State’s largest electric co-op sees heated election debate on climate change, renewables

The campaign for the board of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association is getting increasingly heated.

Mike Kempe has been an embattled figure on the board of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association the last four years. He’s arguably the only green-minded board member for a rural electric co-op famous for casting doubt on climate-change science and tenaciously resisting former Gov. Bill Ritter’s “New Energy Economy.”

Kempe, a chemical engineer and research scientist for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, often is the sole dissenting vote on measures opposing federal and state energy conservation and renewable energy policies. And he says he’s day-lighted and helped curtail more than $260,000 in co-op spending on conservative think tanks and contributions to renowned climate change skeptics.

But now Kempe is facing a bitter re-election bid – one in which he says the co-op’s old guard is fighting hard to unseat him and forever end any meaningful reform at the state’s largest rural electric co-op (about 139,500 members). Ballots have gone out and voting will continue up until the IREA’s annual meeting on April 9.

“The idea is that if they can get me off the board, then this movement to reform IREA could be squashed,” Kempe said. “That’s what’s at stake.”

His challenger is John Dendahl, a former engineer for a company that makes radiation monitoring systems, but Kempe says he’s facing exorbitant campaign spending and relentless attacks from the board’s outgoing general manager and board members. Two other clean-energy candidates – Jan Spooner and Mat Matson –also are seeking election to the seven-member board in what’s become an annual battle for the philosophical heart and soul of the sprawling service area that spans the Front Range suburbs between Denver and Colorado Springs.

Stanley Lewandowski Jr. served as IREA’s general manager for more than 38 years. He’s officially retiring on May 1, but not before delivering a parting shot to Kempe in an ad that recently ran in local newspapers.

“[Kempe] works in a government-funded renewable energy facility,” Lewandowski stated in the ad. “Support from renewable energy interests helped elect him four years ago. His actions on the IREA board show he wants higher energy costs to allow renewable to compete.”

Kempe counters that his actions are merely in line with a majority of Coloradans who want a greater mix of renewable energy and less dependence on coal-fired power. IREA invested heavily in Xcel Energy’s Comanche 3 coal-fired plant, which provides about 43 percent of the co-op’s power, according to an IREA official.

“On the renewable energy front, all I want is for us to keep our renewable portfolio standard and on the federal level keep the production tax credit, and if we can do that, that will do phenomenal things,” Kempe said. The state’s rural electric co-ops are required to obtain 10 percent of their power from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2020.

Besides trying to curtail co-op spending on lobbying and think tanks, Kempe says he has questioned the GM salary of $330,000 plus an annual $60,000 bonus, voting against Lewandowski’s replacement, Pat Moony, because no national search was conducted.

He says Lewandowski’s attack ad, while not illegal, at the very least violated the spirit of an electric co-op election transparency bill (HB 1098) the IREA opposed last year, which mandated greater openness in the board election process and in the conducting of regular co-op business. Rural electric co-ops are owned by member/customers who in turn elect the boards.

Kempe blasted the rest of the IREA board for opposing that election transparency bill, and he also took issue with outgoing board member George Hier’s letter opposing his re-election.

“Kempe has voted against the other six directors on important issues including voting against the payment of capital credits, against freezing rates and against opposing disastrous cap and trade legislation,” the retiring Hier wrote. “He represents big government, energy mandates and a special interest group whose sole purpose is to defeat the other six IREA board members, take over the association and institute polices that would significantly raise electric rates.”

Some co-op members have questioned whether association funds are being spent to campaign against Kempe, but he thinks Lewandowski and Hier likely spent their own money.

“They’ve completely violated the spirit of [House Bill] 1098,” Kempe said. “George Hier sending out his letter, Stan sending out advertising, those both go very much against the spirit of 1098. But it’s not illegal, it’s just unethical.”

William Schroeder, IREA’s head of public affairs, said he was not aware of Lewandowski’s ad campaign.

“[Lewandowski] is a member of IREA and whatever he’s doing in this race I’m not aware of but he has the right to get involved in a campaign as a member,” Schroeder said. “What he’s doing personally, I don’t know. The company is not involved.”

Schroeder refused to discuss Kempe’s overarching complaint that there is a broader IREA campaign to squelch any dissent on the board.

“I don’t want to get involved in this back and forth. It’s politics,” said Schroeder, a former Republican state senator. “One candidate doesn’t like what the other candidate’s doing so they start blaming the other candidate or a third party, and these elections are public elections, so I’m just not going to get into that.”

Schroeder did say that HB 1098, sponsored by Boulder Democrat Claire Levy, unfairly tried to single out Lewandowski’s past involvement in IREA elections.

“Claire tried to go after Stan in that law and then decided not to do that,” Schroeder said. “She was going pretty specifically after Stan. He had to state that he had contributed to campaigns. Last time everybody knew Stan was involved. She pulled that off [the transparency bill]. And again, if Stan is running an ad [in this campaign], that’s pretty transparent. It’s clear who’s doing it.”

Lewandowski does not officially retire until May 1, three weeks after the current election will be decided.

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