New group experiences early success with La Plata Electric Association
|A compact flourescent bulb illuminates
the Smiley Building on Tuesday morning. Although slightly
more expensive up
front, the bulb uses only a quarter of the energy of conventional
bulbs. The Southwest Colorado Smart Energy Alliance
is hoping to foster this kind of thinking will spread throughout
the region./Photo by Todd Newcomer.
S outhwest Colorado is starting to take
a hard look at better ways to flip the switch. A group dedicated
to fostering nontraditional energy sources and encouraging local
energy efficiency in the region has formed. Along with numerous
members of the public, the Southwest Colorado Smart Energy Alliance
(SWCSEA) appeared before the La Plata Electric Association two
weeks ago, made three recommendations and is already seeing concrete
The new group has come into being largely because Southwest
Colorado is behind the times, according to SWCSEA chair Chris
Calwell. Calwell explained that there is a local need for more
solar, wind, biomass and geothermal energy sources as well as
more conservation and efficiency.
"We all discovered by accident that there's a large group of
people in Durango who care about energy and its relationship
to the environment," he said. "There's a lot more that can be
done in our corner of the world in terms of renewable energy."
Tim Wheeler, another founder of SWCSEA, explained that the group
is aiming at promoting healthy communities through advocating
cleaner and more efficient energy. "The mission and objective
basically are geared around finding win-win opportunities in
the community and acting as a resource for information and implementation," he
On June 16, SWCSEA pursued a win-win opportunity and addressed
the LPEA Board of Directors. A total of 56 members of the public,
who were also members of the local electrical cooperative, were
also on-hand as Wheeler, Calwell and others recommended three
early steps to bring La Plata County closer in line in terms
of efficiency and clean power.
| Durango could face smoggy future
A total of five power plants may impact local air quality
While La Plata County could reap
some of the benefits of renewable energy and efficiency,
it is also one of the few places that suffers the direct
impacts of coal-generated electricity. Local air quality
is already significantly impacted by two existing power
plants in northern New Mexico, and more plants are in the
Chris Calwell, chair of the Southwest Colorado Smart Energy
Alliance (SWCSEA), said that current air quality is poor.
He noted that Mesa Verde National Park has the highest
mercury levels of any national park in the country despite
being isolated from urban areas. He also said that local
levels of the pollutant ozone are on par with urban areas
boasting 3 million cars.
"Most of us moved to a town of 15,000 people because we
thought we were getting away from 3 million cars," Calwell
Tim Wheeler, a founder of SWCSEA, commented, "Airborne,
ingested mercury is one of the substance's most toxic forms.
While we think Durango has this really great, clean air
and environment, mercury is highly prevalent and it comes
here from those coal-fired power plants."
Michael Rendon, SWCSEA member, added, "Air quality issues
are going to impact us in Durango. Even though the plants
aren't located here, we feel the impacts."
The San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power
Plant, both west of Farmington, burn coal to generate electricity
for nearly 500,000 households in New Mexico, Arizona, California
and Texas. Because of national demand for more power generation,
three new coal-fired power plants have been proposed for
the Four Corners region, and one of these would be among
the largest ever built in the United States.
STEAG Power, a subsidiary of a German-based power company,
has announced plans to build a major new plant near Shiprock
by the year 2008. When completed, the $1.4 billion plant
would be among the largest in the nation and generate enough
energy for 1.5 million homes. STEAG has already signed
an agreement with the developers of a planned power transmission
line that would begin in Shiprock and end in Las Vegas.
A coal-fired plant one-fifth this size, named the Mustang
project, is also seeking approval to begin construction
between Farmington and Grants, N.M. Originally, the plant
was expected to be operational by next year, but there
have been delays. Mustang has categorically refused to
consider alternative and more environmentally friendly
Rounding out the picture is a recent proposal for a third
plant just southwest of Farmington. On March 22, an application
was submitted for a coal-fired power plant one-third the
size of the one STEAG has proposed. Called the Cottonwood
Energy Center, the plant also would be located on the Navajo
Reservation and operate on coal from the Navajo Mine. BHP
Billiton, the company proposing the plant, would like to
have it operational by 2009.
"LPEA is our cooperative, and it's a democracy," said Michelle
Reott, SWCSEA treasurer and a presenter at the meeting. "We wanted
to show them that people within the cooperative are interested
in renewable energy."
SWCSEA member Michael Rendon added, "It's not us versus them.
We are them. That's the beauty of a co-op."
First, the group asked that LPEA replace its incandescent bulb
giveaways and instead give away more efficient compact fluorescent
bulbs. Second, SWCSEA urged the cooperative set a goal and increase
customer sign-up in its renewable power program. It was suggested
that LPEA aim for 3 percent of its total customers to be signed
up by 2007 and 5 percent by 2010. Thirdly, SWCSEA asked that
LPEA spend approximately $60,000 per year on encouraging efficiency
measures that would eventually save the cooperative money. For
instance, LPEA could offer rebates for energy efficient bulbs
that would lead to a net reduction in the amount of power used
The LPEA board was receptive to the suggestions, according to
cooperative spokesman David Waller. In fact, the electrical association
has already agreed to the first two suggestions and is exploring
"I thought the presentation went great, and it was received
very well by the board," Waller said. "I think they were genuinely
interested in what SWCSEA had to say."
Waller added that SWCSEA brought the issue to the surface, but
that LPEA had been planning on working toward more renewable
energy usage and greater local efficiency. In particular, he
cited recent survey results that overwhelmingly stated a desire
to see the co-op head in those directions.
"Whether or not SWCSEA addressed us, we were heading down that
path," Waller said. "About two-thirds of our members said they
wanted to see us include renewable power in our portfolio and
about half said they were willing to pay extra for it. We're
trying to make it happen without any cost increases."
Looking back at the meeting and the early progress, Reott concluded
that SWCSEA is off to a good start. "It's really an evolutionary
process," she said. "We're not revolutionary. We wanted to let
LPEA know that the group exists and that we're interested in
The groups will reconvene in early July and work on earmarking
dollars to buy energy efficiency rather than energy. In this
way, Southwest Colorado can begin to get up to speed with many
other areas in the country, according to Calwell.
"The revolution that's happening with most utilities is that
if they can save energy more cheaply than they can buy it, they
do it," he said. "That revolution hasn't come to this part of
the country. Approximately, a billion and a half dollars are
spent on energy efficiency each year in the country and none
of the money is spent in Colorado."
Wheeler added, "Instead of having to put in new power plants
to service the growth of this community, we could buy energy
efficiency at a rate that's cheaper than what we pay for electricity
In addition to cleaner air and lower utility bills, the local
community can experience a less obvious benefit.
"Over all of this is the idea that renewable energy and efficiency
are tools toward creating sustainable economic development," Wheeler
concluded. "A lot of it has to do with not sending money off
to Tri-State and keeping money circulating in this community