Monday, August 19, 2019

GCEA hopefuls come to the News table

The Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) board has two seats up for election this month. One is contested (District 3) while the other has no candidate running (District 2). We asked GCEA candidates Bart Laemmel, the incumbent for District 3, and challenger Deidre Witherell, to answer a few questions this week and next regarding their views on the GCEA and its primary power supplier, Tri-State. GCEA members can vote between now and the annual meeting that is being held on June 25.

—Mark Reaman

Name: Deidre Witherell

Why are you running for this seat?

The electrical energy industry is in the midst of a revolution. Change is coming and it’s coming fast. The recently enacted Colorado Climate Action Plan sets goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that existed in 2005 by at least 90 percent by the year 2050. This at a time when the cost of renewables is dropping dramatically, making wind and solar cost-competitive with fossil-fueled electricity.

We need a motivated, proactive board of directors who can guide GCEA into this new energy era. I believe we all feel responsible for the health of our community and the natural environment we love. The strength of our community lies in the fact that people are willing to step up and help when they’re needed and where they’re able. As your representative on the GCEA board of directors, I will utilize my engineering background and management experience to promote a transition to clean energy that focuses on GCEA’s core mission of providing reliable power at a competitive price.

Where do you stand with Tri-State being the primary energy supplier for the GCEA? Should GCEA leave Tri-State? Why or why not?

Tri-State has been GCEA’s reliable energy supplier for 27 years. GCEA’s current contract with Tri-State doesn’t expire until 2050. The question we face is: Is this contract flexible enough to meet GCEA’s present and future needs in this rapidly changing energy environment?

The economic health of our community depends on keeping electricity costs competitive. Many households served by GCEA are on tight budgets. The cost of electricity can affect whether small businesses locate here and stay. The good news is, we can keep our electricity bills competitive by transitioning to renewable energy. According to a recent study by the financial research organization, Carbon Tracker, by 2030, building new renewables will be cheaper than continuing to operate 96 percent of today’s existing and planned coal plants.

Will Tri-State be able to take advantage of this low-cost renewable energy?

The scientific non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute found that Tri-State could save an extra $600 million for members by 2030. Just this month, Guzman Energy offered to purchase and shutter three of Tri-State’s coal units, with a plan to replace the energy with 70 percent renewables and lower costs. More opportunities may present themselves in today’s competitive renewables market. I would like to see Tri-State investigate these opportunities so that all members can benefit from these cost savings and GCEA can remain competitive.

Our current contract with Tri-State limits the amount of energy members can self-generate to 5 percent of total energy consumption. I am concerned with how this policy restricts our opportunities to develop future local and renewable sources.

Although one Tri-State member cooperative has severed its contract with Tri-State and others are investigating what an exit might mean, I am not proposing we jump to any conclusions. We should consider all options before making any moves. There are benefits to maintaining a partnership with Tri-State.

Tri-State has been a reliable provider for GCEA for many years. Tri-State owns the transmission lines in the county and is burdened with the cost of their operations and maintenance. Tri-State did a lot of work repairing and maintaining the transmission line to Lake City. This was an expensive project involving big crews and a helicopter to remove trees. 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.

Should GCEA leave Tri-State?

By working to improve the partnership GCEA already has with Tri-State, we may not have to. Our community has a strong track record of using consensus building among various stakeholders to identify issues and develop solutions. Outcomes are better when we work together. I believe we can work through these changes, and based on data, find workable solutions to affordable, clean, reliable power for the next 30 years, and beyond.

What would your position on that do to our electric bills?

An energy supply model that takes advantage of low-cost renewable energy and allows opportunities to develop future local and renewable sources will help avoid electricity rate increases.

Name: Bart Laemmel

Why are you running for this seat?

Because this community embraced me 30 years ago and continues to foster my growth, and being a director on the GCEA board is one of the most impactful ways I can think of to give back. The electric grid is the backbone of our members’ lives and our community’s productivity. So many things rely on the availability of power and how affordable it is: from a business owner running a credit card purchase, to a teacher using a smart board, to the water treatment plant providing safe drinking water to heating homes at –20 degrees. What other organization could I be involved with that touches my whole community, every day? For nine years, I have taken great pride in helping GCEA provide reliable and affordable power while constantly pushing towards doing it in a more environmentally friendly way. It also allows me to be more directly involved in my first passion: promoting energy efficiency.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Where do you stand with Tri-State being the primary energy supplier for the GCEA? Should GCEA leave Tri-State? Why or why not?

When a few co-ops made it known they were thinking that buying out their contracts with Tri-State was a good move for them, GCEA did some research to see how that would look for us. At this time, for our small co-op, leaving Tri-State would not be a financially viable option. Substation and transmission line maintenance are just a couple of costly overhead expenses that Tri-State handles for us. If GCEA were to take those items in-house, it would cost our members exponentially more. This situation could change, but at this time, leaving Tri-State would harm our members more than help them.

I have not always agreed with the actions and messaging from Tri-State, and yet we are one of the 43 co-ops that make up their governing board, so we have a voice. GCEA’s representatives to Tri-State have always taken their roles seriously and have had a dedication to initiating change. Being involved means we can make a difference, and we have. GCEA representatives and our current CEO have been very vocal on Tri-State’s policy 115 that structures our ability to produce local power. Although we have not gotten all that we want, we have moved the discussion in the right direction.

Another thing to consider is that Tri-State has a new CEO, Duane Highley. I believe Duane will bring a fresh way of looking at how Tri-State goes about its business. Even in his first few months, he has made a positive impact with lawmakers and other industry leaders.

I know Tri-State gets criticized for not being as green as it possibly could. Some of this criticism comes because they do not own their renewable facilities. Put simply, this is because they are a nonprofit and can’t take advantage of the tax credits like a for-profit utility can. The tax credit makes most renewable projects financially viable. Without the tax credit, Tri-State is forced to go under a power purchase contract with a facilities developer, who can utilize the tax credit. This tax credit issue is one reason GCEA has not yet built a solar facility right here in the valley. As a whole, the electrical co-op industry is working with lawmakers to find a way around this issue, and the response has been positive.

What would your position on that do to our electric bills?

At this point, Tri-State is not predicting any major rate increases over the next six to 10 years, and nothing is scheduled until 2022. The current energy market is very saturated, and power is relatively cheap. If this trend continues, as it is expected to, we don’t see any major increases to our member rates other than for standard inflation and overhead.

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