Electric co-op members have reason to rebel

February 17, 2019

Never heard of Tri-State? Then better listen up.

If you live in Rio Arriba County or in the service area of 10 other electric cooperatives, your electricity is supplied by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., a cooperative of cooperatives with 43 electric co-op members in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and part of Nebraska. Ideally this would be a good arrangement. Co-ops are bound to serve the interests of their members. Right?

But in fact Tri-State is acting against the interests of some of its largest members, representatives of which gathered for an all-day conference at Cities of Gold in Pojoaque last month. Some years ago, Tri-State maneuvered its members into 40-year supply contracts. One of the singularly punitive conditions of the contract was to limit member co-ops to installing facilities that produced no more than 5 percent wind or solar energy.

Back in the day this was not a big deal — in their infancy, wind and solar were still expensive. Coal was by far the cheapest. And coal is what Tri-State is deeply invested in.

But guess what? Wind- and solar-generated electricity is now cheaper than coal and even natural gas, and prices continue to drop. But Tri-State’s 43 member co-ops are locked into coal and are unable to take advantage of lower power costs offered by renewable-centric suppliers like Excel and Guzman Energy. And the member co-ops are unable to install wind and solar generating plants that exceed the 5 percent cap. The cap is designed to protect Tri-State’s investment in coal.

One of the sinister side effects of this arrangement is to discourage investment in areas supplied by Tri-State’s increasingly expensive power, now that there are other cities and counties being served by lower-cost renewable wind and solar.

At Pojoaque, presentations were made by board members from Delta Montrose Electric Association, La Plata Electric Association and the chief executive officer and business director of United Power, whose co-op boards are now all renewable-friendly. There were also Tri-State board members present; they did not speak.

Britt Bassett, former Los Alamos nuclear scientist, now a board member of La Plata in Durango, presented a series of graphs pointing out that Tri-State is pushing forward its $3 billion debt in such a way that it will become $4.5 billion by 2040, when the 40-year contracts are up and will need to be renewed. Much of the debt is coal-related. Tri-State, of course, is fighting tooth and nail in the courts and utility regulatory commissions to resist the pressure of the dissenting co-ops, who remain outvoted on the board (which votes by member) even though they are among the largest users of Tri-State electricity.

What’s at stake here? I hardly need to mention the effects of burning coal on global warming and air quality. But it might be useful to point out that if Jemez Mountains Electric Co-op, Tri-State’s largest New Mexico member, were to get busy and install a number of large solar arrays, it could keep a good share (and eventually all) of the $60 million it sends to Tri-State every year for electricity that could easily be generated here. The result: more local jobs, lower local electricity rates and nationally cleaner air.

The conference is likely to be the first of a number of such gatherings of renewable-centric Tri-State members. This one was organized by Luis Torres, working under contract with the Conservation Voters Alliance Education Fund.

The excellent turnout suggested that the time for change has finally arrived.

Stanley Crawford writes and farms in the Embudo Valley, where he has lived since 1969.