IREA would be exempt from proposed state oversight of electric co-ops

One of the ironies of the controversy over proposed Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC) oversight of the state’s second largest utility, Tri-State, is that the rural electric co-op arguably most in need of increased state supervision, the IREA, would be unaffected.

Eighteen of the state’s 22 rural electric co-ops (REAs) would be impacted by PUC approval of Tri-State’s integrated resource plans — annual documents that detail the utility’s energy loads — but the IREA (Intermountain Rural Electric Association) and three other co-ops don’t get their power from Tri-State.

The IREA, a nearly 138,000-member co-op in the suburbs between Denver and Colorado Springs, buys its power wholesale from investor-owned Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility. Xcel’s resource plans are already subject to PUC approval, and the company is subject to a 2004 voter-approved 20-percent renewable-energy mandate by the year 2020.

Tri-State, IREA and the state’s 21 other member-owned co-ops are only required to get 10 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2020 — a law passed by the State Legislature in 2007.

Westminster-based Tri-State provides power to 44 REAs in Nebraska, Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado, where 18 of the state’s 22 co-ops get between 95 and 100 percent of their energy from coal-heavy Tri-State (more than 70 percent of its load).

Three other Colorado co-ops don’t belong to Tri-State: Holy Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs, Grand Valley Rural Power Lines out of Grand Junction, and Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs. Holy Cross, which invested more than $100 million in the new coal-fired Comanche 3 power plant near Pueblo, has a good rep on the renewable front, but still faces a contentious board election June 5.

But it’s the IREA that has been the subject of environmentalist’s wrath in recent years, with renewable-energy advocates aggressively running for its board and crying foul over questionable election practices, and state lawmakers tailoring legislation specifically aimed at increasing the co-op’s conservation and renewable portfolio.

The IREA gets 93 percent of its power (much of it from natural gas-fired plants) from Xcel, but has invested $366 million in the new Comanche 3 plant that would reduce its dependence on Xcel to about 43 percent of the co-op’s load.

That will take Xcel’s 20-percent-renewable yoke off the IREA while also keeping the co-op free of potential PUC scrutiny of its renewable load – a boon for an REA led by a general manager and board majority that openly disputes the validity of global warming science.

Meanwhile, enviros and a growing number of consumers will continue to demand faster change and more renewable energy from utilities and rural electric co-ops that have resisted Gov. Ritter’s New Energy Economy. And Ritter himself will walk a fine line between pushing for change and appeasing the co-ops with entrenched values.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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