GCEA hopefuls come to the News table: Part 2

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 last week 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

Bart Laemell

Tell us what you plan to do in terms of a local renewable energy project. What will you do to make it happen and when could it be accomplished?

Over the past six years, the GCEA board and staff have been diligently working towards the development of many renewable projects in our territory. Some are completed, some are close to fruition, and some are still in the research stage. My goal is to keep promoting the existing projects, to implement the shovel-ready projects, and to keep looking for new possibilities.

1. Taylor Dam hydro. After many studies by GCEA and the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, we have agreed to install a 200-kilowatt system at the Taylor Dam. This is the largest unit we can install that will operate 24/7 with current water flow minimums. GCEA has allocated approximately $1 million for the development of this project as well as maintenance support. Getting this smaller project in place allows for future expansion. When the Taylor Canyon road is repaved, we can complete the three-phase powerline to the dam, allowing the install of a larger-capacity generator. Hopefully, we will eventually be able to generate up to four megawatts of power from that facility.

2. Solar facility. GCEA has entertained and made many attempts to partner with a solar developer to build a 500-kilowatt to a one-megawatt facility in the valley. These experiences have taught us several important lessons. First off, GCEA has to do some leg work securing one or more viable plots of land for development. This process must take into account proximity to powerlines and substations, Gunnison sage grouse habitat, and neighboring landowner approval. GCEA is now in the process of securing these developable properties. Once completed, this will have a large impact on attracting a solar facilities developer. Our goal is to have a contract in place in 2019.

3. Promotion of the existing Crested Butte Solar Garden. One of our goals was to build a local solar garden. Currently, we have a 72-solar-panel array operating in Crested Butte at the water treatment plant. These panels are for lease to our members, and the power generation from these will offset their home or business power usage. The system was fully built out in 2018, and we still have 50 panels available for lease. I encourage our members to look into leasing one or several panels and supporting this program.

4. Geothermal. There has been a renewed interest in developing a geothermal generation plant in our territory. I, for one, am very excited about the possibilities of this project that could be completed as soon as 2021.

5. Possibilities. I want to make sure we keep pushing and exploring all possibilities, as well as revisiting old ideas to see if they are now viable options. One of these options is coal methane capture, both locally and in the North Fork Valley by Somerset. Another could be the use of micro-hydro systems.

What can the GCEA do to reduce greenhouse emissions?

This is a question that myself, the board and the staff have asked ourselves year after year. The answer comes in a multi-level approach.

—Keep engaging with developers and local entities to install local renewable facilities.

—Keep working at Tri-State for more flexibility in contracts and policies to open up renewable and energy-efficiency opportunities.

—Keep working through GCEA and other local organizations to promote energy efficiency with our members.

—Keep promoting and developing the infrastructure for electric vehicles.

—Keep working with lawmakers to try to find a way around the non-profit renewable energy tax credit issue.

—Keep sending a strong message to Tri-State that we want more renewable energy by promoting our local Green Energy Program.

—Keep working with local, state and federal lawmakers to develop impactful regulations.

As a society, we have asked for and now expect that we can turn on our lights, surf the internet and watch cable news on a 24/7/365 basis. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is amazing, and I believe we live at the best time ever for the human race, but I am not so delusional to think that our amazingness doesn’t come with a cost. I am a big believer in the individual taking responsibility for their own consumption. That is why I have dedicated much of my professional life to ensuring that buildings and their owners use less energy. It starts with us as individuals, doing the best we can to use less.

Again, what would that mean for our electric bills?

Obviously, if we all take steps to use less energy, we will see a reduction in our energy costs as well as making a difference to the environment.

The biggest obstacle to getting projects done locally has been financial. It would be irresponsible for the rest of the board and me to take on projects at an unreasonable cost to the members. Thus, I believe all renewable projects should enhance our existing service and not be a burden to the members.

The most logical use of renewable power generation is at the utility scale. This means urging Tri-State and other producers to move towards high levels of renewables, investing in storage systems and developing cleaner natural gas production sources for the backup of renewable systems.

If we keep moving these technologies along, they will all become more affordable and easily integrated into our current grid. In this way, I believe we will get the benefits of clean energy without a premium price.

Deidre Witherell

Tell us what you plan to do in terms of a local renewable energy project. What will you do to make it happen and when could it be accomplished?

I will fully support GCEA’s current plans for local renewable energy projects and proactively work to overcome the obstacles to getting them accomplished. GCEA currently has two projects planned: a hydropower project at Taylor Reservoir and a one-megawatt solar array.

GCEA has reached a tentative partnership with the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users on the hydropower project. The goal is to complete the project by 2021.

GCEA has identified two potential sites for the one-megawatt solar array. GCEA’s current plan is to progress one of the sites through the permitting process and then seek developer bids. The goal for completing this project is 2020. The challenge for this project is finding a site that doesn’t encroach on sage grouse habitat and has nearby three-phase power distribution.

Looking forward, I see the lack of adequate electric distribution infrastructure as an obstacle to developing any new local renewable energy projects. Without available three-phase power distribution, we can’t take advantage of the full potential of hydropower at Taylor Reservoir. The lack of available three-phase power distribution continues to limit GCEA’s choices of which sites are candidates for constructing solar arrays.

Inability of the electric distribution infrastructure to meet changing energy needs is a common problem for electric co-ops. The American Society of Civil Engineers rates the U.S. electric power distribution infrastructure as a D+; grossly inadequate to accommodate today’s modern technology. Providing adequate infrastructure will be a major challenge to GCEA’s ability to access the full cost-saving potential of renewable energy resources. As a board member, I will support investment in our infrastructure to facilitate future local renewable energy projects and actively pursue funding sources to get them done. 

What can the GCEA do to reduce greenhouse emissions?

GCEA can reduce greenhouse emissions by ensuring the power we distribute to our members is generated by green sources. According to the EPA, electricity generation is one of the top two greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S. The EPA reports that in 2016, electricity generation accounted for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Coal generated 32 percent of the electricity while contributing 67 percent of the carbon emissions. More of the energy Tri-State transmits to its member co-ops comes from coal than renewables, 47 percent vs. 33 percent. GCEA, along with other members of Tri-State, can help move the needle away from coal and toward renewables. 

Poudre Valley Electric Association, another rural electric cooperative, recently announced their 80/30 plan, which has the goal of providing 80 percent carbon-free energy to their members by 2030. An important component of the Poudre Valley plan is developing an organized renewable energy generation market through a regional transmission organization. This would give local electric co-ops like GCEA access to clean, renewable energy. As a director for GCEA, I would encourage sharing ideas and promoting efforts with fellow Tri-State members like Poudre Valley to tip the scales toward clean, renewable energy.

Some recently enacted Colorado legislation may help make renewable energy more accessible to rural co-ops like GCEA. Senate Bill 19-236 requires Tri-State to submit resource plans to the Public Utilities Commission for approval. Colorado’s Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, House Bill 19-1261, requires the Air Quality Control Commission to weigh in with the Public Utilities Commission on rules affecting providers of retail electricity in Colorado. These two pieces of legislation are part of a regulatory framework which could facilitate Tri-State’s transition from coal-fired power to cheaper, cleaner sources of renewable energy.

Again, what would that mean for our electric bills?

A recent study by the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization supporting transition to a sustainable energy future, finds the cost of renewable energy has tumbled to the point where almost every source of green energy is cost-competitive with oil, coal and gas-fired power generation. I believe that with proactive leadership, GCEA can adopt cleaner energy sources while keeping rates fair and competitive.

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