This is how it happens. Minds change, new thinking takes hold and, all of a sudden, the world changes. There is nothing easy about it, and nothing really instantaneous, but things reach a tipping point, and the cumulative effect is revolutionary.
Tri-State Generation and Transmission is a wholesale power supplier. It produces electricity for 44 rural distributors across Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wyoming. That includes La Plata Electric Association, which supplies power to La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties.
It has long been thought that Tri-State sees coal as its sole, and perhaps only possible, energy source. Only four years ago, it proposed building four new coal-fired power plants to keep up with increasing demand.
But last week, Tri-State announced it was taking a new direction - away from coal and toward more renewable energy, greater use of cleaner-burning natural gas and increased energy efficiency. It is a welcome and encouraging development on several levels.
One is, of course, the simple fact that almost any other method of generating electricity is cleaner and better for the environment than burning coal. Whether the concern is climate change, air quality as a health issue, mercury levels in downwind lakes or the visual impact, coal is at the top of the list of problem fuels.
Natural gas, which includes locally produced coal-bed methane, is far cleaner and safer in every step of the process. And solar power is even better, topped in its environmental impact only by not using power to begin with.
And with Tri-State moving toward all three, the future looks better. As part of its new direction, the company says it will be adding incentives for consumers to buy energy-efficient appliances. Just like replacing an old gas-guzzler with a new hybrid vehicle can result in net energy savings, so, too, can replacing an old refrigerator or other appliance with a new Energy Star-rated model.
Tri-State also is contracting for an additional 220 megawatts of power capacity in eastern Colorado. There the improvement can be seen as the difference between getting that power from clean-burning gas or from another coal-fired plant. And, while burning any fossil-fuel is a greenhouse negative, gas is far superior to coal.
Even better, though, is Tri-State's agreement with First Solar, an Arizona-based company, to build a solar power plant in northeastern New Mexico. The new plant will include 500,000 photovoltaic panels and produce 30 megawatts of power.
That is tiny compared to coal-fired plants - the proposed Desert Rock power plant would be rated at 1,500 megawatts - but it is nonetheless a step in the right direction. Solar power produces no pollution or greenhouse gases and with every new installation the technology advances.
The one problematic aspect of Tri-State's new plans is its intention to augment its capacity by constructing a new nuclear power plant. While good arguments can be made for nuclear power involving the low cost of the electricity produced and the absence of greenhouse gases, it is politically toxic. The last nuclear plant to come online in this country did so in 1996. No new nuclear plant has been ordered since the 1970s.
That aside, Tri-State deserves credit for changing course. That it can reorient its core business means others can, too. And that is the real new energy we need.