Mountain towns debate energy sources 

Power company says coal-fired plant needed, co-ops want greener source

By Allen Best

GUNNISON, Colo. – Some liken the debate of recent months in several mountainous areas of Colorado and New Mexico to a high-stakes poker game. At issue are plans by Tri-State Transmission and Generation, a wholesale supplier of electricity, to build at least one more 700-megawatt coal-fired power plant in southwestern Kansas. The plant, say Tri-State representatives, will be desperately needed by 2012.

But alarmed by growing evidence of global warming, many people are opposing the plans. One rural co-operative in Colorado, Delta-Montrose, has rejected a contract extension sought by Tri-State Transmission and Generation — at least for now. Rural co-ops in Colorado that service the Gunnison Basin and the Telluride-Ouray-Silverton area have made no decision, nor has a rural electrical utility headquartered in Taos, N.M.

Of the 44 member co-operatives in Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico that Tri-State provides power to, 37 have already committed.

Town boards and county commissioners have been asked to weigh in. “Urge our co-op not to hitch their wagon to coal,” urged Linda Miller, interim executive director of the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-based group in a meeting of the Mountain Village Town Council.

At that same meeting, Telluride-area resident Mike Danner claimed that he has plans for a wind farm that could, using relatively new floor-battery technology, address Tri-State’s deficiencies of base load power, which is power that is being supplied constantly, not for peaks. “And if Tri-State wanted to own it, it would be cheaper than coal,” he said.

George Sibley, a writer based in Gunnison, believes that the issue has been incorrectly characterized as one of coal vs. wind. The issue is more complex. More coal is inevitable in at least the short term, he says, but what is really needed is for Tri-State to give the local electrical co-operatives more freedom to develop local energy sources, whether wind or microhydro or biomass.

Tri-State customers have been able to produce no more than 5 per cent of their own power; the rest must be purchased from Tri-State. Yet in recent weeks has come new evidence of greater flexibility by Tri-State, if not as much as detractors would like to see.

Mountain Parks Electric, which services the area from Winter Park to Kremmling to Walden, last week approved the 10-year contract extension sought by Tri-State, to the year 2050. Joe Pandy, general manager of Mountain Parks, said Tri-State has budged in two key areas.

“They are introducing some diversity into their fuel mix, which we think is good,” he said. Instead of just coal-fired plants, Tri-State is also adding both natural gas and also wind, he noted.

Pandy said Tri-State is also showing a new willingness to let member co-operatives generate more of their own fuel. Mountain Parks, which does business in the areas of Colorado hardest hit so far by bark beetles, hopes to begin using trees to create electricity.

Tri-State has also shown some willingness to more actively promote conservation, by encouraging use of such things as compact-fluorescent light bulbs. It has also retreated from plans several years ago to build two and maybe three new plants. The company now says only one and maybe two plants will be needed.

Directors of both the Gunnison County and San Miguel electrical associations have postponed decisions until late April. However, while it had rejected a contract extension in December, Delta-Montrose Electric has not necessarily permanently rejected a contract extension.

Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News and a long-time director of Delta-Montrose Electrical Association, sees the Tri-State debate as a game of poker.

“The wind people think they can do it with wind and conservation and efficiency, and Tri-State says they can only do it with hundreds of new megawatts of coal,” he says. “I have seen everyone’s best hand, and I think everyone is shooting craps.”

Marston said he thinks nobody really knows where we’re headed, “and people do each other a disservice to pretend to think they know.”

– Reports in The Telluride Watch and Crested Butte News contributed to this report.

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