Will La Plata Electric Association buy out its contract from electricity provider Tri-State Generation and Transmission?
How fast will the electric cooperative move to replace fossil fuels with cleaner renewables, and at what cost to the consumers?
Just who would be best at minding the nuts and bolts of ensuring lines and equipment are well-maintained and financial sheets are balanced?
All these questions, and some we probably can’t foresee, will be determined, in part, by whom LPEA member-owners choose in the 2020 Board of Directors election.
The Durango Herald sent questionnaires to all candidates in contested elections asking them about their stances on these important issues. Here is a summary of their responses:
District 2, south and west La Plata CountyEither Doug Fults or John Lee Jr. will fill the seat being vacated by Davin Montoya.
Fults said as a technology engineer and entrepreneur, he’s helped “cultivate multiple start-ups. He’s served as an engineering director, software engineer, chief technology officer and chief financial officer. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the College of Engineering at the University of California.
Fults said he is running for a seat on the board “to lend my experience to ensuring a responsible return of our community to a state of independent, clean and affordable energy.”
Lee declined to complete the Herald’s questionnaire, but he provided a brief statement about his candidacy. His experience includes serving in senior staff and command positions in the Army.
Lee said he is running to represent rural communities.
Candidates were asked if they supported pursuing efforts to buy out LPEA’s contract with its power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Lee did not address this in his statement. Fults said under the Tri-State contract, which runs through 2050, LPEA would pay $2.1 billion over the next 30 years for power that could be bought for 30% less while matching or surpassing Tri-State’s rate of transition to clean energy.
Candidates were asked at what point would the cost of pursuing a buyout of Tri-State’s contract become too expensive to pursue. Lee did not address this. Fults said, “Put simply, buying out the Tri-State contract would be too expensive to consider if costs outweighed the savings.”
Candidates were asked if they would support this hypothetical vote: “LPEA has an opportunity to provide 100% of its electricity generation from renewable sources, but it must increase rates on average by 10%. Would you vote yes or no?”
Lee did not answer the question. Fults said no and added: “Good news: There’s no longer a need to choose between the environment and affordability; clean energy has the lowest cost of new generation options, meaning we can get there by lowering rates instead of increasing them.
District 3, city of DurangoIncumbent Rachel Landis is being challenged by Dave Nulton.
Nulton has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University and a Master of Science in Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering from Stanford University. He lists 43 years of experience in the energy field.
His career includes working with large utilities on power plant construction projects and environmental impact statement preparations. He was a senior executive and director in the Office of Nuclear Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Landis has spent her career pursuing social and environmental change. After a decade of teaching social change leadership and environmental studies in experiential and higher education, she became the director of the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College, where she served from 2011 to 2018. She is now director of The Good Food Collective. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Environmental Studies and a certificate in sustainable development.
Nulton said his main reason for seeking a board seat is to use “my extensive energy background to ensure that LPEA co-op members receive affordable, reliable electricity that is produced in a safe, sensible, environmentally acceptable manner.”
Landis said her motivation is based on her experience. “I firmly believe – and in the past three years have seen – that our electric cooperative can operate in a way that makes a tremendous difference in the vitality of the community and well-being of our members.”
Nulton said LPEA should not continue to pursue a buyout of its Tri-State contract. He said, “Tri-State has been working with member co-ops, including LPEA, to meet Colorado’s energy mandates. They are currently generating 35% of the energy they produce for their members with renewable energy facilities in Colorado and New Mexico.”
Landis said of pursuing a Tri-State contract buyout: LPEA is pushing Tri-State to increase clean power production, working with Tri-State to create new contract options and exploring acquiring cleaner power elsewhere.
Nulton was skeptical a buyout of Tri-State’s contract would prove economically feasible: “Wind and solar power are intermittent sources of electricity. They require reliable replacement power during periods of no sun or wind. LPEA would have to produce or contract for replacement power with an outside entity – likely from a non-renewable source.”
Landis was more favorable of pursing a buyout: “To support a buyout, the energy cost savings associated with buying cleaner and more affordable power must be equal to or greater than the cost of a full- or partial-contract buyout. Third party studies have shown that LPEA could save millions each year through a cleaner power portfolio.”
Nulton would vote no on the hypothetical board question asking whether LPEA should approve a 10% rate increase if it would allow the co-op to replace all of its power generation with renewables. “While providing all electricity locally may seem attractive, the high buyout cost, business risk and potential loss of reliability are not justified,” he said.
Landis also would vote no. She said, “Fortunately, this is not a choice we would need to make – the cost of clean, renewable energy is far below that of carbon-based and nuclear sources.”
District 4, north and east La Plata CountyIncumbent Guinn Unger is being challenged by Sue McWilliams.
McWilliams spent 11 years at LPEA, 18 years in senior management for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Services and has owned several successful businesses. She was a board director at Empire Electric for 14 years.
Unger has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Rice University, has owned three small businesses, worked on the Space Shuttle design team at NASA and worked in corporate America in a director position. He served for 28 years in the Army Reserve.
McWilliams said she is running because of a lack of transparency on the current board and increased board spending, noting: “Board expenses have increased from $196,210 in 2017 to $300,000+ in 2019 and the board chose not to refund Tri-State capital credits.”
Unger said he would like to continue serving on the board to maintain momentum toward the new energy future. He added the current board “is supportive of our efforts to look at alternatives to Tri-State. He added, “We have a complaint at the Colorado Public Utility Commission that will be resolved in the next couple of months that could very well result in a fair and equitable buyout number.”
McWilliams is opposed to a Tri-State buyout. She said, “As part of Tri-State’s ‘Responsible Energy Plan,’ they are closing down coal plants and aggressively increasing their renewable energy portfolio from 33% to 50% by 2024.”
Unger said the wisdom of a buyout of Tri-State is dependent on its costs. “At this point, Tri-State has refused to give LPEA any buyout number, much less a fair and equitable buyout number,” he said.
McWilliams said the cost of LPEA’s efforts to explore a Tri-State buyout are already concerning. “While it’s difficult to get accurate information from the board on how much has already been spent; it’s estimated to be about $1 million for attorneys, consultants and staff time, and still no details on how much the buyout would cost or who would replace Tri-State for our wholesale electricity.”
Unger said a buyout of Tri-State’s contract becomes too expensive when the total amount of the buyout does not offset savings from purchasing cheaper power elsewhere. “The recent Tri-State policies to allow partial or full buyouts are opaque and unlikely to result in anything that is affordable for member co-ops,” he said.
McWilliams would vote no on the hypothetical question of whether she would support a measure that allowed LPEA to replace its electric power generation with all renewables but would require a 10% average rate increase. “Many of the LPEA members already struggle with bills and some have to make hard choices between providing food for their family or paying for electricity,” she said.
Unger would also vote no. He added, if LPEA were not constrained by its Tri-State contract, “we could buy 100% clean energy, starting tomorrow, at roughly the same rates we are paying Tri-State, so no rate increase would be required.”