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Polis has kind words, but is that enough for Tri-State?

Allen Best

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis gets summoned almost daily to deliver remarks. On a recent Friday, for example, he wore an orange jersey to honor former Bronco Randy Gradishar on the west steps of the Capitol.

Earlier that day, Polis had been on the Capitol’s east steps. There, he praised a new energy efficiency and beneficial electrification program offered by Tri-State Generation and Transmission. The credit is deserved. Tri-State, Colorado’s second largest electrical generator, is not the same utility that it was 20 years ago, when it was planning a giant new coal plant. It’s pivoting fast from coal to renewables.

But can Tri-State reinvent itself even more? The loss of member electrical cooperatives suggests existential problems. Just two mornings before the announcement at the Capitol, United Power had become independent. The lights didn’t blink. The Brighton-based cooperative has 111,000 members, primarily in the suburban and industrialized areas of the north metro area. It was by far Tri-State’s largest member.

Other co-ops are also leaving. Granby-based Mountain Parks will be gone next January. Durango-based La Plata Electric Association gave its two-year notice in March. Tri-State will soon have 30% less demand for the electricity it provides.

Departing members have cited the desire for lower-cost electricity and greater flexibility to generate more electricity locally.

The exodus began in 2016. Many expected Kit Carson Electric Cooperative to stumble. Instead, it has soared. Last summer, it completed enough solar capacity around Taos, New Mexico, to meet 100% of its members’ daytime needs. It also completed the $37 million payment required to leave remaining Tri-State members whole.

I began following Tri-State in 2005. To finance a giant new coal plant in southwestern Kansas, it asked its then 44 member cooperatives to extend their all-requirements contracts to 2050. Kit Carson refused. So did Colorado’s Delta-Montrose Electric.

In 2006, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius denied a permit for the coal plant. It was believed to be the first denial of a coal plant on the grounds of global warming impacts. At the time, Tri-State was furious. Eventually, it did get a permit. By then, costs of renewables had plummeted, coal costs had increased. Maybe Tri-State should erect a statute to Sebelius. Think of the problems for Tri-State were it saddled with the cost of that outdated energy technology.

Now, Tri-State is rapidly building its renewable generation portfolio as it prepares to close the three coal-burning units in Craig between 2025 and 2030. By decade’s end, it expects to be at 70% renewables across its four-state service territory.

Can Tri-State innovate its way into continued relevance for the 21st century?

Building renewable generation can have its own challenges. In Colorado’s Kiowa County, along the Kansas border, the Cheyenne want greater visual distance between the wind turbines planned for Xcel Energy and the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Proposed solar projects near Pueblo and Durango have been blocked or slowed.

Near Aspen, a solar project took a long time to gain approval. That delay was despite a wildfire in 2018 that came within one wooden transmission line of putting the resort in the dark during the busy Fourth of July weekend. Solar and storage are part of Holy Cross Energy’s plan for a microgrid, to allow Aspen and Snowmass Village temporary functionality when it’s without electricity from the outside grid.

Holy Cross, an electrical cooperative, has 45,000 members in the semi-urbanized triangle of Aspen, Battlement Mesa and Vail. Holy Cross has drawn national attention for its effort to integrate demand-side management and other programs as is stretches to achieve its goal of 100% emissions-free electricity by 2030.

Can Tri-State innovate its way into continued relevance for the 21st century? It was created in 1952 to generate and transmit electricity to its member cooperatives. That included the farms of my grandparents in northeastern Colorado. Federal aid made extension of these lines possible to dispersed farms that investor-owned utilities saw as unprofitable.

Today, Tri-State has to get out from under its stranded assets in coal plants. It lobbied hard to get a carve-out in the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in 2022 for it and other G&Ts, or generation and transmission organizations. It has applied for the maximum available, $970 million.

Might Tri-State G&T end up being Tri-State Transmission? Unlike its coal plants, Tri-State’s 5,800 miles of high-voltage transmission lines have considerable value.

To remain relevant, Tri-State needs to reinvent itself even more. This reinvention is a more difficult task than reconfiguring Xcel Energy or other urban utilities. The economic geography of rural areas is more difficult than that of towns, cities or metropolitan areas. I do hope they figure it out.

This commentary originally appeared in Big Pivots.

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist who publishes an e-magazine called Big Pivots. Reach him at allen.best@comcast.net.