As Colorado leaders lean toward a reliance on renewable energy, Empire Electric Association is seeing increased local interest in solar energy. But the price to purchase solar power must not raise rates for customers, officials said during their annual meeting June 20.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ Bold Climate Action plan, released in June, proposes a road map for the state to be at 100% renewable energy by 2040.
How that will trickle down to local electric distribution cooperatives like Empire is not yet known. Empire purchases 95% of its power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., of Westminster, which generates electricity for 43 cooperatives from coal, wind and solar.
Tri-State is waiting to see how much renewable power would be required by Colorado, Joe Bladow, Tri-State senior vice president of transmission, said at the Empire meeting.
“It could be 50% or higher, but until a regulatory process goes through in one to two years, we won’t know what it is,” he said. “To start making some plans, we have to understand what the requirements and rules are so we can make sure we meet it with affordability.”
Balancing reliability with affordability is critical, Bladow said. And while battery storage is improving and solar panels are becoming less costly, it can be a mistake to jump on the leading edge of technology.
“When it is more proven, we will get there,” he said.
Empire’s long-term contract requires it to purchase 95% of its power from Tri-State. The remaining 5% can be used for local sources of power, such as from solar, hydro and wind. Empire has 4% remaining on its local power generation cap.
EDF Renewables is in the preliminary planning stage for a large-scale solar farm west of Cortez, said project development manager Vincent Green.
“It is a sunny area with flat land, and there are good growth patterns related to future energy use and demand. We plan our projects around that growth,” he said.
About 1,000 acres has been leased from landowners for rows of solar panels that would generate 50 to 150 megawatts. Exact costs of the project are not known, but it would be “tens of millions” of dollars.
The industrial-size solar farm is hindered in part because the 50 to 150 megawatts of power that could be generated would exceed the 5% contract cap for power outside Tri-State.
There has been pressure put on Tri-State from some cooperatives to provide more flexibility in the contract to allow renewable energy sources beyond the 5%. And they have Polis’ support.
This year, Tri-State amended its policies for a new membership class that could allow cooperatives to buy independent power beyond the 5% limit. The details are being worked out by Tri-State. William Mollenkopf, of the Empire board, is on the contract committee.
Empire supports solar energy projects, officials said, but only if the price to purchase the power does not put increased pressures on customer rates.
“A poll (of 322 members) showed that keeping rates low is the No. 1 priority, with reliability second,” said Empire General Manager Josh Dellinger. He said in 2018 there were no rate increases, and reliability was 99.9%.
Empire was considering buying power from a proposed solar project on land near Totten Lake, but the price has not been favorable, he said. Empire owns a 30-acre site southeast of Totten Reservoir and was working on a lease with a third-party company to build and manage a 4-megawatt solar farm system.
On the other hand, a 1 megawatt solar array recently built near Towaoc did get Empire support, and it is being used to reduce electric bills of Ute Mountain Ute tribal members. The $2 million project was made possible by a $973,000 federal grant, which was matched by the tribe.
Empire noted that of the power that Tri-State produces, 32% is from large renewable energy projects like solar and wind. Customers may purchase only power that is generated from renewables, and the price increase is reasonable.
While industrial-size renewable projects make financial sense for Tri-State, they don’t necessarily pencil out for small cooperatives, Dellinger said.
“You hear a lot on how cheap solar is, and there is some truth there for larger projects, but from our experience, the pricing for mid-size projects is not there yet,” he said.
A snapshot of Empire ElectricEmpire Electric is a distribution cooperative that delivers electricity to 12,805 members in Montezuma County and parts of Dolores and San Miguel counties and San Juan County, Utah. Empire serves farms, ranches, residential, light industrial and the Kinder Morgan carbon dioxide extraction project, which buys 53% of Empire’s annual power capacity.
They are governed by seven board members representing seven districts, including President David Sitton, Vice President John Porter, Treasurer Jerry Fetterman, William Bauer, Kent Lindsay, William Mollenkopf and Robert Barry. General Manager Josh Dellinger handles day-to-day operations. Sitton, Lindsay and Barry were elected to board seats on June 20.
Of the 12,800 ballots sent out, 2,186 ballots were cast, representing 17% participation.
Empire Electric has 56 full-time employees and operates 137 miles of high-voltage transmission line, 1,338 miles of overhead distribution line, 409 miles of underground line and 20 substations.
It is a distribution network and purchases power from Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc., of Westminster, which generates electricity for 43 cooperatives from coal, wind and solar.
“Tri-State provides the power, and we deliver it to our members,” Sitton said.
Other meeting highlightsEmpire is negotiating to build a transmission line that will back up the Monticello area through a substation owned by Rocky Mountain Power. The line may also back up the Dove Creek area.A strategy is being developed for the increasing use of electric vehicles and demand for more charging stations. There are electric car charging stations at Boyle Park in Mancos and in Rico.Joe Bladow, Tri-State senior vice president of transmission, said electric rates look stable for the next three years. He added that Tri-State is working on a transmission project from Montrose to Nucla and down to Cahone. The permitting process is in its seventh year.[email protected]