The game has changed with new state mandate
by Mark Reaman
A disappointing number of Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) members are taking part in the local program where customers choose to utilize electricity generated from renewable energy instead of fossil fuels such as coal. A mere 5 percent of the GCEA membership has signed on to the program and the co-op is now shifting its focus to new endeavors to lower its carbon footprint and help meet state requirements in that regard.
GCEA board member Greg Wiggins has several times made mention of the disappointing participation rate. “It’s always been disappointing that such a small percentage of members are enrolled in the program,” he said last week. “We hear all the time how we need to move away from coal but there is a lack of participation in what is now offered. And that’s a pretty easy and affordable program.”
Through the Green Power Program (GPP), a member signs up for either blocks of green energy or an automatic offset of 100 percent or 130 percent of their actual electric usage each month. That additional cost is extremely minimal, usually less than an extra dollar per month.
According to GCEA chief executive officer Mike McBride, in 2018, 32 percent of the energy supplied to GCEA from its power supplier, Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association, came from renewable sources.
“For each member signed up for a 100 percent offset, GCEA acquired enough renewable attributes from a Colorado wind project to offset 70 percent of the member’s usage,” McBride explained. Combined with the renewable energy already in GCEA’s power mix, the member achieved a 102 percent offset.
“The renewable attributes are created when energy is produced and delivered to Tri-State,” McBride continued. “For example, a 100 kilowatt-hour [kWh] block costs 12 cents and the average residential consumer uses about 650 kWh per month. So the average residential member could achieve a 100 percent offset for about 55 cents per month. A 130 percent offset option is available to those wanting to help the community as well.”
The program has been around since 1999. Conceivably, members can completely offset their electric consumption by utilizing electricity generated through solar, wind or small hydro pretty cheaply. McBride said in the past few years this energy has all come from the Carousel Wind Farm in eastern Colorado.
But of the nearly 11,000 GCEA members, only 591, or 5.4 percent, are taking advantage of the program.
There’s a new hurdle with the program: The state has changed its sustainability mandate from a renewable energy standard like the GCEA has been pursuing to a greenhouse gas reduction target.
What that means, according to McBride, is that the GCEA’s GPP program no longer effectively increases the state’s renewable energy mandate.
Recent legislation (HB19-1261) requires the entire state economy to collectively achieve reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2005 levels. In fact, it calls for a 26 percent reduction by 2025 and a 50 percent reduction by 2030. McBride said power producers like Tri-State will obviously have a key role to play in meeting the reduction targets. Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission has been tasked with developing rules and regulations to achieve the required reductions, so additional guidance is forthcoming.
“We will undoubtedly rely on increasing renewables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but members who subscribe to the Green Power Program require Tri-State to provide an offset in kilowatt hours. That does not effectively change the greenhouse gas reduction target,” McBride explained. “The greenhouse gas reduction target in this year’s legislation is most certainly going to be a stronger driver in the development of new renewable resources.
“While meeting the greenhouse gas reduction targets will certainly require the addition of more renewable energy, the focus for GCEA’s Green Power Program now has to be more on other benefits,” McBride continued. “The GCEA board has determined that the Green Power Program is less of a driver in the development of renewable energy than it was before. We will still continue to offer that program as a member alternative and it will certainly help us, but our priority will be the development of a new option for members who want to contribute directly to the development of a local project.”
McBride predicts the new mandate will force the greening of the electric grid. “We will see a continued greening of the grid through both a natural evolution and efforts to meet the state’s goals. This will happen with or without the Green Power Program,” he said. “Power producers like Tri-State will play a key role in meeting the goal, and Tri-State has committed to doing its part. Other segments of the economy will be called upon to contribute as well. Transportation is another large emitter and I think we will see rules aimed at cleaner transportation, including electric vehicle adoption.”
Continuing, McBride said, “Even though we could rely on Tri-State to meet the new greenhouse gas reduction goals with no direct help from GCEA or its members, we believe there is still interest in local renewable projects. We will keep pursuing local projects, but intend to do so cost effectively. Small projects in unique locations like the Gunnison Valley tend to be more costly than larger projects in other areas that are ideally suited for them. Some of our members may be inclined to help us bridge that economic gap. Hence the plan to develop a new optional program for members to support local projects.”
Having said that, McBride said there are still some major advantages of using the Green Power Program. “I’m becoming more convinced that the Green Power Program may be an important interim step in the Town’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. It also offers the ability to offset one’s own carbon footprint and 25 percent of the fee goes to help fund the development of local projects that might not otherwise be economically viable.”
Potential projects that could be developed in the area include a one-megawatt solar array. “We are working to identify and permit a suitable site for the solar array,” said McBride. “We are also continuing to pursue a 200-kilowatt hydro project at the Taylor Dam. Participation in the Green Power Program is a solid way to tell the GCEA board that you want us to pursue renewable energy … broad support of which is something that the board has doubted given participation rates in the Green Power Program.”
Members can sign up for the Green Power Program on GCEA’s website or by calling or visiting either GCEA office. “We are also eager to engage with members on these topics. Accordingly we are hosting more community forums and encourage members to attend one of these events,” McBride concluded. “Members can also participate directly in local renewable energy by leasing one of the 50 remaining solar panels at our community solar garden in Crested Butte, which is located on the roof of the water treatment plant. So there are a number of ways for members concerned with their carbon footprint to step up and actively do what they say they support. We want to help them in that regard in any way possible.”