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Progressives making inroads on boards of ski-town electric co-ops
By David O. Williams

June 22, 2009 — The director of sustainability for one of the state’s largest ski companies says there is a quiet revolution going at the state’s rural electric co-ops, where previously ignored and under-publicized board elections are seeing some real upheaval.

Earlier this spring, a progressive candidate was elected to the board of the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association in northeast Colorado. This month saw the election of a progressive candidate to the board of Holy Cross Energy (Aspen and Vail), giving that co-op a majority green board, and the San Miguel Power Association (Telluride) also went down the renewable path.

However, this past week the Yampa Valley Electric Association (Steamboat Springs) stayed the course with two incumbents winning re-election over a bloc of two progressives.

“This election is part of a revolution among Colorado rural electric co-ops, many of which are seeing previously unheard of challenges to the status quo,” Aspen Skiing Company director of sustainability Auden Schendler said of the Holy Cross election. “And progressives are winning. Utility politics might seem mundane, but this is a really positive example of how the public can make a big difference on pressing problems.”

Rural electric co-op boards make key decisions on what percentage of the utility’s energy load should come from fossil-fuel sources like coal or natural gas versus solar or wind.

“Our utility is a huge piece of the climate problem, and solution,” said Schendler, who also spoke to the Aspen Times, which cited the rural electric co-op coverage of the Colorado Independent.

The state’s largest co-op, however, dodged the current trend, with three progressive candidates failing to land on the board of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA). That Front Range co-op has more than 143,000 members.

The IREA, along with Holy Cross and Yampa Valley, would be exempt from a Colorado Public Utility’s Commission push to provide more oversight to Westminster’s Tri-State Generation and Transmission – the state’s second-largest utility and supplier of power to 18 rural co-ops. The IREA and three other co-ops are not Tri-State members.

One of the complaints lodged by member-owners trying to affect change at rural co-ops is that the election process is heavily skewed in favor of incumbents and that the elections fly entirely under the radar with virtually no local publicity.

Critics claim that Holy Cross, for instance, failed to include the board election in its newsletter prior to the deadline for filing a petition to run for the board. Less than seven percent of the co-op’s 43,000 members voted.

In a bit of prophecy, Holy Cross CEO Del Worley told the Independent in April that he opposed a failed bill to raise the renewable requirement for the IREA, saying, “I’ve told the environmental groups the way you really make change in these co-ops, if that’s what they really want, is a grassroots effect. Get on the boards.”

That appears to be exactly what’s happening.



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