A look at where your electricity comes from

GCEA is serving people all over the county

By Mark Reaman

There are nearly 11,000 electric meters operating under the Gunnison County Electric Association. The power is delivered by GCEA over about 1,100 miles of lines that stretch throughout Gunnison and Hinsdale counties and into a part of Saguache County. The GCEA covers 3,500 square miles and provides electricity to thousands of people and businesses. It is a big operation.

GCEA chief executive officer Mike McBride recently gave an update on the distribution cooperative to the Crested Butte Town Council members and brought them up to speed on what the co-op is doing and where it is getting its energy.

“The GCEA is one of 22 electric co-ops in Colorado,” McBride explained. “We have six board members representing specific districts and one at-large member. For the north end of the valley, Greg Wiggins represents the town, Chris Morgan represents Mt. Crested Butte and Bart Laemmel represents Crested Butte South. The board has a healthy mix of experience and turnover, with four of the seven members having served on the board less than four years.”

The GCEA was formed in 1938 and serves most of the county but not residents of the city of Gunnison or the coal mines in the North Fork. The primary supplier of electricity to the GCEA is Tri-State Generation and Transmission, a wholesale power supplier cooperative that serves 43 distribution co-ops, including GCEA.

McBride said Tri-State purchases power that is generated from the Blue Mesa and Morrow Point dams and since the GCEA is the closest co-op to that generation, it counts itself as receiving electricity, both physically and contractually, from that source. GCEA customers use a total of about 116,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity a year, which is a small portion of what the dams produce since they generate more than 500,000 MWh annually.

GCEA has a long-term contract with Tri-State that runs until 2050. That contract allows the local co-op to carve out and supply 5 percent of its own energy needs. The GCEA has dipped into that by experimenting with some solar power projects in Crested Butte and plans for two solar farms near Gunnison that could each generate .5 (one half) MW of power. There is also movement to see if a small project at the Taylor Reservoir dam can potentially supply some hydropower.

Crested Butte mayor Jim Schmidt asked about some regional co-ops that were leaving Tri-State so that their electricity could be generated more cleanly through renewable energy sources.

McBride emphasized that cutting off Tri-State was not as simple as some would have you believe. For example, he said, Tri-State owns the transmission lines in the county and that would add a huge cost to the local co-op if they left Tri-State.

“This year they did a lot of work repairing and maintaining the transmission line to Lake City,” McBride said. “There were big crews and a helicopter came in to remove trees. It was an expensive project. There is more to it than just the costs of generating electricity. The operating and maintenance costs that Tri-State provides are significant.”

GCEA chief operations officer Roger Grogg concurred and noted that Tri-State kicked in $1.3 million for the Alkali substation that gives Crested Butte some redundancy in terms of electric supply in case of an extreme situation where the transmission line feeding Crested Butte is out of service.

McBride informed the council that in 2017 about 50 percent of the Tri-State electricity was generated from Tri-State’s coal-fired plants but that percentage is decreasing every year. He said 30 percent of the electricity generated in 2017 was from renewable sources, with most of that coming from hydropower. Hydro provided 56 percent of the renewable source, while wind was 35 percent and solar under 10 percent. Most of the renewable energy is purchased from private developers by Tri-State.

“The renewable percentage is growing,” said McBride. “Wind is growing fastest, given federal incentives, and wind currently has the best prices.” Tri-State is signing more such contracts and looking at various opportunities.

The GCEA has a program where customers can sign up for the “Green Power Club” where they commit to have their electricity offset by renewable energy. It is slightly more expensive than the general electric charges. McBride said 5.4 percent of the meter base has signed up for the Green Power.

“That is actually up substantially from 2017 and it came when Crested Butte took a leadership role and signed on as the town,” McBride explained. “It was only a little above 3 percent before that. But that sends sort of a mixed signal to the GCEA board, who hears a lot from some people that everyone wants more renewable energy but only that many people have signed up for the green energy program. Signing up for the Green Power Club is a powerful way for members to cast a vote in favor of renewable energy.”

Schmidt said that low number “shocked” him (no pun intended), given the minimal cost difference.

McBride said the use of so-called EV or electric vehicle cars was growing but in 2017 there were only 22 all-electric vehicles registered in the county and the GCEA owned one.

McBride said Crested Butte now has another charging station at the Elk Avenue and First Street parking lot to complement the one at the Four-way Stop. There are also charging stations in Almont and the Elk Creek Marina at Blue Mesa. CBMR has several charging stations and McBride said the opportunity for charging a car throughout the area is increasing. He also reminded the council that any GCEA customer could request to try out one of the co-op’s electric vehicles for a test run for up to a week.

McBride said the electric co-op follows general growth trends in the valley but even though the co-op has added meters every year, total electric consumption has been flat since 2009. He said when growth is declining such as in the 2009 recession, it is a challenge for the co-op. “Growth helps keeps some costs down so we prefer to have some,” he said.

The GCEA has a franchise agreement with the town of Crested Butte that runs into 2027.

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