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States pursue competing energy visions

Colorado and Wyoming are on rapidly diverging paths to distinctly different energy futures.

Colorado’s Legislature next week will contemplate further greenhouse gas emissions reductions, with stricter requirements for rapid transition away from coal and other carbon emitting fuels. The intent is to accelerate Colorado’s abandonment of coal-fired electricity and replacement by renewable energy sources.

Meanwhile, Wyoming’s leaders just approved $1.2 million for lawsuits against Colorado for the express purpose of forcing Colorado consumers to keep buying Wyoming’s dirty, expensive and climate-changing 19th-century fuel source.

One state is embracing leadership for a new energy future. The other is clinging for dear life to an outmoded and faltering industry.

Our electric supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission, is uncomfortably caught in the middle. The large majority of Tri-State’s customers are in Colorado, where sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of renewable energy sources that are both cheaper today and reduce climate-changing carbon emissions.

Our own La Plata Electric Association is one of 17 Colorado-based rural electric cooperatives that by contract must purchase at least 95% of needed electricity from Tri-State. Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado’s Legislature two years ago adopted an ambitious goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2030 from electric generation sources. To satisfy these Colorado requirements, Tri-State rolled out a responsible energy plan to transition off coal.

But Tri-State’s Wyoming co-ops are saying hold on there, not so fast. The Wyoming legislator representing Wheatland, where Tri-State owns a big chunk of the coal-fired Laramie River Station, rammed through the blank check to attack Colorado consumer preferences through litigation.

What’s Tri-State to do? On the one hand, most of its customers want modernized, cheaper, cleaner electricity. Tri-State promises it won’t generate electricity within Colorado from coal after 2030. But what about electricity generated elsewhere and shipped across transmission lines to Colorado consumers?

That’s where Wyoming, dependent on coal for much of its budget and tax revenues, is attempting to preemptively force Tri-State’s continued operation of coal-fired power plants and electricity sales.

Consumers here don’t want a bait and switch where Tri-State both claims it is meeting Colorado climate goals while Wyoming coal-fired electricity still wings its way along transmission lines into our homes and businesses. Hence the renewed interest by Colorado legislators in tightening the screws to ensure that all the electricity supplied to Colorado consumers meets the state’s goals for greenhouse gas reduction, no matter its origin.

Tri-State could mitigate its conflicting loyalties between Colorado consumers and Wyoming coal-burners by loosening its grip on local cooperatives like LPEA, and allowing us to chart our own local electricity future, one where we can invest in local renewable energy projects at ever cheaper rates.

But Tri-State’s several billion dollars in debt is tied to coal plants now facing rapid obsolescence, and poses a major impediment to a rapid transition. How does Tri-State unwind its financial commitments to increasingly uncompetitive coal plants while nimbly embracing the new energy future?

One solution on the horizon might be federal relief that assists generation and transmission cooperatives like Tri-State in retiring those coal plants and associated debt without financial catastrophe.

If perhaps Tri-State can free itself of its financial coal handcuffs, it might be less cantankerous about negotiating with local rural electric co-ops including LPEA that want a greater say in their electric supplies by reworking the onerous limitations of the existing contracts.

The political, economic and regulatory environment surrounding Tri-State and our electric supply options continues to evolve. All the more reason for steady hands and strategic thinkers at LPEA and our sister cooperatives as we chart a more flexible path forward.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.