Blowing smoke

Co-op is not the environmentally friendly utility people think

Berman Enlarge photo

Berman

La Plata Electric Association, a rural electric cooperative owned by electric bill payers of Colorado’s La Plata and Archuleta counties, is a well directed and managed company – with one extraordinary, yet little recognized, exception.

It is thus with reluctance I begin publicly describing how I am witnessing LPEA greenwash its environmental record. I would much prefer the easier route and just stay quiet, but I don’t believe LPEA members elected me three times so that I go along to get along.

So, in the coming months, come follow my new blog at jbonlpea.blogspot.com, where I will demonstrate how LPEA’s rate policies undermine the conservation and renewables policies it professes to support, how LPEA generated a windfall through Colorado’s renewable-energy law and used it in a way that actually undermines conservation and renewables, describe LPEA’s prerogative to address climate change and its locally expanding impacts, and alas, much more. As will become obvious, the opinions expressed herein and in the posts of my blog are mine alone and do not represent the opinion of LPEA or any of its other board or staff members.

The vast majority of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. It is generally considered the most polluting source of electricity generation, bringing mercuried fish in our lakes, haze on the horizon and carbon around the world. To address these issues, LPEA’s member/owners have repeatedly made their desires for cleaner energy known.

In 2003, residents in LPEA’s territory voted by significant majorities to approve Amendment 37 – requiring that LPEA obtain 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015. This, despite the then-LPEA board’s opposition and its use of member funds to try to persuade us of arguments that are, in hindsight, clearly exaggerated or outright false. More recently, our polling finds that a significant majority are even willing to pay a premium to move away from dirty energy.

For many of the seven years I have sat on the LPEA board of directors, we have made solid gains in addressing these concerns. We played a leadership role in establishing 4CORE – a nonprofit that insulates low-income homes, helping those that are struggling to make ends meet by reducing their electric and gas bills. We set up and funded a solar rebate program. And we have an effective commercial lighting retrofit program that helps businesses reduce their lighting costs.

Subsequently, many LPEA staff and board seem to believe that we are one of, if not, the most environmentally friendly rural electric cooperative statewide, even nationally. Yet the solar rebate today is at just 20 percent of the original level, and now ultimately paid for not by LPEA but by our power supplier Tri-State. And while LPEA does spend its own resources on staff to implement the lighting program, Tri-State pays for the lighting rebates themselves – a much more substantial contribution.

Meanwhile, other utilities statewide, including some co-ops, have much stronger renewable energy rebate programs. Many co-ops and other utilities have established community solar farms; LPEA’s is still on the drawing board. Other coops have established energy efficiency and solar-loan programs. We have not. And some have dared distance themselves from the state and national trade organizations’ massive marketing and lobbying efforts that LPEA still signs on (and sends your money) to.

Meanwhile, LPEA implies or outright claims credit for conservation and renewables achievements, yet plays a minimal or no role in (and often doesn’t fund) them. We have claimed credit for net metering, necessary for residential and small, commercial solar systems to pencil out. Yet it is required by state law. We list renewable-energy tax credits among our accomplishments (which are federal and state policies of course), as well as local solar installer expertise (which are private companies independent of LPEA). More insidiously, as a board member trusted by many who don’t trust LPEA, I too frequently hear from people perceiving a deeply negative attitude from LPEA staff and board members towards conservation and renewables, despite LPEA’s continued incessant marketing to the contrary.

Increasingly, especially in the last year, many of LPEA’s policy decisions have moved farther and farther out of line with the environmental and related fiscal concerns of its membership. In sum, LPEA is woefully short on substantive pro-conservation and renewable-energy policy, yet nonetheless, long on the marketing of it. Learn more; follow jbonlpea.blogspot.com.

Jeff Berman serves on the board of directors of La Plata Electric Association. Reach him at jberman@lpea.coop.