Activists look to transform Colorado power grid one co-op election at a time

Conservationists appear to be taking a more subtle approach to reforming the fossil-fuel-fixated ways of Colorado’s rural electric associations (REAs) this legislative session, introducing a bill that would daylight the co-op’s board of director elections, but not offering much more in terms of transformative legislation.

polling place

Last session, a bill aimed at imposing conservation and efficiency standards on co-ops with more than 100,000 members never made it out of the House. That bill, introduced by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, would have only impacted the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA) –- the state’s largest co-op with nearly 140,000 members and a utility stubbornly resistant to the state’s ongoing push for more renewable energy.

Levy this session has introduced HB 1098 aimed at greater transparency in REA board elections, campaign practices that even the playing field for more conservation-minded challengers, and greater publicity of both elections and meeting agendas for major policy decisions facing co-op boards. Her bill is scheduled for a Feb. 2 hearing before the House Transportation and Energy Committee.

“It’s a really critical piece of this whole conversation,” said Pam Kiely, legislative director for Environment Colorado. “How do you have a real conversation with cooperatives and their members and their leadership on issues that we feel there is common ground on with the majority of Coloradans?”

Elections as oversight

Cooperatives, which account for about 23 percent of the electrical power consumed in the state, according to the Governor’s Energy Office, are self-governed and not subject to oversight by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Investor-owned utilities such as Xcel Energy, the state’s largest, account for just under 60 percent of the electricity used by Coloradans and are subject to PUC oversight.

In 2004, Colorado voters passed a 10-percent renewable energy standard (RES) for investor-owned utilities and co-ops that the IREA opted out of by a vote of its membership. In 2007, the state legislature imposed an additional 10-percent RES (requiring 20 percent of Xcel’s power to come from renewable sources by 2020) and reinstating the 10-percent RES for electric co-ops.

“You’ve got to remember that this state, well before we became purple leaning blue, or maybe we’re leaning back red now, but before all of this in 2004, statewide [Coloradans] voted overwhelmingly for clean energy,” Kiely said. “We just want to make sure that these voices are heard at every level.”

Allegations of unfair campaign practices favoring incumbent candidates have plagued REA board elections in recent years as grass-roots efforts to transform the makeup of co-op boards with green members have taken off. That may be the best bet for upping the renewable portfolios of many of the state’s co-ops, which still rely heavily on coal and natural gas.

State Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, has introduced a bill that would up the renewable energy standard for investor-owned utilities to 30 percent by 2020, one of the highest targets in the nation. But it doesn’t include the state rural electric co-op standard, or single out the IREA, which alone accounts for 5.5 percent of the state’s electric use, according to the Governor’s Energy Office.

Kiely said it would have been nice to include REAs in that bill, but that no one wanted to force them to the table. Ultimately, she hopes board members recognize the benefits of a higher RES of their own volition.

“It would have shown a commitment from the REAs to really move in a direction that the state has deemed critical, not just environmentally but economically, and it could have happened, and it’s unfortunate, but I think obviously we’re going to be able to set the tone working with the investor-owned utilities,” she said.

The IREA, meanwhile, remains resistant to any legislative meddling, whether it’s a higher RES or new rules for board elections.

“Let’s be straight, this corporation and association is all about reliable electricity at affordable costs, that’s what it’s been about forever,” IREA manager of public affairs William Schroeder said in an earlier interview. “And it’s a nonprofit, so anything the legislature tries to do with efficiencies or things like that that drive up the customer’s costs we’re going to be vocal on.”

It’s good to have contested elections

Holy Cross Energy, which serves members from Aspen to Vail in the heart of Colorado’s ski country, reviewed the proposed election transparency bill last week and, according to at least one board member, has no problem with the bulk of the bill.

“Holy Cross is already doing most of the items mentioned in the bill,” board member Lynn Dwyer said, mentioning publication on the Web of board minutes and agendas, advertising of elections, and third-party handling of elections. “The only item the board has a problem with is the provision of all available documents that are discussed at meetings. There are times such documents are proprietary in nature or confidential.”

One of Holy Cross Energy’s biggest customers, Aspen Skiing Company, has made combating climate change a central focus of its marketing and public affairs agenda. In a letter to the co-op last summer, Aspen Skiing’s executive director of sustainability, Auden Schendler, urged Holy Cross to push for 20 percent member participation in board elections by 2020, which would mean tripling current voting patterns.

“We believe full member participation and education is an important piece of solving our energy problems,” Schendler wrote. “It’s good to have contested elections. It’s good to have a debate about our energy future. It would be good to have a much higher percentage of [Holy Cross] member/owners vote in board elections.”

Environment Colorado’s Kiely sees Levy’s bill as key to ensuring every member has a voice in how decisions are made at their local rural co-op, particularly when it comes to investing in solar and wind over coal and other sources that may rise in price under proposed federal cap-and-trade legislation or EPA rulemaking. She also didn’t rule out another conservation bill aimed at co-ops.

“Our interest is finding a solution, and if that means taking a step back this session and trying to have a real conversation with the parties at the table, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Kiely said. “I’m not saying we’re going to have a bill this year. I’m just saying that we’re committed to moving the conversation forward. And there is some genuine interest with some folks in the cooperative world.”

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