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Citizens group challenges La Plata Electric Association decisions

Petition questions rates and spending
A citizens group is circulating a petition online that challenges La Plata Electric Association’s rates and spending, among other complaints.

A citizens group has started a petition challenging some of La Plata Electric Association’s budget decisions, alleging conflicts of interest among board members and opposing rates that provide financial incentives to residents with rooftop solar.

The online petition is being circulated by Common Sense LPEA.

The politically independent group was formed earlier this year in response to environmental protection groups taking an active role in LPEA’s April election and backing several candidates who supported exploring greater energy independence form LPEA’s wholesale supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

In its petition, Common Sense LPEA asks the co-op to end donations to organizations that are paid for through residential rates and end financial incentives for rooftop solar and community solar gardens.

The online document also asks LPEA to require directors with investments in net-metering or community solar gardens to recuse themselves from voting on those programs.

The petition also opposes a rate increase expected to take effect in January that would hit only residents who pay for electricity based on when they use it, known as “time-of-use” customers.

Ron Meier, manager of engineering and member relations at LPEA, said the rate increase is needed to make up for a discount Tri-State used to provide to support time-of-use customers. The 3,600 time-of-use customers will likely see a 2.5 percent annual increase on their bills starting in January, he said.

However, LPEA is in a formal comment period on its rate increases and the petition is a healthy way for residents to comment, Meier said.

In an email to The Durango Herald, Heath Rowe with Common Sense LPEA, said the group would oppose rate increases until the LPEA board “becomes the fair, transparent, and responsible institution it was designed to be.”

Meier noted that LPEA recently started live-streaming its meetings online at www.LPEA.com in an effort to expand transparency.

Rowe said he didn’t know when he would submit the petition because he wanted to give members of the public sufficient time to sign it. Once the petition is submitted, he doesn’t expect the board to take immediate action.

Some board members seemed split on the validity of the complaints raised by the group.

Solar panel costs

Common Sense LPEA is concerned LPEA is paying about $1 million to residents with roof-top solar panels for the excess power they generate, according to the petition.

“This is an unsustainable and unfair program, and is not being addressed by the board,” Rowe said in an email to The Durango Herald.

The group is concerned the program subsidizes the most affluent residents, he said.

Part of the problem is rooftop solar panels generate power during the day, and then at night, those using solar panels use power from the grid like traditional customers.

Tri-State charges LPEA demand fees based on the how much power the co-op uses at peak times, and those with rooftop solar panels are not billed for those demand fees, Meier said.

“Our rate structure is not designed appropriately to recover that cost,” he said.

LPEA board member Guinn Unger said there is a state statute that requires utilities to incentivize rooftop solar, and the co-op is fulfilling that mandate.

He said he would not support any rate changes that would discourage residents from installing solar, because solar is a key part of cutting the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

“We have a moral responsibility to coming generations to mitigate as much as we can,” he said of climate change.

But LPEA board member Doug Lyon said he is concerned that the amount LPEA pays each year to subsidize rooftop solar is steadily increasing.

“That is not financially sustainable over the long term. It’s simply impossible to ignore a million-dollar expense growing at 15 percent a year,” he said.

Funding outside groups

Common Sense LPEA’s petition objects to two spending decisions: setting aside $50,000 for the Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency, also known as 4CORE; and earmarking $22,500 for local renewable projects.

In the past, LPEA has financially supported 4CORE programs that improve the energy efficiency of homes and solar array installations on low-income housing. The co-op supported 4CORE through unclaimed capital credits, said Lyon, who opposed the budget allocation.

“I don’t believe charity spending should be put in the operating budget,” he said.

Board Member Britt Bassett said he supported setting aside the money based on the nonprofit’s previous work serving low-income residents.

“4CORE has always done a great job of leveraging any funds that were providing to them,” he said.

Conflicts of interest

Common Sense LPEA said in its petition it wants to see all board directors with investments in net-metering or community solar gardens recuse themselves from voting on those programs.

Common Sense LPEA said in a recent Facebook post that the group was concerned a company Basset helped found is interested in selling power to LPEA.

Bassett has since retired from CalCom Solar, although the company does owe him a fixed amount of money that will not change based on profits, he told his fellow board members during a meeting in August, according a transcript.

Bassett said he also would recuse himself from any decisions involving CalCom.

Asking members to recuse themselves from all decisions involving net-metering or community solar gardens would be akin to asking them not to set residential rates, because they are residential customers, Unger said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

This story has been updated to correctly describe the net-metering subsidy that Common Sense LPEA is concerned about.

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