GCEA update includes focus on renewables for the co-op

Taylor Park hydro better than solar

By Mark Reaman

Two local renewable energy projects tied to the Gunnison County Electric Association (GCEA) are expected to start producing power in 2024. The first is the 500-kilowatt hydro project at the Taylor Park Dam, which is scheduled to break ground May 31 and be generating electricity in the spring of 2024. The second is the Outshine Energy 1,125-kilowatt solar array at the Baxter Gulch trailhead. That project is preparing for the county review process and expected to be constructed in 2024.

GCEA CEO Mike McBride and board member Greg Wiggins provided the Crested Butte town council with an annual GCEA update and its new five-year strategic plan at the May 15 council meeting. In a report to the council, it was stated that the strategic plan “includes our first ever expressed goal related to GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions: a reduction of 90% by 2030 (compared to a 2015 baseline).” That is where the two local projects come in to help get to the local generation of at least 7% of the total GCEA power supply. The remainder comes from Tri-State Generation and Transmission which has also committed to more renewable power generation.

McBride informed the council that avalanche mitigation work will be done above the solar array site before a county review process is initiated. Assistant county manager for community and economic development Cathie Pagano said this week that no application has been submitted for the project. 

McBride relayed that while it was hoped the solar farm construction could begin this year, it was more likely to start in 2024. He said the GCEA is also looking for other appropriate sites in the county to construct solar array projects.

“Economically, the Taylor Dam hydro project makes the most sense,” he said. “The local solar array is an economic challenge. The hydro project could even expand in the future. It is already in the money.” 

McBride explained the reason that the hydro power project is a better economic project than the solar array is centered on timing. “The Taylor hydro project will produce 24/7/365 (24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year) whereas the solar array produces only when the sun is shining,” he explained in a follow-up email. “The only real variables for this hydro project are changes in the reservoir level and infrequent downtime for routine maintenance. Consequently, the hydro project is estimated to produce approximately 87% of its capacity factor. The solar array by contrast will produce about 24% of its capacity factor.

“Also, the economics are simply that through a competitive bid process, the lowest bid for the energy from the solar array was nearly 2.8 cents/kWh more than what we pay Tri-State for energy,” McBride continued. “By contrast, the hydro project creates greater savings because we can produce energy for less than what we pay Tri-State for energy. We can also save demand charges on our Tri-State bill because the plant will be producing – and reducing our demand on Tri-State – at the time of our monthly peak demand, which almost always occurs after sunset.”

Other sustainability focus

McBride said the GCEA was the first electric cooperative in Colorado to own and operate EV (Electric Vehicle) charging stations and it now is responsible for 14 such stations, including four in Crested Butte. Vehicles in Crested Butte used a total of 1,373 level 2 charging sessions in the town in 2022. Of the 14 stations, three are DC fast charging stations but use has not yet been extensive. Responding to a question from councilmember Anna Fenerty, McBride said, “the need for further EV charging expansion will probably be triggered when we start seeing congested weekends. The goal is to get EV charging in garages and that seems to be happening.”

The GCEA implemented its Powerwise Pledge program in 2022 where members can contribute an additional one dollar on each bill with the money going toward renewable projects. Current participation is at 87% and that is generating nearly $124,000 annually. That money is directed to subsidize the local renewable projects.

The GCEA rebate program has also helped give money back to members who upgraded to things like air source heat pumps, smart thermostats, electric leaf blowers, LED lights and e-bikes.

Rate questions

In response to a question from mayor Ian Billick about the investment downgrading of Tri-State by S&P Global Ratings, McBride said that shouldn’t impact the customer pocketbook. “They are still considered investment grade and I don’t see any reason for a big concern,” he said.

In the report to council, the GCEA noted its recent 3.8% overall retail rate increase and said that won’t be the last. Because of a Tri-State agreement at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2021, Tri-State was obligated to decrease wholesale rates by 2% in 2022 and again in 2023. So, it was not eligible for a rate increase to address inflation in its costs. “We are therefore expecting an increase in our Tri-State rates on January 1, 2024, which will most likely lead to another increase for GCEA members in 2024,” the reports states.

As for its strategic plan, it describes the pillars of safety, reliability and business resilience as the foundation of the co-op.

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