Power struggle: Colorado’s largest electric co-op split over renewable energy

(Photo/David Kingham, Flickr)
(Photo/David Kingham, Flickr)
A coup attempt by radical greenies or a long-overdue transition to a more environmentally balanced, 21st-century energy policy?

Depending on who you talk to, that’s the way the debate is being framed as Colorado’s largest rural electric co-op, the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), faces one of the most critical — and contentious — board elections in recent memory.

Three candidates backed by IREA Voices — a member-advocacy organization set up to push for more renewable and energy-efficiency policies — are challenging longtime incumbent board members in an attempt to join like-minded board member Mike Kempe, who is often on the losing end of 6-1 board votes on alternative-energy issues.

“If you speak to IREA, they’ll do everything in their power to discourage the customer, the member-owner, from looking into any sort of renewable energy,” said David Harlan, an IREA member from Divide. “The information that they spread is basically that climate change is not anything that somebody should be worried about, it’s just cyclical.”

Nonprofit rural electric co-ops, because they are controlled by boards elected by member-owners, are not regulated by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. The IREA distributes electricity to nearly 137,000 customers, or “members,” in a 5,000-square-mile service area encompassing all or parts of 10 counties east, west and south of the Denver metro area and west of Colorado Springs.

Mike Galvin, who’s running against incumbent Gene Sperry in the Woodland Park district, said that because of the IREA’s $366 million investment in Xcel Energy’s new Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant near Pueblo, the co-op and its general manager, Stan Lewandowski, actively discourage renewable-energy generation and efficiency programs.

“We’re not participating with the Governor’s Energy Office, so our members don’t have the opportunity to get rebates on energy-efficient home appliances or home solar generation,” Galvin said. “Those aren’t even options for us because of the position the general manager has taken.”

And the seven-member board has for years acted as a rubber stamp for Lewandowski’s policies, Galvin said.

“The board and the general manager are pretty much one in the same, and until Mike Kempe was elected two years ago, we can’t find any evidence in the last 20 years that there’s ever been a no vote on any issue,” said Galvin, who added he’s also running because of the lack of transparency by the board on policy, spending and election issues.

He argued the member-owned co-op is far too secretive and works diligently to prevent member input on issues like renewables and global climate change, requiring Lewandowski’s approval to speak at meetings and to view minutes of meetings and other key documents.

William Schroeder Jr., a former Republican state lawmaker who now serves as the manager of public affairs for the IREA, was unavailable to comment on Galvin’s allegations, but did confirm to the Colorado Independent on March 1 the IREA’s position on global warming is that it’s based on junk science.

During a March taping of the PBS show “Colorado State of Mind,” Schroeder said rebates for efficiency programs offered by other co-ops and utilities such as Xcel simply are passed on to sometimes unwilling customers in the form of higher bills.

That sentiment was echoed by Lewandowski in an opinion piece by Peter Blake in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in February. In the article, the controversial general manager said, “The only way to make it feasible is to get somebody else to pay for it, i.e., the general rate payer.”

Schroeder, who was also featured on the PBS roundtable, said the IREA opposes any federal cap-and-trade legislation being pushed by the Obama administration. But Galvin said such a program seems inevitable and that by investing so heavily in coal-fired plants, the IREA has painted itself into a corner and its members will see higher rates down the road.

Susan Innis, Colorado Carbon Fund program manager for the Governor’s Energy Office, said similar philosophical debates pitting the environmental costs of traditional energy against the development costs of alternative energy are being played out in board elections for rural co-ops across the state.

“These board elections get a little contentious, but it is a cooperative, so customers do have a say,” Innis said. “With the rural electric co-ops they aren’t regulated in the same way the other investor-owned utilities are, and they’ve got the local control issues that in some cases make it easier for them to do things and in some cases make it a little more challenging if there’s a disconnect.”

Galvin, who’s a Democrat and a former school principal, said the board elections are supposed be nonpartisan but sometimes do break along party lines. In the heavily conservative Colorado Springs area, that would seem to favor his opponent.

So he’s trying to make the fiscal argument that promoting locally based alternative energy projects will be better for the local economy.

“We should keep some resources in our community here rather than sending them out to coal company shareholders or gas pipeline owners,” Galvin said. “If we can create some jobs here and think about new ways of having locally based generation of electricity, to me those are kind of Republican ideals.”

He also noted that one of the other two challengers in the IREA board election — results of which will presumably be announced at the annual meeting April 18 in Woodland Park — is a Republican.

John Masson, a former Owens administration appointee, is running in the IREA’s District 5, which includes his hometown of Franktown. The third IREA Voices challenger, Charles Bucknam of Parker, is a Democrat.

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