As community interest and concern around transitioning to more renewable energy continues to swirl, La Plata Electric Association Board of Directors approved a committee this week to explore how the co-op should meet community electricity needs over the next 10 to 15 years.
The co-op buys most of its electricity from Tri-State Transmission and Generation, and this relationship concerns some residents because Tri-State is heavily reliant on coal-fired plants, which generate carbon dioxide, a contributor to climate change. Tri-State also produces 26 percent of its electricity through renewable sources.
A coalition brought a petition with about 1,000 signatures to Durango City Council in October, calling on the city to transition to 100 percent local renewable energy by 2050.
If LPEA bought out its 33-year contract with Tri-State, the co-op would likely have more flexibility to purchase renewable energy. Some advocates say a buyout is one of many options the co-op should explore.
“It should all be on the table,” said Local First’s Managing Director Monique DiGiorgio.
LPEA is not currently pursuing a buyout, but that idea – fraught with questions – generated public debate at a meeting this week leading up to forming the exploratory committee.
Whether the committee will explore a buyout as a future scenario has yet to be determined. The committee will meet later this month to determine what it will research, said Ron Meier, manager of engineering and member relations.
“There’s no rudder on this ship yet,” he said. The newly formed committee will bring potential future energy scenarios it could explore back to the full board for approval before starting its research, Meier said. The committee will not have any power to make decisions for LPEA, he said.
The committee was formed on a 6-5 vote, Meier said. Board members Guinn Unger, Britt Bassett, Jack Turner, Doug Lyon, Bob Lynch and Rachel Landis voted for the committee. Board members Davin Montoya, Dan Huntington, Karen Barger, Kohler McInnis and Mike Alley voted against the committee. Bob Formwalt was not present.
Montoya appointed one member from each district of LPEA to serve on the board. Montoya appointed Unger, Bassett, Lynch and Huntington, who will serve as chairman. The work of the committee should be complete on May 12, according to a news release.
The word “buyout” is not mentioned in the resolution the board approved to form the planning committee.
The resolution directs the new committee to evaluate energy needs and energy alternatives, and report its findings to the board.
Some residents concerned about the future of LPEA, who attended the meeting, tend to agree that more research into the issue, including determining the cost of a buyout, could improve the public conversation and understanding.
“I think we should know the number (cost of doing a buyout),” said Jenn Wheeling, who has been attending LPEA meetings since May.
She is skeptical of a buyout and believes LPEA board members are doing their best to pursue renewable energy.
“Sometimes, you have to move slow in order to make the best progress,” she said.
DiGiorgio, an advocate for local renewable energy, said the committee’s research should have a broad scope.
“It’s meant to be a vehicle where LPEA takes a leadership role,” she said.
Amber Pedigo, a Bayfield resident, said she is concerned about the cost of a buyout and the burden it could bring to members.
The committee should explore all options for the future of the co-op, she said. The committee’s findings should also be made publicly available to keep members informed.
Many residents want renewable energy and want to be good stewards of the environment, but they want to be involved in the decision-making process, Pedigo said.
If LPEA pursued a buyout, Pedigo said it should go to a vote of the membership.
“They want to be involved, they want to have a voice and they want to be a part of the decision,” she said.
The health hazards associated with coal inspired Dr. Lauri Costello, a family care practitioner, to begin advocating for renewable energy when she moved to Durango two years ago. Coal contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the U.S., including heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease, according to a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Costello said a buyout is not necessarily the answer, but she thinks Tri-State should rely more on renewable energy.
“I would be happy if Tri-State would change their tune and provide clean energy,” she said.