado-Ute G&T, which eventually got too big for its britches and went bankrupt in the late 1980s; whereupon Tri-State took on most of its capacity and customer base in 1992. Eventually, all of the original co-ops creating local “power for the people” became “power distributors” for big centralized entities whose basic function in the second half of the 20th century could be accurately described as creating and feeding an addiction to electricity.

We’re still waiting for that nuclear energy that’s too cheap to meter, of course, but Tri-State has in the interim built or bought about 1,000 megawatts of its own capacity, and is partners with other mega-utilities in humongous plants from Arizona to Wyoming that altogether produce almost 6,000 megawatts. They’ve also got a small portfolio of “renewables” — measured in kilowatts rather than megawatts. And now they want to build an additional 2,100 megawatts of coal-fired capacity over the next 15 years because they believe we’ll just keep wanting, wanting, and wanting more and more even though it grows increasingly clear that these addictions are undercutting our economy and environment.

TODAY WE ACTUALLY have the technology for a more decentralized power grid. And we also have a need for one, for national security reasons as well as plain common sense.

Small renewable power sources are decentralized by nature. But huge electric plants and their lonely lines are sitting ducks for terrorists, and something like a fourth of the power that gets generated in remote centralized facilities disappears through system losses.

Seventy years ago, we had the will, the gumption, and the government support to build the system we need now, but we lacked the technology. Yet even so, the “greatest generation” was doing it, they were building innovative decentralized systems, until they got interrupted by a war they had to go fight. Which makes me wonder if anyone really won World War II.

And I’ll let it rest there — with the suggestion that the truly American thing to do today, in the face of propositions like Tri-State’s new plan to “better serve us,” is to just say no, and get back to America’s real work.

George Sibley uses electricity in Gunnison, where he teaches at Western State College and serves on the local water conservancy district board.