Anti-renewable IREA says conservation bill violates its ‘right to dissent’

(Photo/Joy of the Mundane, Flickr)
(Photo/Joy of the Mundane, Flickr)
Former Republican state Sen. Williams Schroeder says a current bill aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of the state’s largest rural electric association is a form of punishment for the co-op’s past resistance to efficiency mandates. While the head of Colorado’s most progressive co-op agrees that legislation isn’t the way to make IREA go green.

Schroeder, current director of public affairs for the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA), said House Bill 1323 unfairly singles out the IREA because it’s the only co-op in the state with enough members to qualify.

“This is a real shot at free speech and the right to dissent,” said Schroeder, whose general manager and board of directors for the most part rejects the science behind global warming and refuses to offer rebates for energy efficient appliances or home-sited renewable energy installations. “It’s also unconstitutional. You cannot go after a single business.”

Sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy (D-Boulder) and Sen. Jennifer Veiga (D-Denver) and backed by environmental groups, HB 1323 would direct co-ops with more than 100,000 customers (IREA, the state’s largest with nearly 138,000 members, is the only one that qualifies) to use energy efficiency and conservation programs to save electricity equal to 2 percent of its 2008 sales by 2012. That number increases incrementally to 10 percent by 2020.

The bill passed out of the House Transportation & Energy Committee Tuesday and was referred to Appropriations.

“This is not illegal,” said Pam Kiely, legislative program director of Environment Colorado, a Denver-based environmental group backing HB 1323. “The bill doesn’t say ‘IREA.’ It sets a size threshold based on meters serviced. There is legislative precedent for this.”

In a statement following Tuesday’s committee vote, Kiely compared IREA to “Luddites opposing the industrial revolution.”

“Instead of investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy, IREA has spent ratepayer funds to prop up global warming skeptics and fight clean energy incentives,” Kiely said. “Today’s vote was an important step for modernizing the antiquated policies of IREA.”

But IREA has a strange ally in this fight. Even though the Front Range co-op bitterly opposed a different piece of legislation (Senate Bill 39) that he helped draft this session, Holy Cross Energy CEO Del Worley said HB 1323 is “bad policy.”

Worley, who heads up the rural electric co-op widely regarded as one of the most progressive in the state, told the Colorado Independent HB1323 is the wrong way to go about changing the anti-renewable culture in the IREA.

“I’ve told the environmental groups the way you really make change in these co-ops, if that’s what they really want, is a grassroots effect,” Worley said. “Get on the boards.”

Three candidates backed by the consumer-advocacy group IREA Voices, which formed after the co-op successfully opted out a statewide renewable energy mandate in 2004 (Amendment 37), are challenging long-time incumbents in a board election that will be decided April 18.

“(HB 1323) doesn’t affect us, at least now,” said Worley, whose co-op on the Western Slope serves 43,000 customers from Aspen to Vail. “But it mandates something that’s out of the utility’s control. Utilities do not have control behind the meter, so they can’t control what a consumer uses.”

Kiely responds that HB1323 doesn’t require anything of the IREA that Holy Cross and other utilities around the state aren’t already doing to good effect.

“This is exactly what Xcel Energy and many other utilities across the country are required to do by their statutes or by their regulators,” Kiely said. “Experience in Colorado and around the country demonstrates that both large and small utilities can have an impact on customers’ behavior. Many have achieved energy savings similar to those in this bill through well-designed efficiency programs, including incentive programs.”

Passed by Colorado voters in 2004, Amendment 37 required that 10 percent of a utility’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020. In a controversial vote in 2005 (critics claim the results were skewed by a co-op-funded anti-renewable smear campaign), the IREA membership decided to opt out of Amendment 37 by a 4-to-1 margin. This despite nearly 53 percent of the voters in the IREA coverage area voting for Amendment 37.

In 2007 the legislature passed HB 1281, which increased the Amendment 37 mandate to 20 percent renewables by 2020 (10 percent for rural electric co-ops).

Kiely said the IREA, which stretches from the suburbs south, west and east of Denver to the communities just west of Colorado Springs, won’t be adversely impacted by wasteful individual consumers.

“The bill does not require IREA to demonstrate that usage has gone down by the specified increment,” Kiely said. “What it requires is that they show that programs that have been implemented and utilized by their customers would save the increment of electricity called for in the bill.”

So the IREA can count up the number of rebates it issues for energy-efficient appliances and tally the amount of electricity that should be saved. It would not have to actually show that those appliances resulted in that much conservation having been attained.

Still, Schroeder isn’t buying the benefits of HB 1323. He contends the cost of such rebates and incentives get passed through to customers who can’t afford such appliances and that the result is higher electricity rates for everyone.

“Intermountain is the only (co-op) willing to defend its customers and to fight for sensible rates and try to keep down the costs of energy,” Schroeder said.

“This is a shot at us for being on the dissension side of that argument, and how do you stop me from arguing? Maybe you take over my board, or you write legislation that mandates that I do certain things.”

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