IREA members laud Levy bill for power to change electric co-op’s ‘old guard’

Member-owners of the state’s largest rural electric association praised the recent signing by Gov. Bill Ritter of a law meant to clean up REA board elections around the state.

Boulder Democrat Claire Levy’s HB 1098 was part of a suite of “New Energy Economy” bills signed by Ritter Friday, but it may wind up being one of the more significant pieces of legislation because of its potential to change the political landscape for rural electric co-ops.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder

“Rural co-ops were founded on the principle of member control, accountability and participation,” said Charlotte Faris, a member of the nearly 140,000-customer Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA). “Many of Colorado’s co-ops already practice this open and accountable governance, and I am pleased that, thanks to this law, IREA is now required to be open and transparent as well.”

Critics have long held up the IREA as the poster child for good-old-boy election policies meant to keep green candidates off the board and maintain the status quo in terms of fuel loads skewed heavily to cheaper but dirtier sources like coal and natural gas. The board has long resisted efficiency rebates and other renewable energy programs common at investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy.

Past legislative attempts to impose conservation measures on the co-op have failed, and the IREA bitterly opposed Levy’s bill. The legislation actually compelled some co-ops to quit the statewide organization – the Colorado Rural Electric Association – because it was slow to endorse the measure.

Mike Kempe, who works for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and is viewed as the only progressive member of the IREA board, blasted the co-op for its lack of support for the Levy bill. The co-op itself, meanwhile, crowed about its success in gutting the bill of its most meaningful reforms (pdf).

Cindy Sweatt, another IREA member-owner, said the new law will compel change at the sprawling co-op, which encompasses suburbs south, west and east of Denver and stretches south along the Front Range toward Colorado Springs.

“Once IREA practices the transparency and openness required by this law, members will be able to begin to influence IREA’s policies.” Sweatt said. “When IREA members voted on Colorado’s renewable energy standard [Amendment 37] in 2004, roughly half supported this ballot measure. I believe that Colorado’s success in developing clean, affordable, renewable energy resources has helped increase support for these technologies in IREA’s territory and throughout the state.”

Voter-approved Amendment 37 imposed a 10 percent renewable standard on all utilities. The state’s REAs opted out, only to have the legislature impose a 10 percent RES for co-ops in 2007, while upping the renewable standard for investor-owned utilities such as Xcel to 20 percent. This past legislative session, the member-owned RES was increased to 30 percent by 2020, the second highest in the national behind only California.

Still, investor-owned Xcel (55 percent) and Black Hills Electric (4 percent) account for less than two-thirds of the state’s electrical power. REAs account for 23 percent and municipal utilities account for another 18 percent. But REAs are largely exempt from state oversight via the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, meaning change has to come from within.

“Members of rural electric associations deserve to have a real voice in decisions made by their utility,” Rep. Levy said in a release. “Too often, members who advocate for more renewable energy and energy efficiency programs have been shut out by old guard board members who are resistant to change. House Bill 1098 will open up the election process for the board of directors, and will allow REA members to provide input to board members as they make important decisions about their energy sources.”

Already the law, which doesn’t go into effect until August, has come up as an issue in an REA election on the Western Slope, where the board president of Holy Cross Energy drew criticism for endorsing incumbents in the co-op’s recent board election.

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