From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
In an old school gymnasium in Paonia that one speaker commented looked like it had been constructed during the Great Depression, 120 people gathered last week to sort out the future of energy in the 21st century.
The town in west-central Colorado is surrounded by peach and apple orchards, peaks of the West Elk Mountains looming in the background. It’s not really a tourist town, as witnessed by the fact that there’s just one motel.
Paonia used to be a coal town. The West Elk Mine still operates just a few miles away, but the miners have been laid off in droves as giant central-station coal-fired coal plants get shut down in favor of cheaper natural gas but also renewables in more dispersed locations. In 2012, nearly 1,000 people had been employed in the local mines. By 2017, the employment had fallen to just 220.
Many key figures in Paonia and other local communities want to be at the front of that shift, not at the dirty backend. Among them is John Gavan, who semi-retired to the Paonia area after a career in technology. A member of the board of directors for the local electrical provider, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Gavan organized the conference, which is called Engage.
“We have an energy legacy, because of coal. But we now we are transitioning to a new distributed and renewable model,” he said in an interview afterwards. “We want to be sure we are economically engaged.”
Gavan believes that Delta-Montrose is one of the most aggressive electrical co-operatives in the country. A decade ago it began developing electricity using the fast-flowing waters of an agricultural canal.
Elsewhere in Colorado, a utility drew national attention last year when it announced it was planning to close two coal plants and replace the lost generation with primarily wind and solar with some battery storage. Xcel Energy said it could do this and save money for ratepayers and investors. The proposal was approved earlier this month by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
Colorado is particularly blessed with a diversity of renewable resources, but the same declining prices have roiled the electrical sector across North America.
Tom Plant, the keynote speaker at Engage, painted a picture of changes being driven from the grassroots. “Congress last year introduced how many energy bills?” he asked rhetorically. None, he answered. But legislators around the country introduced 3,433 bills.
Plant, who is with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy, described the “mainstreaming of renewables.” Wind prices have declined by 67 percent in the last eight years and solar 86 percent. “This changes the economics of the entire marketplace.”
As a state legislator in 2000, Plant introduced a bill proposing a renewable portfolio standard. It got little support. So he did it again. Again, other legislators batted the idea down.
Then, in 2004 voters, bypassed the legislator, requiring Xcel to achieve 10 percent renewable generation. Xcel, which had opposed the mandate, then got to work, meeting its goals years ahead of its deadline. It then met the next, steeper renewables portfolio. It’s now at 30 percent renewables and, with the changes recently approved, by late 2025 expects to hit 55 percent renewables.
“That’s an incredible shift in such a short amount of time,” said Plant of this and other changes. Electricity, he said, has decreased 17 percent in price during the 21st century even as there has been a shift to natural gas and now to renewables.
Plant also took a few shots at Tri-State, the wholesale supplier for several of the mountain towns, including Durango, Crested Butte, and Paonia, too. “They have the highest carbon intensity of any power provider in the country,” Plant said.
A recent report conducted by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that Tri-State could close its coal mines and still save money for members in the long run. See story.
Tri-State, for its part, points out that 30 percent of its portfolio is renewables, same as Xcel Energy now. In addition, Xcel is at 44 percent coal powered in Colorado. However, Tri-State benefits from hydroelectricity from federal dams, something not available to the investor-owned Xcel. In addition to that difference, there’s also the difference in the pace of the shift. Tri-State has added renewables, but at a far slower pace than Xcel.
Another way that utilities will add more renewables is if the power can be moved around the country better to match supplies with demands. Hence the wind of the Great Plains could be paired with the sunshine of California and the desert Southwest in places like Park City and Sun Valley. But there are roughly eight markets in the Western states currently, too small to effectively integrate renewables to maximum efficient. Ultimately, said Plant, it will happen.
Plant said that the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan—which President Donald Trump has set out to dismantle—was intended to bring everybody altogether to talk about stuff like energy markets.
“But without that federal push, the question is where will the push come from?” he said. The utilities haven’t really stepped up, at least to the level that Plant and others would like, “so the question is what will cause the utilities to step up?”
Gavan, the conference organizer, compares what is happening now in energy to the giant changes in telecommunications that began in the 1980s.
At the time, AT&T had a monopoly and, with its “baby bells” such as Mountain Bell in Colorado, resisted innovation. Phone calls were also extremely expensive. In the late 1970s, it costs 30 cents a minute to talk to somebody just 5 or 10 miles away.
For example, Colorado’s Grand County had six different prefixes, each one a long-distance call from the next. Winter Park was a long distance call from Granby, and Granby a long distance call from Grand Lake—at 30 cents a minute.
“AT&T acted exactly as Tri-State is acting today: protective, anticompetitive and punitive,” said Gavan. “That’s exactly the wrong game plan.”
The telephone monopoly, he said, had few services available and they were very expensive. Innovators foresaw many possibilities: advanced networking services, voice mail, and then exotic call-handling services of value to businesses.
Gavan was among the challengers of AT&T. In his career he was IT director for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington D.C. For 18 yeas, he was system engineer and IT director of MCI Telecommunications and later WorldCommunications after its acquisition of MCI. He owns seven patents associated with new technology.
Looking back to the 1980s, he sees many parallels between telecommunications giant AT&T and some of the big utilities of today.
“AT&T tried to throw up roadblock after roadblock after roadblock to slow the change in the telephone business model, and in the process they wound up shorting themselves. The same thing is happening here.”
Much of the conference was devoted to discussions about what those futures might look like. Nobody tried to argue that anything short of massive changes were afoot.
To see the PowerPoints presented at the conference by Plant and others, go to the Engage Delta County website.