If there’s a single issue that has electrified the race for the board of directors of La Plata Electric Association, it is the part of the electric bill that consumers “get stuck with no matter if you’re going to use any electricity or not,” said Britt Bassett, a candidate for District 3, Durango.
“They raised it 16 percent (this year) for all residential consumers,” Bassett said. “They will raise it for years to come …. Look at the elderly. Their base charge will go up whether they use any energy or not. It’s just fundamentally wrong.”
Bassett is one of four candidates running on a platform advocating renewable energy.
The results of the mail-in election are scheduled to be announced Saturday at LPEA’s annual meeting.
LPEA officials said their renewable-energy consumers are like patrons at a bar who don’t order any drinks. They still have to pay a cover charge if they want to listen to the band.
They said they have a lot of fixed costs, such as providing customer service, that remain whether customers use any energy or not.
They also noted the cooperative must have the transmission lines and substations to provide power to customers with solar-power systems after sundown.
The green candidates argue that if the base rate keeps rising while the energy rate remains flat, there will be no incentive for consumers or businesses to invest in renewable energy, even though the region has abundant sunshine for clean energy such as solar power.
“It means anybody who has put in efficient lighting, anybody trying to be efficient with their power, it won’t make any difference. Their (base) rates are going up,” Bassett said.
The base rate went up by $2.20 to $15.60 per month for residential consumers this year.
To minimize rate shock, the base rate has gradually been raised since 2002 when it was $10.
“A lot of people want to do things for the good of humanity,” said Heather Erb, a candidate for District 4, which is northern and eastern La Plata County. “But there has to be a financial incentive, it has to make sense for them to do it. Nobody is going to spend thousands of dollars on something they’re not going to get a return.”
More increases appear to be on the horizon because LPEA has announced it would like to eventually raise the base rate to the $30 range to correct a historical practice of using its income from energy rates to pay for its cost of services.
The electric cooperative’s officials say its base charge is comparable to neighboring utilities because Gunnison County charges $22.20 and Delta-Montrose charges $25 for their base rates.
LPEA also wants to increase its base rate to create parity between its different rate classes for residential, industrial and commercial consumers.
Bobby Lieb, incumbent for District 3, said there “are large discrepancies between the rate classes. Residential is subsidized by commercial and industrial. Lots of cooperatives are in the same situation.”
“Our feeling of responsibility is that if it costs $32 a month to serve you, and we’re only charging you $14 or $15, eventually we have to bring that to parity in all our rate classes,” said Herb Brodsky, the incumbent for District 4.
Critics respond that LPEA’s fixed costs cannot be verified because LPEA won’t release its cost-of-services study. LPEA officials say they cannot reveal proprietary information.
Because of the controversy, LPEA is contracting with an outside consultant to do its annual cost-of-service study this year.
Much of the debate also seems to depend on point of view and politics.
LPEA, for instance, argues that raising the energy rate would be unfair to the poor, whose homes and appliances are not as energy efficient.
Bob Formwalt, an incumbent candidate for Archuleta County, said the base rate is needed to pay back debt on LPEA’s infrastructure.
But Formwalt, “an old banker,” opposes “feed in tariffs,” or guaranteeing a rate of return to consumers generating solar power so they can finance their solar installation with a loan from a bank.
Formwalt said the “risk” should be with the consumer who wants to install the solar system, and not with the cooperative as a whole.
“We can buy that electricity for a lot cheaper than the feed-in tariff,” said Formwalt, who is opposed by green candidate Kirsten Skeehan for District 1.
The LPEA race is becoming so heated that Bassett wonders if the LPEA is running “get out the vote” advertisements on conservative talk radio stations in order to defeat the green candidates.
Bruce Baizel, a candidate for District 2, western and southern La Plata County, has complained to Greg Munro, the chief executive of LPEA, that an employee used her LPEA email account to campaign for an incumbent.
Munro responds that LPEA advertises every year on the radio to increase voter participation.
Munro said he has informed all employees not to engage in political activity on company time or company resources.