Greening up the grid
New coalition asks LPEA to increase renewables and efficiency

SideStory: An electric revolution

A mesh of power lines, poles and transformers adorn the side of Hwy. 172 near Elmore’s Corner. The La Plata Electric Association is already progressive relative to other rural cooperatives. However, a new coalition of conservation groups, businesses and individuals is currently pushing the co-op to get even more aggressive, increase energy efficiency and do more with renewable power./Photo by David Halterman

by Will Sands

La Plata County is continuing to get ahead of the green energy curve. Heeding increasing consciousness and demand among its member-owners, La Plata Electric Association is already making strong strides in terms of green power and energy efficiency. However, a growing coalition of conservation groups, businesses and individuals is asking the local electric cooperative to go even further and take more innovative steps into the future.

When House Bill 1281 passed through the Colorado Legislature earlier this year, it mandated that the state’s electric cooperatives meet new renewable energy standards. According to the new legislation, co-ops must generate 1 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the year 2008. That portion then climbs to 3 percent by 2011; 6 percent by 2015; and 10 percent by 2020.

Well before the passage of the bill, LPEA was already on its way to meeting the goal. Earlier this year, one-half of 1 percent of electricity purchased by the local co-op was supplied by renewable sources – predominantly wind power – and 1,200 of LPEA’s member-owners are now voluntarily paying a premium for wind-generated power. In April, the City of Durango bumped the number even higher, when it announced that it would switch all of its power needs to green sources.

The city also went one further and worked with LPEA representatives to reduce energy bills through energy efficiency, conservation, and electricity-load and demand-side management. In addition, Durango opted to use LPEA’s “Time-of-Use” rate options to help offset the added expenditure of going with wind power. The move made Durango the first governmental entity in LPEA’s service area to commit to 100 percent green power.

The decision also improved LPEA’s green power purchases by roughly 40 percent and pulled the co-op within striking distance of the 1 percent requirement well in advance of the 2008 mandate. Plus, renewable energy represents just one of many efforts by the local co-op to green up the grid, according to Mark Schwantes, LPEA director of corporate services and planning.

“Energy conservation and efficiency are definitely back in style right now, but for us it never really went out of fashion,” he said. “We’ve been following this track and working toward better efficiency and more renewable energy for many years now.”

In addition to green power, Schwantes mentioned incentives for off-peak energy usage, rebates for efficient heating appliances and a net metering policy and interconnection standards enabling users with wind generation and solar panels to sell power back into the grid. Schwantes also highlighted LPEA’s educational efforts citing mailings, magazine articles and energy audits among the co-op’s many efforts.

“We continue to educate our members on things they can do to reduce their energy use,” he said. “With the price of electricity fluctuating the way it is right now, it’s important that we help our members use energy wisely.”

Josh Joswick, of San Juan Citizens Alliance, is the first to admit that LPEA is doing an admirable job in terms of renewables and efficiency. However, SJCA would like to see the co-op invest more into its energy efficiency efforts and use the mandated renewable energy standard as a way to produce more renewable energy locally. With that in mind, SJCA is spearheading a coalition of groups, businesses and individuals to campaign for more renewable energy and better energy efficiency efforts from the local co-op.

“We are fortunate to be in a position of dealing with LPEA and its board,” Joswick said. “It’s a forward-thinking organization that has already taken the initiative on some of our issues. We’re trying to encourage them to do more.”

Joswick commented that the impacts of global warming are becoming obvious for Four Corners residents, and with that in mind, it is time for LPEA and its member-owners to get aggressive. Numerous businesses and individuals have already joined the charge. In coming weeks, Joswick hopes to attract Durango and La Plata County municipal governments as well as other environmental groups and business owners to the campaign.

“We’d like to build awareness about what’s already out there, and get LPEA to do a little more,” he said. “If nothing else, this push will help get the word out about what’s already available to local users.”

The coalition has a three-pronged approach to getting LPEA to “do a little more.” Energy efficiency is the quickest, easiest and cheapest way to offset the community’s impact on global warming, according to Joswick. Consequently, the group is asking LPEA to dedicate 2 percent of total revenues toward energy efficiency programs. In addition, the coalition has called on LPEA to develop and encourage more local solar and wind generated power and set a target to for a 10 percent kilowatt hour reduction by 2020. Finally, the coalition would like to see LPEA collaborate with other rural cooperatives to meet these goals and set new ones.

Schwantes replied that LPEA is agreeable toward targets that are actually attainable. He noted that the co-op is already investing more than 1 percent into energy efficiency.

“We think that our investment into energy efficiency is about between 1 and 1.5 percent of our total revenues right now,” he said. “The amount we put toward energy efficiency is certain to increase. Two percent of revenues is certainly within our grasp.”

However, a 10 percent kilowatt hour reduction might be impossible, he added.

“If the area continues to grow the way it has, that would be very challenging,” Schwantes replied.

The coalition did not disagree that meeting its requests will be challenging, but added that these are also challenging times, and the grassroots need to take action. Dick White, a local climate protection advocate and coalition member, noted that the group’s requests are drawn directly from the Western Governors Association’s recommendations and may be difficult but are attainable.

“We know this will be a big commitment from LPEA, but a big commitment is what we need,” he said. •



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