Panel will try to make controversial law on renewable energy work

Some members of a group that will offer advice on how to implement a controversial new law requiring rural electric cooperatives to use more renewable energy are hopeful they will be able to iron out any serious disputes.

But those members, who were named Tuesday by Gov. John Hickenlooper a day after that new law went into effect, are cognizant that opponents to it have serious concerns.

The new law was the result of SB252 approved by the Colorado Legislature earlier this year. It doubles the 10 percent by 2020 standard that rural electric associations must meet in generating renewable energy. For-profit utilities such as Xcel Energy already are required to meet a 30 percent standard.

“There was a lot of heartburn with this bill and we just want to see some of these issues worked out,” said Dan McClendon, general manager of the Delta-Montrose Rural Electric Association, who was named to the 13-member panel. “We want to collectively come together. Our specific interests at DMEA have been to continue to promote our local renewable resources in our service territory. We want to have the ability to do that in an affordable way.”

When he signed the bill into law last month, Hickenlooper issued an executive order creating the panel after he was heavily lobbied to veto it by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and several other opponents of the bill, who said it was too onerous and would result in dramatic rate increases.

In his order, Hickenlooper said the new law would generate jobs and help expand the state’s renewable energy portfolio, but acknowledged that opponents had legitimate concerns about rate hikes despite safeguards designed to mitigate them.

Under the new law, rate hikes would be limited to 2 percent, and cooperatives could delay reaching the new standard if complying with it becomes too expensive.

As a result, one of the panel’s chief tasks is to help the Colorado Energy Office draft rules for how that would work.

Manufactured angst

The panel also is to advise the office on proposed legislation to change the new law should parts of it prove to be unworkable.

The group’s members include representatives from Tri-State, rural power suppliers, renewable energy experts, agriculturalists and environmentalists.

Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado and another panel member, said he thinks opposition to the new law is much ado about nothing.

Maysmith said part of that opposition stems from a long-standing, and national, competition between the fossil fuel establishment and the renewable energy newcomers.

“I think this is manufactured angst,” he said. “Tomorrow’s energy dollars are going to be spent on the wind and solar and small, smart hydro like DMEA has been doing. That’s where we’re going as a state and as a country when we talk about how we’re going to power our homes and businesses. We’re not looking backward to last century’s technology of burning dirty fossil fuels.”

For small cooperatives such as Delta-Montrose, it makes sense from a fiscal standpoint to create more renewable projects, McClendon said.

Methane recapture

Just last week, that cooperative cut the ribbon on two small hydroelectric projects, and wants to do more.

But the association is at loggerheads with Tri-State, where it gets the rest of its power, because of a supply contract that limits to 5 percent what it can generate on its own.

As a result, the association can’t do more projects, including tapping into a new methane-capture plant at the Oxbow Mine in Somerset.

Even though it’s based on a fossil fuel — coal — the new law allows methane captured from mines to be counted under the renewable standard because the flammable gas otherwise would be vented into the atmosphere.

McClendon said his cooperative potentially could get up to 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, and there’s no reason why Tri-State couldn’t use those projects to count toward the standard it now must meet.

“It’s wise for whatever members (Tri-State) has in Colorado, we ought to collectively be trying to utilize everything that makes financial sense and count it toward Tri-State’s requirement,” he said. “We ought to be pulling together as a cooperative family.”

The only cooperative in Mesa County is Grand Valley Power, which gets its electricity from Xcel. As a result, it isn’t impacted by the new law.

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