Reliance on coal a big issue
All five candidates running for the Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) board of directors agree it is important to incorporate more clean and alternative energy into the system, but the challengers appear more adamant than the incumbents when it comes to stepping away from coal-generated electricity.
Three seats are up for election, and two of them will be contested. Skyland’s Bill LaDuke is running unopposed in District One, while Steve Schechter is challenging District 4 incumbent George Besse of Gunnison. For the third seat, Lake City’s Schuyler Denham is challenging incumbent Paul Hudgeons in District 5.
All GCEA members should have received a ballot in the mail by now. Those ballots must be returned to the association no later than 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24.
Both Schechter and Denham believe it is past time to move away from coal-generated electricity and begin not only exploring, but also utilizing, alternative energy sources like solar and wind in a major way.
“The attitude of this current board is that coal is the most reliable, cheapest form of energy, and that is short-term thinking,” says Schechter. “They need to be thinking about our kids and grandchildren. We are frankly entering a period where energy will not be cheap any longer. People are going to have to use less energy and the GCEA needs to help accommodate that reality.”
Schechter says the local board can provide incentives for members to use energy efficient products. He would encourage the board to fund refrigerator buy-backs, where customers would get some compensation to trade in their old fridge for a new energy-efficient fridge that uses half the energy.
He says the board can hold educational classes and provide ways to get people to put it in energy-efficient windows and doors. “These ideas are the low-hanging fruit that is easy but collectively makes a big difference,” Schechter explained.
“There are low-cost ways to help people move toward better energy efficiency. As for the bigger picture, we have to start thinking of alternative energy. This board just wants to burn coal. I would hammer our representative to our energy supplier, Tri-State, to move in the direction of alternatives. We need to change the coal culture at Tri-State. Solar and wind is the future and energy suppliers like Excel Energy are already moving in that direction. We need to do the same. Things are changing quickly and we need to change the way we do things.”
Tri-State is a cooperative energy supplier made up of more than 40 local electric co-ops like the Gunnison County Electric Association. Lou Costello is the GCEA representative to Tri-State.
The man Schechter is running against, George Besse, says he understands the need for change. “Everyone on the board is very aware of global warming,” he said. “We know it is happening and we are trying to address it. There really is no quick fix, however. Technology got us into this mess and hopefully technology will help get us out of the mess.”
Besse says he and the current board are currently trying to educate the GCEA members on how to conserve energy. The board offers green certificates so customers can purchase wind power instead of coal generated power. “I’ve been on the board 12 years and there are still some goals and changes I would like to help see accomplished. Helping to clean up the environment is one of the goals. But people need to understand that coal is still important. We need to provide clean, reliable power at the most reasonable price for all of our members, and that is tough. We are striving to find a balance between the environment and keeping the lights on. We have to meet our growing demand in the valley. Everyone likes to have the lights go on when they flip the switch.”
Besse says the GCEA and Tri-State are starting to look at more alternatives. “Tri-State wanted to build a coal plant in Kansas and that was turned down because they couldn’t get the permits,” he said. “Now, they’ll have to go out and buy power on the open market and that can get expensive. But they are also looking at wind and solar and maybe even nuclear. Nuclear is a very long way off but they are checking out all the alternatives, and looking at all the alternatives is good.”
District Five challenger Schuyler Denham believes in alternatives more focused on solar and wind power, but he admits any alternative won’t necessarily be cheap. “I think one of the biggest issues in running in this election is that the GCEA has always relied on cheap, reliable power in the form of coal. They figured Tri-State would always be able to provide it, but that was extremely shortsighted. I expect our electricity rates to essentially double between, say, 2004 and 2010. I expect Tri-State to keep trying to use coal, and the GCEA is committed to Tri-State until 2050. Tri-State continues to favor coal because it’s cheap but it is extremely dirty. The cleanest coal-burning plant ever designed will still dump about 200 pounds of mercury into the air every year. I want the GCEA to take a strong stand away from coal. It is a dinosaur. I would say we should never support another coal-burning plant, period,” says Denham.
“Alternative energy has expensive up-front costs,” Denham admitted. “But we should have been thinking along these lines 20 years ago. We have to understand that the higher up-front costs will help us down the line. Coal in the future, especially with state and national carbon taxes, will be very expensive. Instead of Tri-State spending five billion dollars on a couple of coal-burning power plants, we should use that money to invest in solar and wind energy and allow credits to customers using alternative energy. Those up-front costs for alternative energy sources will save us 30 or 40 years down the road. Colorado’s other main energy supplier, Excel Energy, is working on it productively and investing in cleaner energy. I don’t see any way out of the short-term cost increases and that is unfortunate but we have to look long term and spend our money on projects that won’t be antiquated 20 or 30 years from now.”
District Five incumbent Paul Hudgeons says the GCEA is a complex business that has many factors contributing to its success or failure. “We are in a growth area causing our total demand for power to increase,” he commented in an e-mail. “GCEA doesn’t generate power—we buy it and resell it to our members. We work to keep our operational costs low by being safe and efficient. This has resulted in GCEA being one of the most efficient and safe electrical cooperatives in the nation.”
Hudgeons also says it is important for the GCEA members to reduce their power usage and costs. “We encourage members to use fluorescent bulbs, use Energy Star appliances. We encourage them to add insulation to their homes, use off-peak energy and use our net metering policy by installing solar panels and other forms of clean local generation. We help fund the Office for Resource Efficiency (ORE) who provides energy audits and promotes our wind program.”
As for the issue of coal-fired electricity power, Hudgeons thinks it is one contributing factor to climate change. “We have a contract through 2050 (with Tri-State) for all our power, which allows us to provide up to 5 percent of our needs by locally generated clean energy. We will continue to work with our power supplier by providing positive input for clean low-cost energy.”
Ballots should be received at the GCEA by mail by Tuesday, June 24 at 4:30 p.m. The alternative is to show up at the annual meeting and cast a live vote on that Tuesday evening. The election will likely take place at approximately 6 p.m.